Year of Stories Chapter 7: Part One: The First Stewart Kings at Dundonald


By Gwen Sinclair 

Referencing the archeological studies of the 1980s and 90s1 (1371-1406): the start of this period, around the time of the unexpected coronation of the first Stewart monarch, Robert II (1371-1390), an exciting and extensive new building campaign took place at Castle Hill, where Robert built a comfortable tower-house castle over the remains of his High Steward family’s 13th Century Castle.

At the start of the reign of the first Stewart king, Robert II, tensions were running high across his borderlands.  

The feudal lordships of Berwickshire, Roxburghshire and Annandale had been ceded to England under the Treaty of Berwick in 1357, essentially ending the quarter of a century long Second War of Scottish Independence. However, when Robert came to the throne in 1371, their hereditary owners had started to forcefully take back their lands… 

Reputed to have been a tall and handsome man of generous spirit, physically marred it was said only by one discoloured, or damaged eye, possibly due to his unfortunate arrival into the world2. And yet, when England dispatched complaints about the breaching of this treaty, Robert calmly reasoned that he couldn’t control his border lords, even if he wanted to, and to which Robert was accused of turning a blind eye to the problem.  Nonetheless, born into times that were clouded by brutal, and what must have seemed like relentless war for at least the first 40 years of his life, now in his 50’s, perhaps Robert could be forgiven for being reluctant to invoke further blood shed. Instead, he invoked criticism of being too weak and gentle-hearted to rule, and yet, behind the scenes, it seems, clear sighted campaigns to regain these estates were coordinated by Robert’s own royal administration…

Image of Robert II from Scottish National Portrait Gallery

And so, as England had bigger fish to fry with their seemingly endless wars with France, war with Scotland was averted.  And perhaps unsurprising,  the 1370s found Scotland enjoying increased financial prosperity probably due to lessening calls on the royal coffers for war, and to its subsequently flourishing wool trade. Any national prosperity, of course, trickled upwards to the king’s treasury, and so this may have accorded Robert the opportunity to undertake an ambitious plan to restore his now 230 year old traditional heartlands of Stewart power at Dundonald.

Indeed, around the start of Robert’s reign the ruins of the once magnificent truncated bases of the double-D towered west gatehouse of his great grandfather Alexander’s 130 year old castle became monumentally transformed into an impressive baronial stronghold of the tower-and-barmkin type.  Some 24 m long and 12 m in width, its walls were built between 2.3 and 3.3 m thick, and a 7-8 m high barmkin – the Scots word for a form of medieval defensive enclosure wall,  surrounded an inner and outer courtyard, which probably had a parapeted wall-walk around its entire circuit.

Possible reconstruction of Dundonald Castle by Andrew Spratt

And so, the hustle and bustle of life, probably lacking over many previous decades, was restored to Castle Hill as numerous highly skilled craftsmen, architects, masons, carpenters and labourers arrived to begin this mammoth reconstruction project using repurposed stone, locally quarried whinstone, or grey or yellow sandstone on its more enriched stone features.  

By shoring up the original 3.6 m high and 2.7 m wide entrance of the original gatehouse, a solid stone wall was created for a lower level basement large enough to house vast stores of food and drink fit for a king. Surviving joist pockets above this lower level indicate where great 7 m timbers were placed across to double up as its ceiling, and a sturdy floor for the Laigh Hall on the level above. And in true testimony to their skill, still surviving to this day, the Laigh Hall’s barrel-vaulted ceiling spans the room forming a grandiose arc beneath which Robert and his queen, Euphemia Ross (c1325-1378), could entertain their guests.

Feasting on the bounties of their local lands, seated at a raised dais at one end of this hall, 2 blazing fires warmed the royal couple and their guests, accompanied by music provided by minstrels from a gallery accessed by a tight staircase leading from the servants’ stairs at the other.  As it turns out, the decision to place any itinerant entertainers well away from the nobles was a sensible precaution, when plague returned to haunt the kingdom in 1380, and again in 1401.

