In our ongoing celebration of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, we bring you on a virtual journey to Blackness Castle. It's famously known as the ‘ship that never sailed’ because it looks a bit like a stranded ship from its seashore side. So, step aboard and join us as we make a brief exploration of Blackness Castle.
Located near the village of Blackness, Scotland, Blackness Castle is on the southern shoreline of the Firth of Forth. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Edinburgh and only a 10-minute drive to Linlithgow Palace (stay tuned for an article on that magnificent site). Blackness Castle’s location provides stunning views of its seaside surroundings throughout the grounds.
As we begin our journey, I want you to close your eyes for a moment and focus your imagination so that you can properly engage your senses for our virtual tour. Imagine the gentle breeze whispering in your ear, there is a distinct smell of the sea- salty but fresh, and the sun is bathing you in an enveloping warmth that also highlights the varying hues of the castle stone. Now, as we continue our exploration, remember to keep these sensory cues in mind. Okay, I think you are ready to head into Blackness Castle. There is much too see and learn about, but I’m going to focus on some of the highlights. Let’s first situate ourselves with just a wee bit of historical context.
Ship or Castle?
According to Historic Scotland, the Port of Blackness most likely served as a port for the royal burgh of Linlithgow and is first mentioned in historical records in 1200. Jumping ahead a couple of centuries to the 1440s, Sir George Crichton, Admiral of Scotland, built a castle there to ‘befit his status’. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, Blackness Castle is nicknamed the ‘ship that never sailed’. Accordingly, its layout is described in maritime terms. There are three towers- the ‘Stern’ (South) Tower, the ‘Main Mast’ (Central) Tower, and the ‘Stem’ (North) Tower. We’ll start with the ‘Stern’ Tower.
The Stern Tower was built to supplement the Mast Tower House and was where the kitchen, great hall, service accommodation, and storage were located. The tower was altered quite a bit over the centuries and, as a result, it isn’t possible to determine each room’s original purpose (e.g. where the kitchen was). However, one room that can be identified is the Great Hall. Historic Scotland points out that it was created “during the alterations of 1537-1543, it is an expansive chamber, with two large windows, two smaller windows, a large fireplace, a high ceiling and a minstrels’ gallery”. As with most Great Halls, it was used for banquets and special events.
The ‘Main Mast’ (Central) Tower was originally built by Lord Crichton as a traditional, Scottish tower house and was the family’s residence. Interestingly, it later served as a prison, but we’ll come back to that in just a bit.
Also known as the North Tower, The Stem is the smallest of all three towers although it once stood much higher than it does now. According to Historic Scotland, in 1693, “it was converted into a three-gun battery to defend the castle from attack by sea”. Like the Mast Tower, it served as a prison.
However, there were clear distinctions between prisoners held in each tower. Let’s explore this interesting set-up a bit more.
Blackness Castle’s ‘Starring’ Roles- Past and Present
What is also unique about Blackness Castle is that it also served as a state prison (alongside Edinburgh and Stirling Castle). Of course, you’re probably thinking to yourself that being a prison wasn’t such an unusual feature for a castle. It’s true that Blackness held lower-class prisoners in its dungeons in the Stem Tower. And they experienced conditions as one would expect for those in a pit prison- cold, dark, and no sanitation (except flooding twice a day at high tide).
However, the Castle also housed prisoners who were of a middle or higher rank in society in the Mast Tower. One of the most famous ‘celebrity’ captives was Cardinal David Beaton, the Archbishop of St Andrews, who was held at Blackness Castle from January to April in 1543. According to Historic Scotland, “after the death of James V in 1542, Beaton had tried to become regent for the infant Mary Queen of Scots. But the document appointing Beaton as one of Mary’s guardians was judged to be a forgery and he was imprisoned for conspiring against his rival, Regent Arran”.
What is particularly fascinating about higher status prisoners like Cardinal Beaton, is that they enjoyed rather luxurious accommodations in the Mast Tower. Historic Scotland points out that those held here were not prisoners in the way we think of prisoners today. Instead, their privileged status continued while they were held captive and they were treated more like guests. Their daily life was like what they would have experienced at home. Their family was often housed on the floor below their accommodations and they brought their personal servants to wait on them as well. Captives in the Mast Tower also had warmth from fireplaces in their rooms (tended to by their servants), and they would have been able to bring “their own silver, books, furniture, and possibly even their own tapestries”. Additionally, the high-status prisoners could leave Blackness during the day and roam up to a three-mile radius as long as they were back by evening curfew. Certainly, this was a much different experience than the poor souls that suffered in the Stem Tower’s pit prison!
While Blackness Castle served as a prison during its prime, it continues to play an important role in contemporary times. Like Doune Castle, Blackness Castle also has that special ‘star’ quality about it as it has served as the filming location for a few famous productions. Most recently it can be found in the 2019 film, Mary, Queen of Scots that featured Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. It also had a starring role in the first series (or ‘season’ for our North American readers) of Outlander when it doubled as Fort William. Lastly, they filmed the movie, Hamlet, with Glen Close and Mel Gibson at the Castle.
Here are some more photos demonstrating the spectacular views and why Blackness Castle is a favourite among locals, visitors, and Hollywood:
Visiting Blackness Castle
As of the writing of this post, travel is restricted in Scotland due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, Blackness Castle is temporarily closed. However, when travel resumes, we highly recommend that you take the time to stop and visit this fantastic seaside fortress. Blackness Castle is part of the Historic Scotland family, so head over to their website for more visitor information.
When you are in Scotland, if you spend time in Edinburgh (and you really should), please be sure to check out our walking tours of the city. Our Golden Retriever tour guide, Sawyer, often accompanies our human tour guide, Sami. They both love to guide visitors around our exquisite capital city and help them learn some wonderful stories along the way!
Until next time- Explore & Discover!