Blackness Castle Then and Now

Blackness Castle, on the shores of the Forth estuary, was acquired by the Ministry of Works in 1912 and was briefly reused as a military installation during the First World War. It was revamped during the 1920s to remove the more modern buildings within its walls and to restore its appearance as a medieval castle. Currently it is in the care of Historic Scotland and has been used as a film location for productions of Hamlet and Ivanhoe.

Ownership and Activities
The barony of the fortress was held in the mid 15th century by Sir George Crichton, Lord High Admiral of Scotland, Sheriff of Linlithgow, and later Earl of Caithness. His family were one of the most politically powerful Scottish families at that period; Sir George was governor of Stirling Castle, when the King murdered the 8th Earl of Douglas in 1452, and George’s cousin, William, was Chancellor of Scotland from 1439 to 1453. It is believed that the castle was constructed in the mid 1440s, during a time of feuding between the Crichtons and the “Black” Douglases, which had resulted in the destruction of Sir George’s tower at Barnton in Edinburgh in 1444.

By 1449 Blackness Castle had become a state prison and Sir George’s residence. The first building had a curtain wall and the north tower, with the central tower isolated in the central courtyard. It is believed that a hall range stood to the south, while the other area was defended by a rock-cut ditch and accessed by a gate in the east wall.

In 1453 James II took over the Crichton Lands and Blackness Castle. But just as he was getting comfortable, James Crichton captured the castle and held it briefly against the King, who fought back and quickly recaptured it. As well as continuing to serve as a prison, the castle was put into the care of a keeper, who was often the Sheriff of Linlithgow. During the 17th century, the office continued to be associated with the Livingstone family.

Until 1540, a programme of fortification was carried out under the supervision of the King’s Master of Works, Sir James Hamilton of Finnart. Finnart, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Arran, was very knowledge about artillery fortification. Whilst studying the subject in Europe, he designed his own castle as a showcase for his ideas. Back at Blackness, he introduced a complex entrance with a caponier, one of only two in Scotland [the other being at Craignethan].

Construction continued after Finnart’s execution for treason in 1540, under the guidance of the parson of Dysart, but came to a halt in 1542 following the death of James V, although smaller works continued into the 1560s. After the forced abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1567, the garrison under Alexander Stewart, remained loyal to her, although Stewart later joined the Regents party. In 1572, Lord Claud Hamilton won the castle back for Mary, despite being blockaded. The castle fell to the Regent’s forces in 1573.

In 1650 the castles defences were not strong enough to stop Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army invading and overtaking the castle. The garrison submitted under bombardment from land and sea and the damaged castle was abandoned. The castle was neglected until 1667 when it was again used a prison, holding a number of Covenanters; religious rebels who opposed the King’s interference in church affairs. The south tower now had a bake house installed in the basement and a new stair tower. In 1963 the spur was heightened with a wall walk, and the north tower was reduced to provide three guns over looking the forth.

The Union of Scotland and England in 1707 saw the demise of the prison and the castle becoming one of the four Scottish fortress to be maintained and garrisoned by the British Army, the others being Stirling, Dumbarton and Edinburgh. Between 1759 and 1815 the prison returned, holding French prisoners of war during the series of conflicts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars. In 1870, Blackness became the central ammunition depot for Scotland. Many works were carried out, including the roofing-over of the entire courtyard, and the levelling of the ground to the east. The defensive ditch had barracks built to the south. The cast iron was developed in 1868, with a gate and a drawbridge, one of the last to be developed in Britain.

Today the castle  is comprised of three towers, the Central Tower, rising to four storeys, the South Tower, where the principal residential rooms were located, and the North Tower where the prison and pit were to be found.

In 1963 the small North or Stem Tower was reduced to two storeys. The upper chamber had a fireplace, while the lower chamber was a pit prison. The South was constructed during the mid 16th century, possibly replacing an earlier hall block. It provided the main accommodation in the castle, with chambers in the North West wing, and a large hall on the upper storey.

The five-storey Central Tower was developed during the 15th century and heightened in the 16th century. Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews and James V’s ambassador to France, and Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Agnus, regent of Scotland in the 1520’s would have been held as prisoners here and would have enjoyed a reasonably high standard of living, including their own servants. Each storey contains a single room with a fireplace, a garderobe or privy, and numerous chambers within the walls.

The 16th century firework, which provides extra protection for the main gate, is mainly the work of Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, and has many defensive features. At first a rock ditch ran in front of the entrance, and was crossed by a drawbridge. The first 1693 yett, a latticed iron gate can still be viewed. Any invader would have to negotiate a dog-leg passage, exposing his back to fire from the caponier. During the 17th century, the forework was heightened, and gun batteries added above.

Today Blackness Castle is open to the public as a historic monument. The buildings of the castle remain empty, but there is still a small exhibition in the former barracks outside. The fortress has also been used a filming location in several productions including Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet [1990] and the science-fiction film Doomsday [2008].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *