Winter Talk Series Revisited: the History of Dundonald Castle: Gran’s Castle

The latest of our Dundonald Castle Winter Talks Series events took place on Thursday 11th March opened by host, Blythe Paterson, our Education Officer, and by Chair of Friends of Dundonald Castle, Anne Campbell who welcomed our latest speaker – local historian, Secretary for Dundonald Historical and Archives Society, and long-time supporter of Dundonald Castle, Irene McMillan. The focus of Irene’s expansive talk was the history of Dundonald hill, where she walked us through the timeline from the thresholds of human habitation here to the latter phase which literally took us to nearby Auchans – more about that later!

Irene commenced this journey at the top of this promontory of rock covered with a thin layer of earth,  where she outlined how archaeological study has uncovered evidence of human activity as far back as the Stone Age.  She followed this by detailing the evidence of later substantial Bronze and Iron Age habitation, with images of the decent sized hill fort enclosure settlement they’d built here, giving rise to the name Dundonald  – indicated the prefix Dùn– the Gaelic name for a hill fort – which was thought to have been constructed here by Strathclyde Britons originating from North Wales, and where there was thought to have been at least 3 sub-kings named Dòmhnall (or Donald)- becoming the name of hill, and later the village which nestles around it’s foothills, we still use today.

Irene is one such resident who is lucky enough to have the great grassy knoll and its grey granite towers offered as a dreamy landscape when she pulls back the curtains of her home in the village. This, and that she has spent many years studying its past, now have her grandchildren referring to it as ‘Gran’s Castle’!  However, all was not always so idyllic here as she illustrated with later evidence suggesting that this early fortification was destroyed by a mysterious almighty fire c.1000CE, which seemed to have left the hill uninhabited until we come to the time of Walter FitzAlan.  Walter was a Norman noble, who utilised this natural volcanic vantage point, fully utilising its clear views across the Firth of Clyde as far as the Paps of Jura to the west, by building a timber motte and bailey structure c.1136. These lands were granted to him by David I (1124-1153), as assurance of his support, and we, the audience, could imagine him keeping a sharp eye out for any threat from Viking incursions, which were of huge concern to Scotland at this time. In so doing, Irene further explained, Walter became a trusted member of the royal household and was eventually bestowed with the hereditary title of the First High Steward of Scotland and the lands which went with it, passed to his descendants.

However,  It wasn’t until Walter’s great grandson, Alexander de Dundonald, 4th High Steward of Scotland, as the principal commander under King Alexander III defeated Norwegian King Haakon IV at the Battle of Largs on 2 October 1263;  by doing he so assisted enormously in lessening the Norse threat to Scotland. Irene noted too that it’s always been assumed that this battle was planned from Alexander’s massive structure castle which had by then replaced Walter’s motte and bailey, with 2 substantial D-shaped gatehouses 4 substantial towers connected by a heavily fortified wall – reflecting his wealth and status -which he had built here c. 1240. Irene suggests that it have been modelled on Coucy Le Chateau in France – possibly giving a nod back to his Norman ancestry -with typical French stone masonry styling to be found in the later remains of the structure of the well, suggesting that it may have been French builders who came here to help in its construction.

This great castle was destroyed – possibly on the orders of Robert the Bruce himself -in order to prevent occupation by the army of Edward I during the early years of the First War of Independence  c.1298.

Find out more about this period of Dundonald’s story in our future blog posts about each of the High Stewards, we’ll be putting out later in the year!

These lands continued to be held by the High Stewards of Scotland until they eventually passed to the crown through the 7th High Steward, Robert Stewart, who became king in 1371.  Robert II (1371-1390), in Irene’s view had had a very sad start in life with the death of his mother Majorie Bruce, daughter of Robert I just after he was born.  Adding to this, his father, Walter the 6th High Steward of Scotland, died when he was only 11. His first wife was Elizabeth Mure of Rowallan Castle in Ayrshire, who must have died at some point before 1355 when Robert then married Euphemia Ross becoming Robert’s his second wife. Looking deeper into his story, Irene found him to be an unusually peace-loving man for his time – who chose to govern Scotland unlike it had been done before by placing kin and family security above war.  She also believed him to be clever and astute – however his granting of so many lands and titles to his huge brood of children, she suggested may well have had him accused of nepotism had he been alive today!  That being said, she asserts that he left Scotland as a more prosperous country than he had found it.

As we moved on to focus on his castle – the one which stands here today – Irene discussed important points about its remarkable structure. The actual building was unusually tall, and built with 3 floors, yet in similar dimension to nearby Dean Castle Keep in Kilmarnock.  It had 2 large rooms for hosting meetings and banquets able to accommodate large numbers of people, indicative of the lessening of political strife during his reign.  Irene noted that his castle is unusual also given that these 2 large rooms would normally be divided into smaller spaces at this time. Her prepared slides allowed us to see how Robert’s Castle would’ve looked, and it was especially interesting to find out just how the process of building the 2 great vaulted ceilings which were present inside the castle were made (as shown below), making particular reference to the difficulty faced by the 14th century builders, as we can see, would have created a wooden frame, building up the carefully cut stone over it and eventually putting on the final key stone at the top as the key that held it all together – and in the lower hall – it still does after 650 years! Not bad indeed!