Mural of the King and Queen’s Feast from Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre

As the cost of building a new castle was an enormous one, even for a king,  Robert’s recycling project probably saved him enough money to spare little expense in its internal features, and so we find yet another layer built above the laigh Hall, accessed by a turn-pike stair. Thought to be designed for the exclusive use of the king, this upper floor contained extraordinary examples of the heights of 14th Century architectural fashion, where delicately carved yellow sandstone ribs, purely for decor, and not for structural necessity, adorned an impressive apex supporting a second barrel vaulted ceiling. This striking space has huge windows providing unsurpassed vistas across the 4 compass points, as well as its own en suite garderobe entered through a dramatic gothic arch doorway, which contained two internal toilets. An additional added luxury, to ensure any fetidness was immediately released, these royal toilets likely emptied beyond the castle walls, as it is supposed this west facing end of the castle probably became butted up with the external barmkin wall at this end of the castle3

Dean Castle, Kilmarnock, showing an example of external latrine chutes

3Image of Doune Castle illustrating how the barmkin wall may have butted up to the edge of Dundonald Castle Tower house. Doune Castle, was built in the 14th century by Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany (c1340-1420), son of king Robert II, and regent of Scotland from 1388.

To crown it all, a top floor timber-roofed garret likely containing further windowed chambers and surrounded by a wall walk that was probably added above this second barrel-vaulted ceiling, ostensibly adding 5 more metres to the 19 m height that Dundonald Castle is today. Furthermore, to the east end of the castle, an annexe was added giving an additional 35 m 2 of living space over five or more floor levels with walls 1.5 m thick. This appears to have had its own entrance via a stone staircase connecting the inner courtyard to a barrel-vaulted lobby or porter’s lodge on its first floor. This in turn led to the foot of the turn-pike stairwell leading to the upper level, and perhaps served to permit access to the King’s chambers, or the roof level,  without the need to enter the main building.  A few downward steps from the porter’s lodge takes you into another barrel-vaulted room containing a small fireplace and a latrine or slop-basin, gloomily lit by one tiny arrow loop window. A gap has been left in one corner of its floor, which at one time would have been covered by a trap door leading to a rather dank prison or lock-up measuring 3.3 m  x 1.85 m, some 2.5m below. This may have served to detain unwelcome guests, without having to disturb the rest of the main castle building.  

The Porter’s’ Lodge area of the annexe with Tour Guide Sir Dave and Lady Megan the Dundonald Castle Cafe Manager
Inside the prison pit or lock-up located within the annexe

Indeed, in its heyday, external design features of this great tower house castle would have left no doubt as to the importance of its occupants. Carved shields containing the lion rampant royal standard, the High Steward’s fess chequy, and the chevron of earl of Carrick, a title once belonging to Robert’s grandfather king Robert the Bruce (1306-1329), which passed to Robert’s son and heir John (1337-1406), are to be found on its exterior walls. Also adding evidence to date the castle to Robert II’s early reign, the king signed charters at Dundonald in December 1371, perhaps on a visit to oversee progress on the refurbishment of his family home. 

Carvings on the exterior wall of Dundonald Castle showing the shield of the Earl of Carrick, and the 4mysterious lions facing each other, yet with tails curled between their legs in apparent capitulation.

Good news arrived for Robert on 24th in October 1378 when his son and heir, John, and his wife Annabella Drummond (1350-1401), the daughter of Sir John Drummond of Stobhall, 11th thane of Lennox (1318-c1360), brother of Queen Margaret Drummond (c1330-c1373), the second wife king David II (1329-1391), gave birth to a son, David – thus assuring that the Stewart lineage would continue. However by 1384, it seems as though Robert’s health had somewhat deteriorated, and so John was appointed to be Guardian of Scotland to essentially rule in his stead. 

War returned again in June 1385 where the Scots supported a French invasion of Northern England which led to English forces pushing back as far as Edinburgh where many of its buildings were set ablaze in retaliation.  Sadly, Robert was widowed once again on 20th February 1386 when his Queen, Euphemia Ross died, followed by their daughter, Egidia Stewart (c1360-88) in 1388, probably at only 28 years of age, and likely due to complications of childbirth for her 4th child with husband William Douglas (1360-92), grandson of Sir James Douglas (1286-1330) who featured strongly in the earlier chapters of our story. 

