Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Friday, 20 March 2015

17 March 2015 - "Dundonald Castle"

At the final meeting of the Society over 20 members were present to hear Irene McMillan, a member of the Friends of Dundonald Castle, give us a wonderful picture of the history of the site and the castles which had stood on it over the centuries, together with the characters linked to it and the current activities which take place there.  She lives just below the castle and explained that it was the first thing she saw each morning and the last thing she saw before drawing the curtains at night.

The hill on which the present castle stands is in a good position to build a fortification and there is evidence of 2 previous castles standing on the site.  Although only 200ft. above sea level, the top gives an excellent view on a clear day. Archaeological work done by Historic Scotland shows that there have been habitations on the site for some 5,000 years.

The Strathclyde Britons who took over the site after the Romans left had their main base at Dumbarton Rock, but three of their kings were called Donald and it is thought likely that this is where the name Dundonald originated.

Walter FitzAllan came to Scotland in the 1100s where his friend King David made him the
High Steward.  He was given land in the West and chose the hill on which to build a medieval castle.  He wanted a fort to protect the coast from the Vikings who were at that time taking over the Western Isles.  Taking the name Alexander de Dundonald he began building a grand castle modelled on the one in Coucy‑le‑Ch√Ęteau in France.  Alexander's wife came from near there and he was of Breton descent himself.  There is evidence that French stone masons were brought over to work on the construction.  Alexander led the forces at the Battle of Largs in 1263 and, after the defeat of the Vikings, the importance of the site as a defensive fort was lost and the castle soon became a ruin.

The current castle was built by the 6th High Steward, Robert II. He had a sad start in life as his mother was killed and he was born by a very early Caesarian section.  He was only 11 years old when his father died and not long after he also lost his grandfather.  Not a great deal is known about his life, but he seems not to have engaged in too many wars, but preferred to govern by getting his family represented everywhere - often by advantageous marriages.  Robert had 2 wives, 5 sons and 7 daughters.  The 2 wives are buried in Paisely Abbey.

The castle he built was not so much a fortress as a fun place for the summer months. The castle consisted of 3 floors, the Basement, the Laigh Hall and the Great Hall, the arched roof of which was made of Whinstone constructed by making a wooden pattern on which the stones were laid until the arch was completed with a key stone before the supporting frame was taken away.  Today the Great Hall has lost its roof and has been left open to the air but the vaulted ceilings of the Laigh Hall and Basement still exist.

A Minstrel Gallery can be seen.  Minstrels were often part of a Noble's entourage or sometimes travelled independently.  They had their own room - perhaps because if "wandering minstrels", they were suspected of being spies or of carrying disease.  The top floor was divided into two areas, a living area and a sleeping area.  Eventually an extension was needed which included bedrooms and dungeons - one of which was built complete with a toilet but the other was probably entered via a hole in the floor. 

During excavations, Historic Scotland found the remains of smaller buildings, probably stables, brewery and so on.  The remains of St. Ninian's chapel is quite close by.  Land also owned by Robert included Bute and the Cumbraes - Little Cumbrae being used as a deer park.

Robert died in the castle in 1527 and after this James V sold it to the Wallaces of Craigie.  They did not restore the castle, but built Auchans House nearby.  However, by the 1600s the Wallace family were out of favour due to their sympathy with the Covenanters and in 1666 the Cochrane family, who had helped in the Restoration of the monarchy, were the owners.

The 10th Earl of Dundonald fought in a number of naval battles around the time of Nelson and after this founded the Brazilian Navy and helped set up the one in Chile.

The Montgomeries of Eglinton used old Auchans House as a Dower House and one famous inhabitant was Suzanne, a Dowager who was inclined to run around the grounds naked and made friends with the rats in the building.  According to the stories she tapped on the wall when she had her meals and the rats arrived to have their share, the rats she told friends were "preferable to Edinburgh Society".  Boswell and Johnson came by to see her on their visit to Scotland.  By the time the Dowager died at the age of 91, the house had deteriorated considerably.  


In 1950 the Castle was sold to the State and the land sold off for building.

Visitors today enter the castle at the basement level which once held stores, etc., rather than having to scale a ladder up to the original first floor entrance to the Laigh Hall which was used for feasts and meetings.  At these, only the most important person present had a chair, everyone else using a stool - this perhaps led to the origin of term "chairman". 

In 1985 Historic Scotland took over the property and their mission was to consolidate the buildings.  There is now a walkway at the level of the floor of the Laigh Hall.  An Archaeological dig they organised unearthed many artefacts and discovered much about the history of the site.  Although the castle itself is owned by Historic Scotland the ground surrounding it is owned by South Ayrshire Council and the Friends of Dundonald Castle (their Logo is a Robert II coin) have helped with the Visitor Centre, Gift Shop and Museum working hard to encourage local people to use the building.  Nowadays the castle is used for weddings and musical evenings as well as other local events such as "Halloween Evenings".  It will be open this year from 28 March 2015 until end of October 2015 and the website can be seen at www.dundonaldcastle.org.uk.
 

Pat Weston

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