Meeting Report: Castles of Dumfries and Galloway in Danger

Date: 
13 February 2015
Speaker(s): 
Dr Janet Brennan

The Castles of Dumfries and Galloway in Danger was the subject on which Dr Janet Brennan, chairwoman of the Scottish Castles Association, addressed a huge audience at the first February meeting of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. Her qualifications for undertaking the subject are of consequence, as she and her husband undertook a daunting restoration project of their own in the region.

The company was captivated from the very outset by her engaging personality. She injected humour into her delivery, despite the gravity of her message.

In Dumfries and Galloway there are 30 castles at risk and mostly in private hands. There was no intention of declaring a witch hunt on the owners, many of whom have these buildings on their land by chance, but they lack the resources to undertake very costly restoration.

Janet set herself the task of following up 58 castles/towers in the region inspected by McGibbon and Ross in the 1890s. More than a quarter have deteriorated in the last century. In the case of Cally Castle, as a mere lump in the ground, it is unrecognisable as a castle.

Her wide-ranging talk covered castles from east to west and from A to W, as it happened. The audience was invited to participate in a recognition game of the scenes in her PowerPoint presentation, which was accompanied by a brief history of each one visited. Auchenskeoch near Dalbeattie, the only Z-plan castle in Dumfries and Galloway, was first on the list, which ended with Wreaths Tower near Southerness, featured on Pont's map and associated with the Regent Morton, who might have taken the young James VI to stay there.

The list of buildings covered is too long to mention each individually. The varied fates, that have befallen these former strongholds provided sustained interest. Vandalism and plundering caused deterioration of the pink and grey granite of Barclosh, Kirkgunzeon. Castle Stewart in Wigtownshire with its now missing marriage stone and lovely doorway met a similar fate.

In contrast, Cassencarie near Creetown was lived in until the 1960s and is now at the heart of a caravan park supplied by a children's playground and a restaurant and pub in the soundest part of the building. Hoddom, with several additions over the centuries, including one by William Burn, and open to the elements, is also associated with a caravan park and served by a Take Away outlet. Such incongruous trading provides a form of protection.

Baldoon Castle, a Dunbar property in Wigtownshire, dates to the sixteenth century or earlier. It has several claims to fame: it sports a very fine pair of seventeenth-century Renaissance gates; the enforced marriage of Janet Dalrymple and her death on her wedding night were the inspiration for Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor and Donizetti's opera, Lucia di Lammermuir.

Dunskey at Portpatrick was bought in 1998 by a Romanian prince, but competing business interests in Europe, he claimed, thwarted his plans. It sits on a cliff top on a public right-of-way. Any restorer, despite spending the millions it requires, would not have privacy. Listed on the Castle Conservation Register, it requires urgent consolidation.

Janet's most stinging criticism was levelled at Historic Scotland for the disgraceful state of Lochmaben Castle, which ought to be better presented by this public body because of the significance of its connection with Robert the Bruce.

All is not doom and gloom, however. Janet listed a number of buildings which might have a promising future. For example, Machermore near Newton Stewart, fairly recently a care home, abandoned and with ceilings collapsing, has possibly been rescued at the eleventh hour by a couple of young pilots. These old buildings unfortunately can harbour hidden problems, as in this case where dry rot that will add to their costs, has been found. Myrton has been purchased by a German banker and Hills Tower is approaching completion of the restoration process by the Gibbs family. At Castle Haven, 'the Coo Palace', on the Borgue coast, was built as a milking parlour for cows and has been bought by the Holiday Bond Company for conversion into holiday lets.

Although the theme of the talk was 'buildings in danger' it was uplifting to end with a photograph of the Brennan's magnificent transformation at Barholm in the vicinity of Gatehouse of Fleet. It was a stronghold of the McCullochs and fell into disuse in the mid-eightenth century. The work, begun in 2003, was completed in 2006. Vision, courage, perseverance and deep pockets are required for what Janet described as "the very expensive business of restoration".