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Doune Castle

Doune Castle, which can be found near the village of Doune in the Stirling District of central Scotland, is a medieval stronghold on the fringes of the Scottish Highlands. It is located on a wooded bend where the Ardoch Burn flows into the River Teith. Doune Castle is to be found approximately 8 miles (13 kilometres) to the north-west of Stirling, a city known as the ‘crossroads of Scotland’ and the ‘gateway to the Highlands’. The site of the Castle is geographically very strategic, as it stands on high ground and is naturally defended on three sides by steeply-sloping ground, and by the two rivers to the east and west.

Castle History

The strategic importance of the area where Doune Caste is situated was recognised very early on, and it has in fact, a long history of fortification. One can find a Roman fort nearby, at Ardoch, not to mention the fact that earthworks surrounding the present Doune Castle indicate that there was a much older castle on the same site.

The name ‘Doune’ originates from the ancient Gaelic word ‘dun’, which means, ‘fort’. Recent research has shown that Doune Castle was originally built in the thirteenth century, after which it was probably severely damaged during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The current castle was re-built during the late 14th century and served as the seat of Robert Stewart, the 1st Duke of Albany, son of King Robert II, who served as Regent and Governor of Scotland during the reign of his brother, King Robert III. He acquired Doune Castle in 1361, when he married Margaret Graham, the Countess of Menteith, and was created Albany in 1398. He also had the titles of Earl of Mentheith and Fife through his marriage. Albany was more than a temporary steward, as in reality he was king in all but name during his infirm brother’s reign, and at the heart of Scottish politics for more than 50 years. Although he was the actual king’s younger brother, King Robert III was politically weak and physically infirm after an injury. He also served as the de facto ruler during the childhood and captivity of Robert III’s heir, James I, who was taken prisoner in England in 1406. He is, in fact, known as ‘Scotland’s uncrowned king’. Doune Castle was his favoured residence. (more)

Castle Today

Dounce Castle is one of the most complete medieval castles in Scotland. Even though the principal domestic apartments are laid out in the familiar L-shape of a Scottish tower house, the castle is a labyrinth of rooms connected by spiral staircases and narrow doorways. The Castle was built in an irregular pentagon-shaped plan, with buildings along the north and north-west sides enclosing a courtyard. One enters from the northern side via a steep, yet short cobbled tunnel beneath a tower, containing the principal rooms of the castle. From the courtyard, three sets of stone stairs lead up to the Lord’s Hall in the tower, the adjacent Great Hall, and to the kitchens in a second tower to the west. The northern side of the castle is defended by three ditches, with an earthen wall in between. One also finds a vaulted passage outside the castle walls, leading to an 18th century ice house.

The principal tower, or gatehouse, has a rectangular plan, being 18 metres (59ft) by 13 metres (43ft), and almost 29 metres (95ft) high. It has a projecting round tower on the north-east corner beside the entrance and comprises the Lord’s Hall, and three storeys of chambers above. Guardrooms are found on either side of the vaulted cobbled passage. The vaulted hall contains a double fireplace and a minstrel’s gallery which was added in the 1880s. A ‘murder hole’ below the hall’s north window allows objects to be dropped onto attackers in the passage. There is a second, smaller hall above the Lord’s Hall, which used to form part of the Duchess’s suite of rooms. These also contain an oratory in the south wall overlooking the courtyard.

The Great Hall, found west of the Lord’s Tower, being 20 metres (66 ft) by 8 metres (26 ft) and 12 metres (39 ft) in height, was the grandest room in the castle, reserved for important or large events with lots of people in attendance. It has no fireplace and is lighted by large windows. Stairs lead down to the three cellars on the ground level. A screened passage links it to the kitchens at its west end. The vaulted kitchen boasted an oven and a 5.5 metre (18 ft) wide fireplace. The central well, found in the courtyard, is around 18 metres (59 ft) deep.

A visitor may walk along the top of the 2 metre thick curtain wall around the castle. This is 12 metres high and protected by parapets on both sides. Open round turrets are located at each corner, with a square turret located above the postern gate in the west wall.

When the 1st Duke of Albany first built the castle, he planned to build four ranges set around a central courtyard, however for some reason, the fourth side was never built, and there are only two ranges of residences, the north and west ranges, and principle chambers on the east side. This may be why Doune Castle can be perceived as having a slightly unfinished look.

Apart from its architectural wonders and historical significance, there are other reasons why Doune Castle is so popular with a large number of visitors. One of these may well be the legend of the so-named ‘Hanging Tree’ or ‘Gallows Tree’. This tree was reportedly to be found outside the castle’s gates, and it is where wrongdoers were reputedly hung. The tree caught the macabre imaginings of many Victorians, which is why its wood was made into important pieces of furniture in the castle itself. One can see the inscription ‘Made from the Wood of the Old Gallows Tree’ at Doune Castle, in front of these polished and varnished pieces of oak.

Dounce Castle was also used as the main location for a number of popular film productions. One could mention the BBC production of ‘Ivanhoe’, featuring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor, the British comedy ‘Monthy Phyton and the Holy Grail’ filmed at the castle in 1974, as well as the T.V series ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Outlander’. Fans of ‘Game of Thrones’, will definitely recognise Winterfell Castle as it was during the first pilot episode of the T.V series, in the ruined medieval fortress, and lovers of the ‘Outlander’ series who wish to see Castle Leoch, a prominent location of the series, surely make up a big part of the increase of influx of visitors to the site.

Dounce Castle also features in several literary works, including the 17th century ballad ‘The Bonnie Earl of Murray’, and Sir Walter Scott’s first novel ‘Waverly’ (1814). The Castle is reachable to visitors by bus either from Stirling or Edinburgh. Those who visit by car, can leave it in the nearby carpark.

Opening Hours of Doune Castle:

1 April to 30 September:
Monday to Sunday, 9.30am to 5.30pm
1 October to 31 March:
Monday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm
Last entry is 30 minutes before closing.
The Castle will be closed on 25 and 26 December and 1 and 2 January.
Text: Melisande Aquilina