The once dominating, bustling hub of Bute’s Viking Raids and regal occupation by The Stewarts now lies as a quiet, well preserved (despite its age), central artefact amongst the everyday commotion of Rothesay life. One of the oldest stone castles in Scotland, and certainly one of the most uncommon due to its unusual circular plan, has survived a remarkable history, much of which can’t be easily accessed through a hand-out pamphlet.
I’ve decided to take the most unusual, fascinating and real nitty-gritty facts about this must-see Rothesay landmark that has survived the greatest battle of all – the test of time – and compile it into one easily-digestible article. Here are 5 things that you didn’t know (and if you did, then pretend you don’t so you don’t put me out of a job) about Rothesay Castle:
1. The castle may not have originally been built to be a castle at all
One of the most captivating factors of anything is not actually what we do know, but more so what we don’t and Rothesay Castle is no exception to this. Much of its history finds itself torn between intense speculation and historiographical mysteries but one thing can be agreed upon: its history is a lengthy one.
One of the proposed theories amongst the debate is that this proud castle wasn’t actually built to be a castle at all. It’s been noted that the likelihood of its erection as a fortress during on-and-off Viking Raids in the late 11th Century is more probable than the theory that Walter the 3rd High Steward was the first ever to construct it in the early 1200s. Still, there is no certainty on how the castle ‘came to be’.
The Viking Raids commenced around the year AD 800. Norway seized control of the Western Isles and Scotland – no longer governed by its own native kings – was now under the thumb of the Norse ones instead. In 1098, Scotland and Norway agreed a treaty which allowed the Norse to seize all of the Scottish West Coast Islands after Norse King, Magnus Barefoot, noticed weakening domination in their Western occupation and was the leader of many expeditions to consolidate, and once again, dominate with full Norse control.
Many speculate that during this domination, the Scottish King was under the impression that Bute and Arran would be an exception to this treaty due to protection from the Kintyre Peninsula but he believed wrong. Magnus claimed both Bute and Arran for Norway and as a way of marking his territory, the first fortress of Rothesay came to be and speculated to be what stood before what we now know as Rothesay Castle. Whether it was originally made of wood or stone is, again, unknown.
Despite its earliest history falling under myths, legends and intense speculation – one more probable theory remains and is widely regarded in many history books as close-as-possible to fact, which is that Walter, the 3rd High Steward, built the first stone castle in the early 1200s as a defence against the Norwegians. Much of its history, thereafter, became a lot clearer.
2. The castle was not always in the centre of Rothesay
In my early childhood, when my dad would take me on little tours of Bute, he would always tell me that in Rothesay, before all its promenade improvements, the sea would reach just before the castle and in my cynical, ignorant youth and growing up around the thick, flood walls of ‘down the front’, I would shrug this comment off. In my later research, however, I discovered that my dad was right. Naturally and untamed, the sea has a completely different idea for the town’s formation and this is evident in the positioning of Rothesay Castle.
Rothesay Castle was initially built upon a mound approximately 100 metres from the sea and whether that mound was man-made or natural is another part of its history that remains unknown. It sat raised, projecting dominance at the head of Rothesay Bay, as a symbol of powerful governance before harbour and promenade works over the last 2 centuries have forced the castle inland as a quaint artefact.
Even today, it’s hard to imagine how impressive the large stone fortress would have looked to any incomers of times gone-by but today, I’d argue that it’s just as impressive as its charming, rugged-self. Even in the centre of town, with its multitude of stories that spanned more centuries than is easily fathomable, it carries mysteries that will forever be etched on its injured walls.
3. The Kings of Norway, not once, but TWICE seized the castle
The Kings of Norway captured Rothesay twice: in 1230 and in 1263.
After the surrender of the Hebrides, including Bute, by Edgar of Scotland in 1098, his descendents were set on regaining the jewel island. However, Norway still ruled the Western Isles legally until the Treaty of Perth in 1266 which formally transferred power from Norway to Scotland. Everything before this treaty was a huge, messy power struggle.
The Scottish King, Malcolm, gave Bute as a reward to Walter Fitz Alan, the High Steward of Scotland and the head of the family which became the royal Stewarts, for the Kingdom of Scotland’s victory in the Battle of Renfrew against the Kingdom of the Isles.
However, when Norsemen attacked Rothesay in 1230 as part of a 3 day siege on the orders of King Haakon IV of Norway, what followed was probably a much more dramatic escalation of events than that of 1263 as it became preserved by one of the saga writers, Haakon Haakonson:
“And they sailed south round the Mull of Kintyre, and so in to Bute. The Scots sat there in the castle; and a certain Steward was one of the Scots. They attacked the castle, but the Scots defended it, and they poured out boiling pitch. The Norwegians hewed the wall with axes, because it was soft. The torch-bearer who was called Skagi shot the steward to death. Many of the Norwegians fell, before they won the castle.”
Not only had the Scots lost their castle, but they had lost their Steward in the process. Documents reveal, however, that the Norse had only a short occupation here before they withdrew to Kintyre.
4. Robert the Bruce had ties to Rothesay Castle
At the initial outbreak of the first Scottish Wars of Independence, Rothesay Castle was in the hands of James Stewart. Sadly, it fell to the English in the late 13th century, only 30 years after Bute had finally had some peace and security from the Norwegian occupation. Most of Scotland, including Rothesay Castle, was occupied by the English Army from 1303 and this persisted until King Robert I retook the castle in 1306. A short-lived, but probably exhausting, 3 years.
The castle was returned to James Stewart, who would go on to connect his family by marriage to Robert the Bruce when his son Walter married the King’s daughter, Marjorie Bruce. In 1371, their son would become Robert the II. The first Stewart King and the one to establish the tradition that whomever had heir to the throne would be titled Duke of Rothesay. A title currently held by Prince Charles.
In the later years (1400s), Rothesay Castle seen a huge refurbishment with an enhanced gatehouse to ensure stronger protection and the addition of four round towers. However, once again, the chaos within these castle walls were once again stirred in the 1600s by the occupation of Cromwellian forces during the civil wars of the 1650s and again in 1685 by Archibald, the 9th Earl of Argyll’s revolts. Both of which caused damage to the castle’s interior and exterior, rendering it uninhabitable. This is when the Keeper and his family moved from the now derelict castle to the Old Mansion House across the road on the High Street, which remains as one of Rothesay’s oldest buildings.
Rothesay Castle was placed in state care in 1961 by the Marquess of Bute and is now cared for by Historic Scotland.
5. There was a paddle steamer named after the castle that caused the deaths of 130 people
Built for service on the River Clyde in 1816, Rothesay Castle or Rothsay Castle was a paddle steamer named after Bute’s famous landmark. She was later transferred to Liverpool where she was used for day trips along the coast into Northern Wales and it was here that she was shipwrecked in 1831. This cost the lives of 130 people.
If you enjoyed reading about this historic landmark, please visit the Bute Museum website, Visit Scotland and Castles of Scotland’s website to find out more.
Recommended further readings would also be ‘Bute: An Island History’ by Ian Maclagan and Anne Speirs, as well as ‘The Isle of Bute’ by Norman S. Newton.
Also, huge thank you to John Williams for allowing me to use his amazing pictures of the castle in its modern condition.