Queen Euphemia and King Robert II frieze from inside Dundonald Castle

Also in 1388, misfortune struck John when he was kicked or trampled by a horse, and it is said that he never fully recovered.  And so Robert II then appointed his younger son, Robert, Earl of Fife, later Duke of Albany (c1340-1420), as Guardian of Scotland in their stead.

Unbeknownst to Robert II, this act was to cause devastating future events for his heirs. 

Robert’s last Christmas was spent at Dundonald Castle in 1389, evidenced by his signing of a charter, before journeying northwards in the early months of 1390, in his usual tradition of visiting his Gaelic speaking lords in the Highlands.  We may never know if this trip was cut short due to ill-health, but King Robert II had returned to Dundonald, and sadly died on 19th April 1390. Possibly breathing his last within his personal chambers, its palatial ceilings could well have afforded Scotland’s king final comfort, with their possible glancing similarity to those at Paisley Abbey, where Robert’s parents, his two wives, and the rest of his High Steward predecessors had been laid to rest. After 19 years as Scotland’s king, Robert was taken to Scone Abbey where he was buried in a tomb apart from them all, which was later destroyed during the reformation in 1560.

Ribbed Ceiling inside Paisley Abbey

The crown of Scotland then passed to Robert’s oldest son, John, who took the name King Robert III, and probably due to his infirmity, the Guardian of Scotland title was retained by his younger brother Robert, to act as king’s assistant.  By January 1399 king Robert III’s injury had deteriorated so much so that the Parliament appointed his heir, 21 year old Prince David, as Lieutenant of the Kingdom, and so substantially reducing the power of the king’s brother Robert, now the Duke of Albany. 

Meanwhile, Prince David had married Elizabeth Dunbar, daughter of the Earl of March in 1395, but two years later they had separated without a papal divorce and by 1400, he bigamously married Mary Douglas, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Douglas. This was an act that caused such outrage to Elizabeth’s father, that the Earl of March switched his allegiance to that of Henry IV of England (1399-1413), who then invaded Scotland, briefly taking Edinburgh, as well as giving his uncle Robert an excuse, it seems, to bring trouble to David’s door…

by Edward Harding


In autumn 1401, after over 35 years of marriage, King Robert III’s Queen, Annabella died at Scone, and not long afterwards, Prince David, was taken captive by his uncle Robert, Duke of Albany.  On 26th March 1402, horrifically, David is said to have starved to death whilst in Robert’s captivity inside Falkland Palace. Nonetheless, Robert, Duke of Albany became Governor of Scotland in his nephew’s ‘absence’, essentially taking him one step closer to the throne.  King Robert III’s youngest child, James (1394-1437), likely named after his great, great grandfather, James 5th High Steward of Scotland, then became heir to the throne at only 7 years of age.

Meanwhile Robert III concentrated his efforts on creating a power base in Ayrshire, and in 1404 arranged for his daughter, Princess Mary (1380-1457) to marry Ayrshire vassal Sir James Kennedy of Dunure (1376-1408).  In December 1404, young James was given the titles of the earldom of Carrick and the High Steward of Scotland, clearly asserting his position as heir to the throne. Furthermore, James was bestowed his father’s Stewart heartlands, including Castle Hill, within the lordship of Kyle, as well as Cunningham, Carrick, Bute, Arran, Knapdale and Renfrew. These were granted to James outside the power of the kingdom, likely as a way to ensure that he would secure these lands for the Stewarts, regardless if he ever got the crown. Over the years the king made frequent visits to his family home at Dundonald, issuing charters here in March and July 1391, in February 1393, November 1404, January 1405, with his last in October 1405.

Alas for James things did not go well. In 1406 King Robert III was persuaded that his 12 year old son should be taken to France for his personal safety.  Nonetheless, safety was not to be, for on the 22nd March 1406, en route to France, James was captured by pirates off Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, and traded as a prisoner to King Henry IV of England.  

