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Caerlaverock Castle: Scotland's Triangle Castle

This week, we take a trip with our trusted Wee Walking Tours time machine to explore one of Scotland’s more unique castles- Caerlaverock Castle. It is one of a few castles across the land that was built in a triangular design. Situated alongside the lush landscape of the Caerlaverock Nature Reserve in southern Scotland, Caerlaverock is an exquisite castle among Scotland’s vast collection. As was the case for many castles in Scotland, Caerlaverock Castle underwent major changes over the centuries. It went from being a rather practical stronghold in the 1200s to a more elegant accommodation featuring Renaissance architecture by the 1600s.

I want to start off by acknowledging and thanking Historic Scotland for providing such invaluable information gathered during our research at Caerlaverock Castle. Therefore, they are the source for the drawings and historical information presented in this post.

The First Caerlaverock Castle- early 1200s

Our first stop takes us all the way back to 1220. This is when Sir John Maxwell built the first Caerlaverock Castle. However, this first castle was in a different spot than the more complete castle ruins we see today. Historic Scotland points out that, according to archaeological excavations, the original Caerlaverock Castle was one of the first stone castles to be built in Scotland.

As you can see in the drawing below, the first castle was built on a rectangular platform that would have been made of clay. The castle was connected by a bridge that went over the moat. Inside there were two large buildings where the Maxwells lived.

However, the Maxwells eventually discovered that this was not a suitable location for their castle. The sea level was higher in the 1200s than it is today, and the original Caerlaverock Castle was situated at the head of a tidal inlet on the Solway. Despite their drains and built-up foundations, the buildings started collapsing as the ground was just too wet. As a result, around 1277, the Maxwells decided to rebuild another castle 200 metres north of this first site.

Caerlaverock Castle- 1300

The Maxwell family- led by Sir Herbert Maxwell- live in an incredible stronghold. Clearly, Sir Herbert used this opportunity to build a new castle wisely as this was a much more remarkable castle than the old one.

As with the first, there is a moat surrounding the new Caerlaverock Castle. However, as you can see pictured below in the Historic Scotland drawing, this castle is in the shape of a triangle. A strategic curtain wall surrounds the castle to provide necessary protection.

We know from our research that, despite its fortification, Caerlaverock Castle suffers under the many sieges it experiences during the Wars of Independence. As we read about at Melrose Abbey, Caerlaverock Castle was also attacked by the English- most famously by Edward I in 1300- and undergoes a series of repairs over the years.

Caerlaverock Castle’s reputation as a mighty fortress is well-deserved. As we make our way into the entrance, the two great towers that flank the Castle gatehouse are incredibly daunting. I can even see arrow slits that I am sure are manned even though I can’t see into them. To ensure better security, the Maxwell family has their private chambers in the gatehouse. I’m just going to sneak a quick peek into the Lord’s Hall. The drawing below shows how grand of a room this is.

Sir Herbert appears to be entertaining guests as they have quite a spread. Just with a quick glance, I see fish, boar, fresh bread, and wine. Let’s make our way out to see what else we can ‘explore and discover’.

Entering the courtyard, it is surprising to see how busy of a place this is- it’s positively hopping with activity. According to our research into the Historic Scotland records, that’s because Caerlaverock Castle isn’t just a home for the Maxwell's, it is also “a place of business, a barracks, a guesthouse, a law court and a prison”. They certainly make good use of their castle.

Our research reveals that the 'new' Caerlaverock Castle changed quite a bit between when it was first built in the late 1200s to the early 1600s. It was transformed into a home that fit the times- with fantastic Renaissance architectural features.

Caerlaverock Castle- 1635

Fortunately, 1635 is a rather ‘peaceful’ year in the Castle timeline. Robert Maxwell and his family reside in Caerlaverock Castle and the Maxwell's have now been here for over 350 years. As illustrated below, the Castle still has its triangular layout, but many changes have taken place since our visit in the year 1300. As we take the bridge across the moat, there are now gunholes in the gate indicating an important change in warfare.

Most notably, the Maxwell family’s status and wealth has clearly increased (Robert, the 9th lord, was made the first Earl of Nithsdale in 1620 by James VI) as they have added quite a bit more living accommodation. Along the west range, there is now a two-storey block of apartments that were added some time in the 1400s. From the courtyard, you can enter three different chambers on the ground level. The fireplaces are elaborately carved, and the apartments are richly decorated. These are high-status spaces for family and important guests.

