Meeting Report: Tower-Houses of the Scottish Borders

21 October 2016
Alistair Maxwell-Irving

The second bi-fortnightly lecture on 21 October, attended by 72 members and guests, was given by Alistair Maxwell-Irving on The Tower-Houses of the Scottish Borders. The speaker, a noted authority and author of two definitive books on the subject, gave a comprehensive overview of these formidable buildings.

Their origins can be traced back perhaps 3000 years in European and Middle Eastern history, but the speaker began with comparison of the towers of medieval southern Europe, particualrly northern Italy. Tower building there was largely undertaken by powerful families living in cities. Florence, for instance, still has 100 surviving towers, and a 1551 ilustration of Siena shows it full of towers. The speaker used San Gimignano, a small hill town in Tuscany (and a Unesco world heritage site), to dramatically illustrate this almost mania for tower-building by the nobility and rich merchant classes of mediaeval Italy. One interesting point of contrast with Scottish Borders tower-houses was the massive foundations present at San Gimignano (a reflection perhaps of the tectonic instability of that region of Italy?)

The oldest tower-house in Scotland is Cubbie's Roos Castle, built in 1150 on Wyre, Orkney. Its name is a corruption of Holbein Hruga, thought to have been the original builder, and the tower is mentioned in both the Orkneyinga Saga and King Haakon's Saga. In northern Europe, the Normans built our more familiar castles but, even there, there was generally a massive keep at the heart of each Norman castle, although they evolved over time to more elaborate structures where the keep might become less obvious. Scottish Tower-Houses also showed evolution over time, the speaker using twelth-century Mote of Urr, thirteenth-century Caerlaverock and Deeside's fourteenth-century Drum Castle (with its 12-foot thick walls), fifteenth-century Cardoness and sixteenth-century Comlongon Castle to illustrate his point. The last example had some many extra rooms honeycombed into its massive walls that it required supports to keep it from collapsing.

Despite their generally simpler form than Norman castles, tower-houses were not isolated structures, but generally constituted the heart (and last refuge for the family that owned them) of a complex of ancillary buildings such as kitchens, stables, accommodation for the garrison and other retainers, and buildings for storage. Rather than functioning solely as refuge in times of war, these tower-houses were the living quarters of the family owning them and, as such, were often made as comfortable and elaborate as possible within, as well as displaying their power and wealth. The speaker chose to illustrate this point with examples of armorial crests, ogee-arched carved recesses or aumbries called 'buffets' (for displaying important family possessions rather than the modern usage) as well as the more functional garderobes, the term originally meaning wardrobes or lockable stores for valuables, but latterly coming to mean a latrine or privy. (Balvaird Tower-house or Castle in Perthshire even had a flushing garderobe!) Tower-houses and castles (such as Edinburgh Castle) also oftened had Laird's Lugs, listening devices such as hidden openings in walls, allowing the lord to eavesdrop on conversations in the Great Hall.

Physical defence was not neglected, however, and tower-houses were usually protected by parapets, murder holes, arrow-slits and later gunloops once firearms were invented, the speaker showing illustrations of several early guns as examples. Another common form of defence was the machicolation, a projecting battlement with holes through which stones or boiling oil could be dropped on attackers below. The archetypal Scottish protective device on tower-houses, predating its adoption in England, was the yett or strong iron-grid gate, a peculiar feature of Scottish yetts being the nature of the joint between intersecting metal bars. Rather that the pattern everywhere else in Europe of using bolts through drilled holes, joints were securely held in place by sandwiching one cross-piece within the contrary one. Tower-houses often also had prisons but, as a consequence of the disaster to the Scottish Monarchy, Nobility and People that had been the Battle of Flodden (The Floo'ers o' the Forest are a' wede away), no tower-houses built after 1514 had a prison.

The speaker touched on Bastle houses (farmhouses fortfied by commoners against reiver raids), ruinous and modern-day restored towers and associated features such as deer parks, but concluded with a humorous account of disputed inheritance and the military strength of sixteenth-century Stapleton Tower, near Annan. Judged to have been wrongly seized in 1626 by the sons of the original builder, Edward Irving, it was beseiged three times, falling only on the third attempt and taking, it was said, 4 earls, 2 lords, 3 knights, 9 lairds and all their forces to expel the occupying brothers and return it to its rightful owner.