Nearby Auchans was the subject of the second part of Irene’s in-depth talk where she explained that Dundonald Castle and estate stayed in the hands of the Stewarts until Robert’s great, great, great, great grandson, James V sold the estate to – the Wallaces of Craigie – said to be descendants of William Wallace –  who moved to nearby Auchans in the 1500s, and in so doing, stripped out the top layer, and some of the walls of Robert’s tower house to create Old Auchans House.  The Wallaces were forced to sell, in the1600s, Irene concluded, after losing their lands supposedly after their support of the National Covenant, when the Cochranes then bought the estate. They extended Auchans House around 1640 around the same time as William was made the First Earl of Dundonald. The most notable amongst these new owners was Thomas Cochrane, who Irene explained, became an admiral in the Navy at the time of Admiral Lord Nelson, and who further went on to found the Chilean Navy. In Chile,  there are statues dedicated to his work to be found there.  Probably the most famous resident at Auchans House was Lady Susanna Kennedy, born at Culzean Castle, a huge supporter of the Stewarts, who lived there and who Irene related – was well known for her keeping of rats as pets who came out from the walls to dine with her.

Given that this is not only the 25th anniversary year for Friends of Dundonald Castle but the 650th anniversary year for the castle itself it was a rare treat to see the range of images from past events Irene shared. In its reconstruction period, after the Castle had been presented to the state by the 13th Earl of Dundonald in 1953, work began to help preserve it and from1986 to1993 work progressed to make it accessible for visitors once more to enjoy.  In 1996 the community charity Friends of Dundonald Castle (SCIO 31541) was formed in order to take responsibility for progressing visitor management, with the building of the Visitor Centre and museum in 1998.

Recently, with an asset transfer from South Ayrshire Council, the Visitor Centre and a small part of the adjoining land was sold to FoDC for which there are plans to build a larger more encompassing structure to accommodate the huge rise in school visits, community involvement, and visitors (which rose to a staggering 25K in 2019) which have grown exponentially over the last 25 years.

Its safe to say the evening underscored to the audience the enormous amount of work which has gone on behind the scenes to establish Dundonald Castle as a firm fixture on the visitor destination trail such as we find it increasingly so today!   It is also clear just how much dedication has been invested by members of the community, like Irene  who have worked hard to ensure it was given the attention which it clearly deserves. 

Our work here is never done in separation from the past-  for its ancient and more modern day history is ever present, and if we are to truly pick up the banners of those who came before us, as we investigate this great grassy knoll to its fullest heritage potential, it is with enormous gratitude that we are still going strong and so can find out even more about this truly remarkable space in Ayrshire to share it with many more people to come! (once we can open again- hopefully soon!)

As it is said, necessity is the mother of invention, and during the past 12 months after being closed for more of that time than we’ve been open due to covid-19 restrictions, this has been another occasion where we have done our best to continue growth for Dundonald Castle, both in terms providing a valuable visitor attraction, and a community heritage base, as much of our work has taken to the web, as this engaging story has allowed audience participation from as far away as Australia!  Rightly so, perhaps this is proof enough that underlines the theme of Irene’s talk – that the whole history of human endeavour comes from adaptation!  Right from the dawn of its known human inception – right through to the day we find ourselves in, Irene’s talk has shown its a quite remarkable story of diversity! To end, we were treated some of the images from Irene’s slides from the night showing just that. :

A firm favourite, showing another example of remarkable human endeavour, where Irene’s daughter, who having just completed her training with the RAF, treated her mum to a fly-past her family home and the castle!

Many many thanks to Irene for giving us another fascinating evening to enjoy and of course to our audience who we hope enjoyed it as much as we did.  Irene’s talk will be available to watch again in the member’s portal on our website – from as little as £10 per year –  you can watch all our talks and lectures again any time you wish,  as well as receiving a personal newsletter and of course free entry into the castle – once we can open again.  We deliberately keep the cost low in order to allow as many people as possible to become part of our community here at Dundonald Castle.

We welcome comments, ideas and suggestions as well as any further enquiries about this, or any other parts of this unique history, and know that its your support which helps us to keep on furthering our enquiry, seeking as much historical information as we can and basically bringing this, one of the tallest of the older tower house castles in Scotland to life.

Keep an eye out for the next in our series of Talks which will be given by Blythe about the evolution of  tower houses in Scotland, England and Ireland on 22nd April. We anticipate this to be another highly popular event, so get in quick to get a ‘good seat’ on our limited ticket space audience! 

click image for more information

End notes:  We have used CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before Common Era) to indicate the Gregorian calendar which is more generally used than AD (Anno Dominae) and BC (Before Christ) but means the same.

Find out more:

We have made a selection of short films which outline the various stages of human habitation at Dundonald Hill to be found on our Youtube channel if you wish to find out more about it:

Dùn Domhall Hillfort c. 500 BCE – 500 CE https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIL2Wn6UWTU

Walter FitzAlan’s Dundonald Motte and Bailley: c.1136  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxGo0CI-VG4&t=305s

Alexander 4th High Steward’s Dundonald Castle: c.1240 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6cu93gc1T0

Robert II’s Dundonald Castle: c. 1371 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8WLB2eAk8Q&t=72s

The History of Auchans House: 1520-1953  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nqn9P3nT8TQ

Images:  Slides by Irene McMillan