The Tower Houses of Scotland Talk Revisited

Written by Blythe Paterson

Hello, there, my name is Blythe Paterson, and if you don’t know me, I am the Education Officer for Friends of  Dundonald Castle (SCIO31541).  I am brand new to the blog-writing, but if you’ve been to the castle on a school trip, visited our YouTube Channel, or come to one of our monthly talks, you’ll know my face! 

PS – if you haven’t checked out our YouTube Channel, you should – Dundonald Castle Education:

Every month I have the pleasure of introducing our speakers, and helping out with the Q&A,  though in case you missed it, last week I wasn’t just the host of our Monthly Talk, but also the speaker!  This blog post is something of a revisit to the talk where I came to the audience last Thursday, not in my capacity as Education Officer, but as a PhD student.  Since 2017 I have been working with some amazing supervisors in the departments of Medieval history & Archaeology and the University of Glasgow, and at the moment I am writing up the last chapter of a PhD which focuses on the motivations behind building fortification in Northumberland in the fourteenth-century (i.e. around the time of the Scottish Wars of Independence).

During the talk I mentioned through this line of study that I have been lucky enough to be able to learn a significant amount about the Wars of Independence, and of course travel to a number of beautiful places within England and Scotland.

On Thursday night, I spoke about the evolution of the tower house, first in England, then in Ireland, and then in Scotland – and the order here is important, but before we did that I laid out the definition of a tower house.  This is something that tends to change depending on what you’re reading or who you ask, but for the purposes of the talk, a tower house had to fit these criteria:

  • Generally be pre 17th-century 
  • Have at least more than one level
  • Be the only fortified – or thickly stone-walled building in the complex, though they may have a wall around them (like the wall we have at Dundonald)
Model of Robert II’s Tower house c1371 at Dundonald Castle and Visitor Centre Museum-above right

Moving to the evolution of the tower house in the British Isles, the origins of their popularity seem to be in the northern counties of England, where the tower house flourished throughout the Scottish Wars of Independence, and for several decades thereafter.  The first tower houses in England seemed to be inspired by the large Norman castle keeps which made their way north in the 11th century, albeit on a much larger scale.  They were square or rectangular in shape, and typically had a footprint of between 100 and 150 square metres.  The earliest dateable tower houses, or pele towers as these towers were often referred to, in England were likely erected around 1300, but by 1415, eighty-one tower houses were standing in the county of Northumberland alone! 

Outside of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmoreland had the most tower houses by a wide margin, and in the rest of England only a handful of tower houses can be identified for the fourteenth century.

Slide Tower Houses: Map by Blythe Paterson

Towers remained pretty popular in England throughout the fifteenth century, at which point they also spread to Ireland, where constant small-scale violence around the pale mimicked life in the Anglo-Scottish borders in the fourteenth century.  In 1429, Henry VI of England passed a statute which would give £10 to any man who built a tower house in the pale, specifically within the measurements of 6.1 x 4.9 x 12.2 metres.  This seems to have been an offer which was picked up on, as by 1449, Henry found himself limiting the supply of those funds, at least in County Meath.  Estimates for the total number of tower houses throughout Ireland vary, but range from around 3000-6000!    

Towers in Ireland looked a lot like those in fourteenth-century England, if a bit smaller, with the main difference being that Irish tower houses were often surrounded by a bawn – or a weakly fortified stone wall.  In both Ireland and England, entrances were typically on the ground floor, often with a vaulted basement and thick wooden door or iron grate, though in Ireland the murder hole became a popular feature for tower house entryways in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In England, while the tower house became generally unpopular by the start of the seventeenth century, towers remained a crucial part of the Irish defence system until the arrival of the Cromwellian conflict on Irish shores.

After going over all of this, and then some, it was finally time to look at towers in Scotland.  The important place to start, here, was with a recap of the events which kicked off the Scottish Wars of Independence, which I will spare you here (though if you aren’t familiar with the Scottish succession crisis and the reasons behind the First Scottish War of Independence, now might be a nice time to take a break and brush up – it’s very interesting!).  All of this, and the events of the first year of the war, led up to what was ultimately the extremely important concept for Robert the Bruce’s tactic of castle destruction – meaning that instead of allowing strategic fortifications to fall into the hands of the English, who would use them to control the surrounding area, he saw them destroyed instead.  What this meant for Scotland was that throughout both wars, not only was very little fortification going up in Scotland – aside from what was being built by the English in the counties nearest to the border – but also many of the older castles were disappearing.  

Throughout both wars, English hold on key cities like Berwick and Perth, kept a strong hold over much of Scotland’s economy, and at the conclusion of the second war in 1357, the Scots were forced to pay 100,000 marks for the return of their king, David II – who had been captured by the English at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346.

What resulted was a Scotland which came out the other side of the wars crippled both physically and financially by 60 years of warfare with their southern neighbours. There was no money available to instantly begin constructing the lavish types of castles which had existed in Scotland in the thirteenth century – instead, the country was slow to fortify.  The first wave of new fortification came about a decade after the conclusion of the second war, and came in the form of a new construction – the grand Scottish Tower house.  

