14 Mar 2010

Bothwell Castle: Medieval vision to jackdaw paradise

Imagine that you are clutching in your fist the stamp of your grandest ambition. Imagine raising your fist into the air and bringing it down onto the world, as if to gouge out a pothole in the highway of history. Finally, imagine more than 700 years washing over that stamp of yours, and how those years alter the contours of your once pristine vision.

Once upon a time, Walter of Moray, ancestor of the Murray clan, stood atop a hill looking out over the River Clyde. Up went his fist and down came the mark of his aspirations, to build the grandest castle Scotland had ever seen.
The groundwork was laid in the late 1200s, with plans for a fortress covering 1.8 acres. It began in spectacular fashion, with the construction of a massive circular donjon (also known as a keep), a central tower where the lord and his family could live as well as defend themselves even if the rest of the castle was under siege.
Today it still stands 27 feet tall, but then it was also 20 metres in diameter, with walls five metres thick. It even had its own moat. The genius of its design included a private escape route from the lord’s chamber through to the adjacent prison tower and its external stairs. Also, take a look at the photo below:
Do you see the long pointed hump on the right hand side? The entrance to the donjon is tucked around the corner to the right of that seemingly insignificant structural addition. The architect knew better protection lay in ensuring no battering ram had a clear run at the entrance from the courtyard. There is a greater chance of defence when your attackers are trying to manoeuvre a massive log around a bend at speed.

Inside the keep, the basement was thought to have been used for storage, while the upper floors were used as living quarters. From down here it is easy to feel you are being swallowed up, while above you the jackdaws wheel and turn, flying in circles through open archways before stopping to roost on wide ledges.
Follow me now through the doorway and into the stairwell, an enclosed stone corkscrew that looks deceptively still, like at any moment the rocks will emit an almighty crunch and plumes of dust will detonate from long silent internal gears. Then you need only to stand there and be lifted, like a music box ballerina, into the sky.
Murray’s dream was cut short by the start of the wars of independence, thus beginning the pinball game that saw Bothwell partially destroyed, taken over, rebuilt, partially destroyed again, and so on throughout its history.

It was one of Murray’s own descendants - Sir Andrew Murray - who, after forcing Edward III to hightail it back to England in 1337, reclaimed and then laid waste to his ancestral home, both as a partisan obligation and a wartime strategy.

Enter the Black Douglases and Archibald “The Grim.” Having married Lady Joanna, the wealthy heiress of the Murray estates, Archibald set to work rebuilding the castle in 1362. Archibald’s son went on to expand and alter those additions begun by his father, which included linking the donjon and a new tower house with a massive curtain wall.

Across the courtyard from the donjon lies the southeast tower, and it is thought it was the son who added the flourish of defensive slotted parapets around the top. I love how I see them as something pretty, like an iced fairytale cake turned to stone, when their actual purpose was straightforward and practical.
William Murray’s grand design took another turn when the Black Douglases were overthrown in 1455. Eventually Bothwell was handed to the Red Douglases in 1492, but by the 1600s the medieval fortress was losing its lustre for the family and they dismantled parts of it to build a new mansion not far way. For years and years Bothwell festered and faltered and clung on, before being placed in the care of the state in 1935.

Today Bothwell Castle maintains its dramatic position above the Clyde, and has become a haven for those lively jackdaws. They are everywhere, appearing suddenly from darkened corners and exploding in wild fervour from the tops of the towers.

Nearby there is an extra secret to this place. When you leave the castle, follow the path down to where it meets the trail that runs along the river. Not far from this crossroads is a wonderful tree whose trunk resembles the sleeping face of some magical creature, like something out of a Tolkien novel.

Of all the Scottish castles I have visited so far, none has captured my imagination like Bothwell has. Perhaps it is because it is so very old. Perhaps it is William Murray’s grandiose idea that still blossoms in my mind, all these centuries later. Or maybe it is just the jackdaws trying to tell me something.

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