Loch Leven Castle

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Loch Leven Castle


Lochleven west wall.JPG
Keep and west wall of the castle
Type: Tower house
Grid reference: NO137017
Location: 56°12’0"N, 3°23’24"W
Town: Castle Island, Loch Leven
Built c.1300
Condition: Ruined
Owned by: Historic Scotland
Website: Lochleven Castle

Loch Leven Castle is a ruined castle on an island in Loch Leven, an inland loch in Kinross-shire. The castle is a tower house in style and was possibly built around 1300. During the wars of Scottish independence which rent the island between 1296 and 1357, the castle was attached, taken, retaken and besieged on several occasions.

In the later part of the 14th century, the castle was granted to William Douglas, 1st Earl of Douglas, and remained in Douglas' hands for the next 300 years. Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned here in 1567 and 1568, and forced to abdicate as queen, before escaping with the help of her gaoler's family. In 1588, the Queen's gaoler inherited the title Earl of Morton, and moved away from the castle.

The castle was bought, in 1675, by Sir William Bruce, who used the castle as a focal point in his garden; it was never again used as a residence.

Today, the remains of the castle are protected as a Category A listed building, in the care of Historic Scotland. Loch Leven Castle is opened to the public but only accessible by boat; a ferry crosses the loch to Castle Island in summer months.


Early history

During the Middle Ages, Loch Leven Castle stood at a strategically important position between the towns of Edinburgh, Stirling and Perth. A castle may have stood on Castle Island already by 1257, when the 16-year-old King Alexander III of Scotland was forcibly brought there by his regents.[1]

During the First War of Scottish Independence of 1296 1328, the English army held Loch Leven Castle. Parts of the present fortification, the curtain wall, may date from this time[2] and were perhaps built by the English garrison.[3] The castle was captured by the Scots before the end of the 13th century, possibly by the forces of William Wallace.[4]

English forces laid siege to Loch Leven in 1301, but the garrison was relieved in the same year when the siege was broken by Sir John Comyn.[4] King Robert the Bruce (reigned 1306–1329) is known to have visited the castle in 1313 and again in 1323.[3]

After Bruce's death, the English invaded again, and laid siege to Loch Leven Castle in 1335 in support of the claimant Edward Balliol (d. 1364).[4] According to the 14th-century chronicle of John of Fordun, the English attempted to flood the castle by building a dam across the outflow of the loch. The water level rose for a month, until the captain of the English force, Sir John de Stirling, left to attend the festival of Saint Margaret of Scotland. The defenders, under Alan de Vipont, took the opportunity to come out of the castle at night, and damaged the dam, causing it to collapse and flood the English camp. The story has, however, been doubted by later historians.[5]

Loch Leven Castle was strengthened in the 14th or early 15th century, by the addition of the five-storey tower house or keep.[2] According to Historic Scotland, it is of the 14th century, making it one of the oldest tower houses in Scotland which still substantially survives.[3]

In 1390 King Robert II (reigned 1371–1390) granted the castle to Sir Henry Douglas, the husband of his niece Marjory.[6] From the 14th century, the castle served as a state prison. Prior to becoming king, Robert II was held here in 1369,[3] as was Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Douglas (d. 1439) in the first half of the 15th century. Patrick Graham, Archbishop of St Andrews, died in captivity at the castle in 1478.[1]

Mary, Queen of Scots Escaping from Loch Leven Castle (1805) by William Craig Shirreff

The 16th century

Mary, Queen of Scots (reigned 1542–1567) first visited Loch Leven in 1565 as a guest of Sir William Douglas of Lochleven (d. 1606). She held an interview here with the Calvinist preacher John Knox.[1]

Mary returned to Loch Leven as a prisoner, from 17 June 1567 until her escape on 2 May 1568.[1] At the "battle" of Carberry Hill on 15 June, Mary surrendered to her noblemen, who opposed her marriage to the Earl of Bothwell. She was taken to Loch Leven and given into the custody of Sir William Douglas of Lochleven, spending most of her captivity living in the early 16th-century Glassin Tower, at the south-east corner of the castle. Aside from Sir William, the household included his mother Lady Margaret Douglas, mother of Mary's half brother the Earl of Moray, and his brother George Douglas, as well as Willie Douglas, a young orphaned relative.[7] Mary fell ill on arrival, and sometime before 24 July she miscarried twins that she had conceived with Bothwell.[8] Only a few days later she was forced to abdicate as Queen in favour of her infant son James.[9]

Mary recovered during the autumn and winter, and gradually won over George Douglas to her own cause.[10] A contemporary wrote that George was "in fantasy of love wythe hir."[11] On the night of the escape, Willie Douglas stole the keys and let Mary, dressed as a servant, out of the castle. She was rowed across the lake to where George Douglas and others awaited her, and they fled to Niddry Castle in Lothian.[12]The Castle is one of many in Scotland said to be haunted by Mary's spirit. [13]

The Earl of Northumberland was also held here, after fleeing to Scotland following the failure of the Roman Catholic Rising of the North in 1570. He was captured by the Earl of Morton, and confined at Loch Leven before being sent back to England for execution.[1] In 1588, Sir William Douglas of Lochleven succeeded to the earldom of Morton, as the 6th earl.[6] With the title he inherited other properties, including Aberdour Castle in Fife, and Loch Leven Castle became less frequently used.