Most of these large towers were oblong, or rectangular, had first-floor entrances, and consisted of vaulted cellars, topped by one large room above another, surrounded by a barmkin wall – as can be seen at Threave, Loch Leven, and here at Dundonald Castle.

By the fifteenth century, the tower house had become a trend in Scotland on multiple levels, with at least 131 being built throughout Scotland between 1400 and 1500.  Large elaborate tower houses were being erected in place of castles for the elite, and small tower-houses began to spring up throughout Scotland for those with slightly less means. Also in this period, we began to see the transformation of some existing tower houses, with new wings or towers being added on, giving birth to the L-plan tower house, and allowing for more privacy.

It isn’t until the sixteenth century that we begin to see the tower house in Scotland emerge as a border feature. At least 332 tower houses were built in Scotland in the sixteenth century, of which a third were in the two border counties of Dumfries & Galloway and The Scottish Borders, meaning that the concentration of tower houses in the border counties comes in at around one tower per 90 square kilometres in the borders, and one per around 315 square kilometres everywhere else in Scotland.  Interestingly, there was also a marked difference in the layout of border and non-border towers, as well, with towers in the border counties being smaller on average than their more northern counterparts – and also simpler in plan – with over 75% of the towers in the borders at that time being simple and oblong in plan, when only 49% of towers built elsewhere in Scotland in the same period were simple and one-winged.   

So, it seems that in the sixteenth century, the small tower house had finally become a feature of border defence in Scotland.  However, in 1603 the need for fortification all-but disappeared along the border with the union of the crowns, and elaborate tower houses in Scotland began to make way for more comfortable manor houses.

Old Auchans
Model of Alexander’s Castle at Dundonald Castle Museum Visitor Centre

We ended the night by speaking on the interesting parallels of the tower-house trend throughout Scotland, with those at Dundonald Castle – first with the destruction of Alexander’s Castle during the Wars of Independence, then the erection of the fourteenth-century tower house, followed by the fifteenth century renovations (including the south tower and the changing of the upper hall from one room into two – which allowed for more privacy), and finally with the complete transition to the newly built nearby Auchans House around 1580, which allowed for far more grandeur and privacy.

In the end, I was lucky enough to have questions on the difference between a castle keep and a tower house, and a few focusing on the earlier layouts of the castle – and if you’d like to hear the answers to those (and hear everything else you missed out in the talk) you can listen to find out since all of our talks are available online -which can be accessed by our members at any time.

As always, I want to thanks everyone who came out to watch, it means a lot and it was exciting to find out that this latest talk was a complete sell-out with people watching from all across the world! Many thanks to you all!

If you’re not a member, please consider checking out membership with the Friends of Dundonald Castle (SCIO) which entitles you to free entry to the castle for a full year, priority booking for all of our events, early notification for all opportunities (including participation in our ever-popular archaeological excavations), free access to the recordings of all of our monthly talks, and more! Plus you’ll be supporting a small charity, and helping us to carry on doing all of the work that we do!

Membership information can be found here: 

If you have any questions about any of the above material, feel free to email me (Blythe) at, alternatively, I’ll put some key sources below which make for some interesting reading on this topic:

Free & Publicly Accessible:


Books & Articles:

  • Bates, Cadwallader John. “The Border Holds of Northumberland.” Archaeologia Aeliana 14, no. 1 (1891): 1-465. Available on ADS (see above)
  • Hugill, Robert. Borderland Peles and Castles. Gateshead: Northumberland Press Limited, 1970.
  • Condit, T., ‘Rings of Truth at Trim Castle, Co. Meath’, in Archaeology Ireland vol. 10.3 (1996), pp 30-3.
  • Glasscock, R. ‘Mottes in Ireland’, in Chateau Gaillard vol. 7, Caen: Centre de Recherches , Archeologiques Medievales, Universite de Caen, 1975.
  • Graham, B.J. ‘The High Middle Ages: c.1100-1350’, in B.J. Graham and L.J. Proudfoot, (eds), A Historical Geography of Ireland. London: Academic Press, Ltd., 1993. 
  • McNeill, T. Castles in Ireland: Feudal Power in a Gaelic World. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • O’Keeffe, T. Medieval Ireland: An Archaeology, Stroud: Tempus, 2000. 
  • O’Conor, K.D. The Archaeology of Medieval Rural Settlement in Ireland. Discovery Programme Monograph 3. Dublin: Wordwell Ltd., 1998. 
  • Sweetman, D. 2000. Medieval Castles of Ireland. Cork: Collins Press, 2005.
  • Cairns, C.T. Irish tower Houses: A Co. Tipperary Case Study. Athlone: Temple Printing, 1987.
  • Maxwell Irvine, Alatair. The Border Towers of Scotland 2: Their Evolution & Architecture. Stirling: Blairlogie, 2014.


Cover Image – original poster graphics for Tower Houses of Scotland Talk by FODC

Maps by Blythe Paterson  

All images were taken from slides from Tower Houses of Scotland Winter Talk Series by FoDC by Blythe Paterson.