Places to Visit in Scotland
- Alloa Tower, Clackmannan
The Erskine Earls of Mar
The Erskines originated in a parish of that name in Renfrew - the Erskine Bridge across the river Clyde is the best-known testimony of that. The family is first recorded in Paisley Abbey in 1226 and in the following century the Erskines rose to high positions at the Scottish court. In 1368, royal lands in Alloa in Clackmannanshire, on the north bank of the river Forth, were exchanged by King David II for the estates owned by the Erskines at Strathgartney beside Loch Katrine.
Sir Robert Erskine served King David II as High Chamberlain of Scotland and when David died, he supported the claim of the High Stewards of Scotland to the throne. Sir Robert's son Sir Thomas married a Janet Keith who could trace her genealogy back to the Gratney Earl of Mar at the time of King Robert the Bruce and the Erskines claimed that title. However, it was nearly 200 years before that claim was ratified.
The connection between the Erskines with the Stewart monarchs lasted for generations. The 3rd Lord Erskine looked after James IV when he was a prince and John the 5th Lord Erskine was a guardian of James V in his minority. John was also a guardian of Mary Queen of Scots as an infant. Mary lived at Stirling Castle, where Lord Erskine was Governor, from the age of nine months old (when she was crowned as Queen in the castle) until she was six years old. It is likely that she spent some of her infancy at Alloa Tower although there were other spells when she had to move to other locations for safety as King Henry VIII sought to persuade the Scots that a marriage between Mary and his son Prince Edward was a good idea. Eventually, Mary sailed to France accompanied by Lord Erskine. When Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, it was John, the 6th Earl of Erskine, who was one of her Privy Councillors who greeted her. Less than four years later Mary granted him that long sought-after Earldom of Mar.
Mary was not well after the birth in Edinburgh castle of her son, the future King James VI, and she sailed up the river Forth to Alloa Tower where she felt that she and her son would be safe. The cradle and chair in which Mary reputedly looked after her son are still owned by the Erskine family (though they are now in the care of the Museum of Scotland).
Prince James was put under the protection of the Earl of Mar, particularly after Mary abdicated and later departed for England. The Earl of Mar acted as Regent for a spell and when he died in 1572, his son the 2nd Earl of Mar and James VI were educated together at Stirling and Alloa under the stern eye of George Buchanan.
The Erskines continued to prosper and the 6th Earl of mar became Secretary of State for Scotland during the reign of Queen Anne. But he fell out of favour and was later a leader of the Jacobite Uprising of 1715. Mar had to escape to France and was stripped of his titles and land. The titles were not restored until 1824.
The first reference to a "manor house" at Alloa is in 1448 but the first time that a defensive tower is mentioned was in 1495. Alloa was one of a string of fortifications along the river Forth, starting at Stirling Castle and running along the north bank of the river Forth where ford crossings had been established.
The tower rises to a height of 80 feet and the walls are 11 feet thick. Although originally built with defense in mind, these days it has four rows of evenly-spaced large windows (though some are actually just recesses, painted to look like windows) and a ground floor doorway. There is access from inside the tower to a walkway around the top, behind the crenellated corners. By 1700, the tower had been considerably extended with a wing which effectively converted it into a mansion house with the tower as a wing of this enlarged building.
In 1800, a fire destroyed the main part of the mansion house but the townsfolk of Alloa saved the tower by building a barricade with turf from the lawn.
Inside the Tower
As with all National Trust for Scotland buildings, photography is not permitted inside the building (the illustration on the left is part of the entrance doorway). Which is a pity as the inside is even more interesting than the imposing exterior. The guides are extremely helpful, of course, pointing out the various features and giving the background to the many portraits which adorn the walls.
A local charitable trust took over the building (with the approval of the Earl of Mar) in 1988. It was in a poor state of repair and they have done an excellent job of restoration. In particular, there is a remarkable oak roof made up of eight-inch square timbers. Although many of the original timbers remain, a number of these had to be replaced, using oak from Loch Lomond side.
In 1996, the National Trust for Scotland leased the management of the building from the Preservation Trust and this allowed the building to be open permanently to the public.
How to Get There
Alloa is in Clackmannan, the smallest county in Scotland, on the north bank of the river Forth. From Edinburgh or Glasgow, it is best reached via the Kincardine Bridge (which is well sign-posted) turning left after the bridge onto the A977 and left again along the A907 to Alloa. The tower is well sign-posted within the town. See also the Location Map (you can enlarge the scale of this map, if required).
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