Within days of this terrible news reaching the king at either Rothesay Castle or Dundonald Castle on 4th April 1406, Robert III died, it is said, of a broken heart, reflected in his deeply troubled personal epitaph: 

“Let those men who strive in this world for the pleasures of honour have shining monuments. I on the other hand should prefer to be buried at the bottom of a midden, so that my soul may be saved in the day of the lord. Bury me therefore, I beg you, in a midden, and write for my epitaph: “Here lies the worst of kings and the most wretched of men in the whole kingdom.” 

Robert III was buried apart from his father, and his wife, yet amongst his kin, at Paisley Abbey, being unworthy, he had insisted, to be buried at Scone. 

Image: Robert III”s Grave inside Paisley Abbey- this great memorial stone was placed there for him, next to his grandmother, Princess Marjory Bruce, in 1888 by their descendant Queen Victoria (1819-1901), who perhaps had great empathy for Robert’s losses, after her husband Albert’s death in 1861 when Victoria plunged into deep mourning, avoided public appearances and wore black for the rest of her life. 

Meanwhile, the king’s brother, Robert Duke of Albany was appointed Governor and Regent of Scotland in place of young James – who was now adding to the list of kings of Scotland who became imprisoned in England. Indeed, James’ only real hope lay with his uncle Duke Robert with whom responsibility for negotiations with the English king for his return lay…

Find out what happened next in part two of this gripping Chapter of the Chronicles of Castle Hill…

Find out more about Robert II’s Tower House Castle at Dundonald from our short film from our Youtube Channel: 

4 Find out more about the Mystery of the sculpted Dundonald Lions from our earlier blog:

Find out more about what Scone Abbey would have looked like in 1390:

#YearofStories   #YS22    #Talesofscotland 


1Dundonald Castle Excavations 1986—93
Author(s): Gordon Ewart, Denys Pringle, David Caldwell, Ewan Campbell, Stephen Driscoll, Katherine Forsyth, Dennis Gallagher, Tim Holden, Fraser Hunter, David Sanderson and Jennifer Thoms
Source: Scottish Archaeological Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1/2, DUNDONALD CASTLE EXCAVATIONS 1986—93 (2004), pp. i-x, 1-166
Published by: Edinburgh University Press
Stable URL:

2 the birth of Robert II: chapter 6 part 2:

Boardman S. The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III 1371-1406.2007. John Donald Publishing

Prebble J, The Lion in the North:one thousand years of Scotland’s History. 1974. Book Club Associates

Brown, M. The Stewart Dynasty in Scotland: James I. 1994. Canongate Press Ltd.

Froissart, Jean; translated by John Bourchier, Lord Berners. The Chronicles of Froissart regarding the Battle of Otterburn:


Chapter 7 part one Cover image by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Timeline by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Interior of Dundonald Castle Laigh Hall by David Connel 

Medieval Feast Mural from Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre by Gwen Sinclair; image by Liz Kirby.  

Image of Dundonald Castle reconstruction by Andrew Spratt

Image of Robert II by James Roberts c late 18th century. Line engraving on paper. source: Scottish National Portrait Gallery Print Room.

Image of Robert III by Scottish National Portrait Gallery 

Image of Queen Annabella Drummond by Edward Harding (died 1796) stippled engraving on paper bequeathed by William Finlay Watson 1886 source: Scottish National Portrait Gallery Print Room. 

Image of back wall with shield and lions by Gwen Sinclair 

Robert and Euphemia from inside Dundonald Castle. Original image from Forman Armorial (produced for Mary, Queen of Scots) 1562. From National Library of Scotland 

King Robert III tomb at Paisley Abbey by Gwen Sinclair 

King Robert II DC Museum by Gwen Sinclair 

Paisley Abbey ribbed ceiling by Gwen Sinclair 

Dean Castle Latrine chutes by Gwen Sinclair
Doune Castle By Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Prison pit or lock up image by Jason Robertson