Sir William Bruce

Across fields to Loch Leven Castle

From around 1546, Margaret Erskine and her son William Douglas built a house on the shore of the Loch which was known as "Newhouse." The "Newhouse" replaced the island castle as the legal centre of the estate in 1619.[14]

In 1675, the Loch Leven estate was bought from the Douglases by Sir William Bruce (c.1630–1710), royal architect in Scotland. Bruce built nearby Kinross House on the lake shore from 1686, aligning the principal axis of house and garden on the distant castle. The "Newhouse", which was finally demolished in 1723, was just to the north of Bruce's site. Kinross was one of the first buildings in the classical style erected in the north. Thereafter Loch Leven Castle was no longer used as a dwelling, but it was preserved by Bruce as a picturesque focus for his gardens.[4]

Recent years

Loch Leven Castle had fallen into ruin by the 18th century,[15] but the ruins were conserved and rubbish removed in 1840.[16] The estate passed from the Bruces to the Graham family in the 18th century and then, in the 19th century, to the Montgomerys, who still occupy Kinross House.[17]

Loch Leven Castle was given in to state care in 1939, and is now managed by Historic Scotland.[4] Today, the castle can be reached by a 12-person ferry operated from Kinross by Historic Scotland during the summer months. The remains of the castle are protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument,[18] and as a category A listed building, the highest level of protection for a historic building in Scotland.[6]


Ground floor plan of Loch Leven Castle

The castle, and an outer enclosure of which little trace remains, originally took up almost the entire area of Castle Island. The present wooded, and considerably larger, island was formed in the early 19th century when the canalising of the outflow of the River Leven, which enters the Firth of Forth at the town of Leven, led to a substantial lowering of the water level.

The castle comprises a rectangular courtyard surrounded by a curtain wall, with a tower house, or keep, at one corner, and the round Glassin Tower projecting from the opposite corner. The foundations of demolished ranges of buildings remain around two sides of the courtyard. Of the outer court, only an earth bank shows the position of the walls, with fragmentary remains of a bakehouse the only visible structures.

The tower house

The tower house, or keep, at the west corner of the enclosure, measures 36½ feet by 31½ feet and originally had five storeys, although the roof and timber floors are now gone.[2] The lowest level is a vaulted basement, with a vaulted kitchen above. The hall was on the next floor, with chambers above, all linked by a spiral stair.

The Glassin Tower

The Glassin Tower is a round tower, added to the south-east corner of the ancient curtain wall in the 16th century. The tower has a vaulted basement, defended by a gun hole, and two small rooms above. The lower room has an oriel window.

Archaeological findings

A minor excavation in 1995 found the footings and two steps of a stone stairway that provided access to the Great Hall of the tower. 16th century pottery and animal bones were found in 30 inches of debris near the forestair.[2]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Loch Leven Castle)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Lindsay, pp.342–344
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "RCAHMS - Lochleven Castle". http://www.rcahms.gov.uk/pls/portal/canmore.newcandig_details_gis?inumlink=27913. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "Lochleven Castle: About the Property". Historic Scotland. http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/propertyresults/propertyabout.htm?PropID=PL_202&PropName=Lochleven%20Castle. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Coventry, p.301
  5. Grose, pp.225–227
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "Lochleven Castle, Listed Building Report". Historic Scotland. http://hsewsf.sedsh.gov.uk/hslive/portal.hsstart?P_HBNUM=11199. Retrieved 2008-08-01. 
  7. Fraser, pp.401, 423
  8. Fraser, p.409
  9. Fraser, p.412
  10. Fraser, p.418
  11. Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol.2 (1900), p.404 no.652, 9 May 1568.
  12. Fraser, p.427–428
  13. "Haunted trail of Mary, Queen of Scots - Scotsman.com News". The Scotsman. 2005-12-08. http://news.scotsman.com/spookystories/Haunted-trail-of-Mary-Queen.2684937.jp. 
  14. Sanderson, Margaret H. B., Mary Stewart's People, James Thin (1987), p.69
  15. "Gazetteer for Scotland - Loch Leven Castle". http://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst6393.html. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  16. Francis H. Groome (1882). Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical. Thomas C. Jack. http://www.geo.ed.ac.uk/scotgaz/features/featurehistory2529.html. 
  17. "Kinross House and Gardens: The History - Subsequent owners". http://www.kinrosshouse.com/history_subsequent.html. Retrieved 2008-08-01. 
  18. "The Monument known as Lochleven Castle". http://hsewsf.sedsh.gov.uk/eschedule/show?ID=90204&OK=Y. Retrieved 2008-08-01. 
  • Coventry, Martin. (2001) The Castles of Scotland 3rd Edition. Goblinshead
  • Fraser, Antonia. (1970) Mary Queen of Scots. Panther
  • Grose, Francis. (1791) The Antiquities of Scotland Vol.II. S. Hooper
  • Lindsay, Maurice. (1986) The Castles of Scotland