However, there is one new addition that commands attention for any visitor to Caerlaverock Castle in 1635 (and still in the 21st century but we’ll come back to that in a bit)- the Nithsdale Lodging. Fresh from its recent completion, the Lodging provides a master class in classic Renaissance architecture. The symmetrical façade features exquisitely carved pediments above the doors and windows representing important aspects of Robert Maxwell’s life through scenes from classic mythological scenes. Clearly this Lodging is meant to represent the Maxwell’s power and sophistication.

The historical record reveals quite an interesting history among the various Maxwells over the centuries as their allegiance has gone back and forth between the English and Scottish. An important fact to know- as this was part of their downfall- is that they are devout Catholics. The Maxwell family supported Mary Queen of Scots- even after the Scottish Reformation and when she was infamously imprisoned by England’s Elizabeth I.

Caerlaverock Castle Today

Crossing a bridge over the swampy area, all that is left today of the first Caerlaverock Castle (from the early 1200s) are the foundations found during excavations. Sawyer and Finn have a fun time exploring the ruins and surrounding wooded area.

However, the bugs are out in full force, and limit our time. We quickly make our getaway to the ‘new’ Caerlaverock Castle- of course our intrepid canine adventurers stop to pose for pictures along the way.

Caerlaverock Castle represents what many people think of when they think of a castle. It has a curtain wall, is surrounded by a moat, and can be reached by a bridge. The picturesque castle and landscape are incredibly beautiful, and it is not a surprise to find out that the Castle is a popular location for weddings. In fact, we have been informed that they are having a wedding a little later this afternoon. We better head inside to see how Caerlaverock Castle has held up over the centuries- especially since our last visit in 1635.

Unfortunately, Robert Maxwell didn’t get the chance to enjoy his new Nithsdale Lodging for very long. This is because in 1640, the Castle was besieged by Protestant Scottish Covenanters who were not happy with the fact that the Catholic Maxwell family supported the Catholic King Charles I. Caerlaverock Castle experienced a great deal of irreparable damage and was abandoned by the Maxwell family. Shortly thereafter, the Castle became a medieval ruin that has inspired poets, artists, and writers in the centuries since. I know it certainly inspires me. Hopefully, some of our pictures do justice to the regal beauty that she still is.

In the service quarters, the former bakehouse still stands. This is where they would have baked fresh bread for all including for the feast, we witnessed in 1300. This is also where the castle well is located. According to Historic Scotland, in 1640, when the Protestant Covenanters attacked Caerlaverock Castle, “the earl and his garrison of 200 soldiers managed to stand fast for 13 weeks before they eventually surrendered. Such a feat would have been impossible without this vital internal water supply”.

Castle Well

The south-east tower is now missing, but glimpses of its former life are still present.

However, you’ll be happy to find out that the south-west tower- known as Murdoch’s Tower- is still standing. Unfortunately, it is closed off and we can’t explore inside it. No worries because some of the best is yet to come.

Remember the west range two block of apartments we visited in 1635? Well, not much of those accommodations are left. However, amazingly, the façade and decorative aspects of the fireplaces have survived as seen in the photos below.

A view of the west range apartments' façade from the courtyard.
Fireplaces and their decorative carvings in the west range apartments.
Another view from within the west range apartments.

That leads us to the architectural masterpiece of Caerlaverock Castle- the Nithsdale Lodging. A surprisingly large amount of its Renaissance façade continues to gleam under the sun. Here, Prometheus, Patroclus, and Neptune hold court and hold modern day viewers, like me, in awe (if you would like to see another fine example of Renaissance architecture in Scotland- check out our article on Stirling Castle).

There are so many nooks, crannies, and more that you can explore at Caerlaverock Castle. Scroll the following slideshow (by clicking on the black arrows) to experience more of the Castle’s gorgeous ruins:

I hope you have enjoyed this time travelling adventure to Caerlaverock Castle. Travel is currently restricted in Scotland as of the writing of this article. Therefore, be sure to check out Historic Scotland’s website for the most up-to-date information and so you can best plan your visit.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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