Places to Visit in Scotland
- Rothesay Castle, Isle of Bute
On the Isle of Bute
Unless you are lucky enough to live on the Island of Bute, the way to reach Rothesay Castle from the mainland is by Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry from Wemyss Bay in Ayrshire across the wide Firth (Estuary) of Clyde. On a sunny day, there are great views up and down the Firth, and passing Castle Toward on the mainland of Argyll. It is also possible to travel by a long winding road to Colintraive in Argyll for a short ferry crossing to Bute across the Kyles of Bute.
Part of the Norse Kingdom
As the Vikings from Scandinavia expanded around the west coast of Scotland (and on to the eastern seaboard of Ireland) they became established around the end of the 8th century on Bute (and the neighbouring islands of Arran and the Cumbraes (the latter not far from the Scottish mainland. However, in 1158 a lord of Argyll named Somerled (believed to be of mixed Celtic and Norse origins) successfully challenged the rule of the Norse king. When Somerled died, the Outer Western Isles returned to Norse control and the Inner Isles were divided amongst his sons. Not long after this, King William the Lion of Scotland seized control of Bute - but he and his descendants had to defend their western territory from the Vikings. In 1230 King Hakon of Norway sent a force to Bute to retake it - and were confronted by the Scots in a castle overlooking Rothesay Bay. Although the Vikings successfully captured the castle, it was retaken and the castle repaired.
The Vikings' last attempt at overcoming the area ended in failure when King Hakon himself led a force which landed at Largs in 1263. In the skirmishes which followed, King Alexander III and the Scots stopped any invasion - though gales were probably a major factor. On his way home, King Hakon died (on Kirkwall in Orkney) and three years later his successor handed over the Norse lands in Scotland and the Isle of Man to Scotland in return for a large payment.
From the age of nine, King David I spent 30 years at the Norman English court of William II. So when he at last returned to Scotland in 1124 to claim his throne, he took with him many knights and courtiers from Norman England - many of whom became the future aristocrats and even kings of Scotland - including Bruce, Balliol and Walter FitzAlan (whose descendants later founded the Stewart line of kings). Walter became King David's high steward, an influential post and was rewarded with estates in Scotland - including the Isle of Bute and the title of Duke of Rothesay. The role became a hereditary one.
Being on the edge of the area controlled by the Scottish king, Rothesay Castle was strengthened, possibly becoming built of stone (instead of earth and timber) for the first time. The FitzAlans had now adopted the title of "The Steward" and James, the 5th Steward, supported both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in their fight against the English. Later, Bruce's daughter Marjorie married the James's son Walter. Their son, Robert II, came to the throne in 1371 after the death of Bruce's only son, King David II died without issue. The Stewart dynasty was now established.
Robert II spent a good deal of time at Rothesay during his time on the throne and his son, Robert III, also lived in Rothesay Castle on occasions. According to some accounts he also died there and was buried in Paisley Abbey.
King James V made frequent visits to Rothesay Castle as he tried to establish his rule over the Lord of the Isles. By this time, it was well established that the monarch's eldest son should hold the title of Duke of Rothesay - a tradition that has been perpetuated to this day, with Prince Charles being the current holder.
There is no record of Mary Queen of Scots visiting Rothesay Castle, despite her frequent tours to various other parts of her realm. Her son, King James VI never went there either. But the building continued to be occupied by hereditary Stewart captains and keepers.
In 1650, when the Scottish Parliament decided to support King Charles II after Charles I had been beheaded, Oliver Cromwell marched into Scotland and left an occupying force, including one at Rothesay Castle. When they left, they may have demolished part of the defences. When Archibald, the 9th Earl of Argyll led a short-lived revolt in support of King James VII, he attacked and plundered Rothesay Castle. It became uninhabitable and the Keeper, Sir James Stewart moved across the High Street to Mansion House (which is now the offices of the Bute Estate - the building with a tower, to the right of the castle in the illustration above).
In the 19th century the Keepers of Rothesay Castle carried out some excavations and repair work and in 1900 the main hall on the first floor of the gatehouse was reconstructed. In 1961 the Marquess of Bute put the castle into State care and it is now looked after by Historic Scotland.
Rothesay Castle is unusual in Scotland in being built to a mainly circular plan form. The earliest stonework dates from around 1200AD. Over the years, four large turrets were constructed and the rectangular gatehouse, facing north towards the sea, with its apartments above, became the main residential area of the castle. The gatehouse was the main access to the castle, reached by a bridge across the moat (see on the left of the illustration)
The so-called Pigeon Tower to the right of the main entrance (seen also in the illustration) is larger than the other three towers (and is the best preserved of all the towers as only the foundations remain of some of the others. This may have been where the Keeper of the castle had his apartments before the gatehouse was built. It got the name Pigeon Tower because the top floor was converted to a dovecot in the 17th century.
In its prime, there would have been a large number of buildings within the castle walls, built mainly of timber, but today all that remains are the ruins of a chapel which was built around 1500 and a well.
How to Get There
As noted earlier, Rothesay Castle is reached by a frequent ferry service from Wemyss Bay in Ayrshire. The M8 motorway and the A8 dual-carriageway from Glasgow reach as far as Greenock. You can go round the coast through Gourock but if you turn left at the traffic lights marking the junction with the A78 road sign-posted for Largs, your journey can be shorter. The Caledonian MacBrayne Web site has a timetable for the ferry - they currently (2004/5) run every 45 minutes. See also the Location Map (you can enlarge the scale of this map to street level, if required). The castle is on Castlehill Street.
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