12 May 2010

Beneath the shell of Newark Castle

Slowly, slowly, time is wearing away at an inscription above an entranceway to what was Newark Castle’s northern wing. “The blissingis of God be herein,” was carved out by order of Sir Patrick Maxwell, who in the late 1500s oversaw the extensive remodelling of the castle from a drafty medieval box to a beacon of Renaissance fine living on the banks of the Firth of Clyde.
The land on which the castle sits first became part of the Maxwell estate in 1402 and the castle itself dates from the 15th century.

But it was Sir Patrick who did wondrous things for the castle, not only equipping his dining hall with the expected opulent fire place, but insisting that special drainage be installed in the same room so guests could wash their hands before they ate.

Certainly as far as general health and hygiene were concerned, he must have been a man ahead of his time.
My Historic Scotland guidebook refers to Maxwell as “an enlightened and cultured rascal.” On the surface, a respectable citizen and friend to James VI, and behind-the-scenes, a murderer and wife beater.

Maxwell took his dislike for his neighbours to a new height when he murdered two members of the Montgomeries of Skelmorlie, near Largs. It is also said that he killed a member of his own family, another Patrick Maxwell near Paisley. However thanks to his friends in high places, Sir Patrick was never tried for the killings.

Even the term “wife beater” seems too short, too easily tossed into the narrative like something easily forgotten. Margaret Crawford was married to Sir Patrick for 44 years and bore him 16 children. More than once he beat her so fiercely that she was confined to her bed for months.
One early family record shows that his own mother complained to the Privy Council of Patrick's treatment of Lady Margaret. Lady Margaret herself had appealed for help to restrain her “unkind and unnatural husband.”

When one of the couple's sons and his wife attempted to care for the bed-ridden Lady Margaret after Sir Patrick had attacked her with a sword, Sir Patrick threw them out of the house.

Finally after more than four decades with the man, Lady Margaret managed to flee to nearby Dumbarton, forgoing a life of elegant misery and choosing instead the quiet chains of poverty. Then, with charges for his abuse finally forthcoming, Sir Patrick went and died before he could be rightfully punished.
Today Newark Castle is nestled between the cranes and shipyard sheds of busy Port Glasgow. It is strange to wander the empty halls and through the grand dining room and imagine Lady Margaret seated at the long table, her muscles tightened with the anxiety of the slightest wrong move.

Beauty returns with the dovecot which Maxwell had transformed from the old defensive enclosure that was once part of the castle’s outer defences. It is beautifully preserved and stunning. Stepping inside feels like being wrapped in some dual-dimensional stone game board. Put the right stone in the right hollow and the world will start to spin as you advance to the next level.
The building is so lovely, so unique and refined, that to Sir Patrick’s guests it must have seemed a perfect life. But beneath the glossy perceptions are a cascade of terrible stories of violence and suffering.

With such a tumultuous history, it is not surprising that there have been reports of ghost sightings at Newark. It is said to be Lady Margaret, whose soul continues to shudder through the living world, looking for justice that never came, will never come.

Some have said they have seen her looking down from the castle’s high windows. Newark is also a popular place for locals to have wedding photos taken, and there has been at least one report of an unexplained figure appearing in the photographs.

I would certainly go there again, if nothing else to stand in the quiet rooms or look out over the Clyde, and think of Lady Margaret. To let my thoughts grow so large as to push away any ounce of glory to which her husband may have laid claim. To move around the boxes of history until her path is set free.

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