Blackness Castle

 



Blackness Castle stands beside the Firth of Forth, at the seaport which in medieval times served the royal burgh of Linlithgow. The castle was built in the 15th century by one of Scotland’s more powerful families, the Crichtons.

The Crichtons were newcomers on the political stage at the time of growing unrest between the Crown and the mighty Black Douglases.  One of the strongest Douglas castles lay at Abercorn, just east of Blackness. The Crichton's attempted to exploit this situation.

In 1440, George's cousin, William, Chancellor of Scotland, arranged the infamous 'Black Dinner' in Edinburgh Castle, at which the 6th Earl of Douglas was summarily executed.  Then in 1441 George married Lady Janet, widow of Lord Borthwick and heiress of Douglas of Dalkeith, with lands not only in Lothian but also in SW Scotland, the heartland of the Black Douglases.  The Douglases responded with force.  In August 1443 William Douglas, the 8th Earl, laid siege to George Crichton's Barnton Castle, captured and destroyed it.  George may have built Blackness Castle to compensate.

The Crichtons rose in importance as the Crown's struggle with the Black Douglases intensified.  In 1452, James II himself killed the 8th earl at Stirling Castle.  George Crichton's lyalty was rewarded with the earldom of Caithness, while cousin William was confirmed as Earl of Moray


But Blackness was not destined to serve as a peaceful lordly residence. In 1453 it became a royal castle and its enduring roles were those of garrison fortress and state prison. In the twilight of its days in the later 19th century, Blackness served as an ammunition depot, but after the First World War it was decommissioned and passed into state care as a visitor attraction.

Blackness is often referred to as ‘the ship that never sailed’. This is because of its appearance, for from the seaward side it looks just like a great stone ship that has run aground. The pointed stem projects into the water, while the square stern stands beached on dry land. The castle’s three towers add to the effect – the small ‘stem’ tower at the prow, the tall ‘main mast’ tower at the centre, and the solid ‘stern’ tower at the rear.

In 1537, James V (1513–42) embarked on an ambitious programme to convert the 15th-century castle into a formidable artillery fortification. The looming threat from Henry VIII’s Protestant England was the catalyst. The work was completed in 1543, just as the ‘Wars of the Rough Wooing’ were about to erupt.

Mighty Blackness had none of the subtlety of the great Italianate artillery fortifications. Instead, a brute mass of masonry (the ‘stern’ tower) confronted bombardment from the land, with defensive cannons firing through yawning great gunholes positioned to give all-round firepower. The vastly strengthened castle withstood various sieges, until in 1650 Oliver Cromwell’s heavy guns devastated the defences, forcing the garrison to surrender. The scars of that bombardment are still in evidence today.

Dour Blackness was no suitable residence for a nobleman. It was a garrison stronghold first and foremost. It also came to be used as a state prison for those whom the reigning sovereign wished to see safely out of the way.

Countless noblemen were held here during the later Middle Ages, none more important perhaps than Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews, in 1543. In the notorious ‘Killing Time’ of the 1670s and 1680s, many a Covenanter (religious dissident) was incarcerated here by Charles II and James VIII. In the later 18th century, Blackness served as a prison of war for foreign sailors and soldiers captured during the wars with France, Spain and the fledgling United States of America.


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Last modified: Saturday, 18 March 2017