If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’ll know that we love to highlight hidden gems and give you tips for exploring the ‘real Scotland’. One of the highly commended winners in our Real Scotland Photography Competition, Nick Gallacher, told us about a hidden gem he recently discovered near Glasgow – Craignethan Castle.
Guest post by Nick Gallacher
Nobody could ever say that Scotland is found wanting for historic places to visit. There are hundreds of visitor attractions spanning our beautiful country from many centuries worth of both troubled and peaceful times. Many of course we are all very familiar with, such as the magnificent Edinburgh and Stirling Castles, the intriguing Rosslyn Chapel, and the haunting and picturesque Urquhart Castle, to name but a few.
All are stunning in their own right and well worth a visit, yet with just a little bit of research and only the slightest of deviations from the usual beaten tourist tracks, there are also many lesser well known historic places to visit with minimal effort that offer just as much appeal.
One such place is Craignethan Castle, which I had the pleasure of discovering recently whilst looking for new places to visit nearby my home location of Rutherglen, South East Glasgow. Being a keen enthusiast of history and especially castles, I was intrigued by the fact that Craignethan Castle, which I personally had never heard of before, was only a short 30 minute drive from my flat down the M74 into South Lanarkshire (from Glasgow city centre, it would be about a 45 minute journey maximum).
After an easy drive and some lovely scenery down only a couple of miles of traffic-free country back roads a few hundred yards off the motorway, we came upon Craignethan and were greeted by an absolutely gorgeous and enchanting castle in an excellent state of repair – although still technically a ruin. The grounds are extremely well kept, and the surrounding countryside is stunning – there is no traffic noise whatsoever, and the only sounds you can hear are those of the birds and wildlife, a truly idyllic setting.
Craignethan Castle is a very unusual and intriguing place – built in the 1530’s, it was a domestic residence for Sir James Hamilton of Finnart. Sir James was born around the year of 1496, and had been knighted by 1513. Finnart joined the entourage of Regent Albany, and travelled to France, returning home in 1518, whereby he assisted in his family’s feuds and became involved with the persecution of those who were opposed to the reformation of the Catholic Church. At the time of his execution is 1540, Finnart was one of the richest and most powerful men in central Scotland.
His chosen home of Craignethan has a unique and fascinating blend of both private dwelling and military fortification, the style of which is arguably seen nowhere else in Scotland. An imposing yet paradoxically attractive building, Craignethan is built upon a natural spur formed by the Water of Nethan and the Craignethan burn, with steep slopes on three sides of the Castle falling away into deep, very difficult to climb ravines. Now heavily wooded, the elevation of the spur is nevertheless still abundantly clear, and an extremely well considered and practical defensive position. There are magnificent views of the landscape to be had from the battlements, giving a clear indication of just how well any attack approaches would be covered – both in terms of observation, and actual military defence.
We visited in early June, so the trees and foliage were of a vivid green, but to see the same in late autumn with the myriad of reds and browns on the leaves would be just stunning. To the front of the castle is a deep man made rampart and ditch, a formidable obstacle to the only remaining non-natural defence of the castle, and testament to the ingenuity and capability of the architects and Master Masons who respectively designed and built it.
Most interestingly, within the ditch is the best surviving example in the United Kingdom of a “Caponier” – a primitive version of a fortified bunker (the design and concept of which having been brought back by Finnart from knowledge obtained on his extensive travels to France and the Continent). The age of gunpowder had arrived, and this element to the castle’s defences was at the time and for many years, absolutely state of the art. To have such a well preserved and singular example of this that can be viewed when visiting from both the inside as a defender, and outside as an attacker, is nothing short of a national treasure and I cannot believe this is not more publicised.
One of the most interesting things about the Castle and something that really struck me, is the fact that Finnart’s private chambers and great hall were on the ground floor of the main building as opposed to a higher level – this would give you a sense of just how secure they felt within the main tower and the confidence they felt in the defences – both natural and designed. By comparison, to have had such domestic and recreational quarters on the ground floor in even the most impregnable of medieval castles would have hitherto been unheard of – a true sign of the development of castle architecture and mankind’s adaptation to the weaponry threat of the times.
Craignethan is a simply wonderful place, with an extremely reasonable entry price of just £4.50 per adult (£3.60 concession), and less than an hour’s drive from Glasgow. Steeped in history, with intriguing rooms, cellars and tunnels to explore; stunning natural surroundings; and a fascinating insight into the architectural and technological capabilities of the times… I promise, if you have a love of history and castles, you will not be disappointed.
Follow Nick on Twitter @BitingMuch for more lovely photographs of Scotland.