Castle Douglas Things to Do
Castles you can only reach on foot have a particular attraction in today's car dependant world. Castles on islands also have special character. The mighty tower house of Threave Castle is doubly attractive. It is on an island in the middle of the River Dee a couple of miles west of Castle Douglas and even getting to it is an exciting and romantic experience in itself. To get from the car park at Kelton Mains farm to the ferry there is a ten minute walk through fields and past woods along good farmland paths until you arrive at the shore of the River Dee. There you will find a small jetty and a brass bell with a rope pull. Ring this bell loudly and the boatman will come across from the island to take you to the castle. Threave Castle is under the care of Historic Scotland.
The castle comes with the bonus of welcoming, enthusiastic and knowledgeable caretakers who double as ferry operators and who help add depth and atmosphere to your visit. Intending visitors should note that Threave Castle is only open from April to September. The castle consists of a tall tower house almost 100ft (30m) high, surrounded by a large complex of other buildings. The latter have now all gone but excavations in the 1970s uncovered portions of them. They included an outer hall, living quarters for retainers and a harbour.
The tower house, one of the first of its type built in Scotland, was five storeys high, and housed storage and service accommodation in the lower floors, with a private suite of rooms above. The walls were 10ft (3m) thick, with only small windows facing the island. The battlements presented a formidable defence, with an overhanging timber hoarding enabling the garrison to keep attackers at bay.
Legend tells that Threave Island was the home of the ancient rulers of Galloway a thousand years ago. Today there is no trace of their fortress. Sir Archibald Douglas in 1369 built the tall, forbidding tower that now dominates the island. He was one of the great figures in late-14th-century Scotland. His father, ‘the Good Sir James’ of Douglas had been King Robert Bruce’s dearest friend during the bloody Wars of Independence with England.
Bruce’s son, David I granted Archibald the Lordship of Galloway to tackle another enemy, the men of Galloway, who had long been thorns in the flesh of Scotland’s kings. In 1400 he died but by then he had tamed not only the Gallovidians but in fighting the English he eventually forcing them out of Lochmaben Castle, their last toehold in the Scottish West March. It was the English who named him ‘the Grim’, because of his terrifying appearance when in battle.
King James resented the power of the Douglases and in the 1440s the 8th Earl of Douglas came increasingly into conflict with him following the king’s execution of the 6th Earl and his younger brother. In 1452 King James invited William, the 8th Earl, to Stirling under safe conduct to negotiate peace between them. During the meeting the 21-year old James drew his dagger and stabbed the Earl to death. The 9th Earl of Douglas, James, continued to resist the will of the King. Knowing the King was a keen enthusiast for the latest continental artillery in 1447 the 8th Earl of Douglas embarked on a major upgrade of the defences at Threave Castle.
It proved needed for in 1455 King James II decided to destroy this branch of the Douglas family. A three-month siege of Threave Castle followed. Despite heavy bombardment, including shots from a great "Bombard", a massive siege gun, the castle held out and only surrendered after the king bribed the garrison commanders.
The castle remained annexed to the crown until granted to Lord Maxwell of Caerlaverock Castle. He put up an earth bank as an outer gun emplacement in readiness for a siege by the Covenanters fighting for an independent Scottish Church. Again the siege failed to take Threave by force, but nonetheless eventually the castle surrendered and the Covenanters made it uninhabitable.
Today the castle is evocative of those turbulent times four to five hundred years ago. The surrounding landscape of marsh, water, and woodlands has changed little, although when Sir Archibald Douglas built the castle the water level in the River Dee was higher, and Threave Island was only about a third of its size now.
It is also wrong to think of the castle as an isolated building. When built it would have been the most secure and easily defended part of a village covering much of the island. Most of the floors are typical of those usually found in tower houses: a vertical stack made up of ground floor storage cellar and pit prison; mezzanine kitchen and reception room; first floor hall; and second floor private apartments.
What makes Threave unique is its third floor, a room designed to house the garrison in times of siege. This had a doorway through which to winch weapons and supplies up from ground level, and nine windows for defensive fire. Immediately above it were the battlements, with overhanging timber hoardings on three sides and an overhanging stone machicolation on the fourth, ,which allowed defenders to drop various unpleasantness on any attackers reaching the walls.
Threave is well worth a visit. Just ring the bell loudly and the ferry will come and whisk you across.Related to:
- Castles and Palaces
- Historical Travel
Threave Gardens near Castle Douglas is always worth a visit whatever the season. Visitors enter the garden via the Visitor Centre, built around its attractively cone-roofed centrepiece. The Centre includes a large restaurant, display areas, gift shop and a garden centre.
Threave is part of an estate once owned by the Douglas family - Sir James Douglas (the "Black" Douglas) was a major supporter of King Robert the Bruce. His Threave Castle is nearby on an island on the River Dee. William Gordon a successful Liverpool businessman bought the lands of Threave in 1867. He built Threave House in the style of a Scottish baronial mansion as a summer home for his extensive family - complete with "pepper pot" turrets. Its gardens extend to 60 acres and command views west to the hills of Galloway.
In 1948 William's grandson, Major Alan Gordon passed the house and estate to the National Trust for Scotland. The Trust is well worth joining even for visitors to Scotland as it gives free entrance to its many historic properties. Its School of Practical Gardening has developed the spectacular gardens of Threaver over the years.
On entering the garden the Countryside Centre housed in the restored stable block of Threave House always catches my eye. The Centre has displays telling the story of the estate and its flora and wildlife. When Major Gordon gave the estate to the Trust he asked that they provide a place of sanctuary where wintering wildfowl could roost and feed without disturbance. The River Dee with its sheltered bends, long stretches of open water and series of small islands, provide perfect feeding and roosting for wildfowl with its mixture of farmland, marshland , open water stretches and relatively mild winters. Greylag geese, pinkfooted geese, white fronted geese plus the occasional barnacle goose , whooper swans, shoveller, pintail shelduck, wigeon, and teal enjoy the area. Nesting swallows were making themselves at home in the countryside centre itself when I was last there.
To the west of the Countryside Centre is the one acre walled garden built to provide Threave House with fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. The original glasshouse in the walled garden had coal fires built into its hollow walls to help extend the growing season. The current glasshouse, built in 1997, includes three temperature zones. The cool house is home to rhododendrons from Asia, while the tropical house contains orchids, bananas and bird-of-paradise plants.
The gardens are constantly changing to suit the needs of the school but they´re open all year giving interest from season to season. In spring 200 varieties of daffodil plus rhododendrons and cherry trees carpet the garden. A rose garden and a woodland garden provides colour in both spring and autumn. In summer you can admire succulent fruit and vegetables in the walled garden and glasshouses.
Elsewhere you can enjoy the rose garden, heathers, conifers and herbaceous perennials and you can even hear what´s going on in the tree canopies through the use of special microphones. A series of discrete gardens include the Secret Garden, accessible via a laburnum arch; a peat garden beside a waterfall and a pond; a rock garden; a rose garden and a woodland garden. The Discovery Garden inspires children with its mown grass paths leading through wild flower meadows.
No visit is complete without a cuppa and a cake, or something more substantial in Threave's cafe. Unfortunately we arrived a little late for lunch on our recent visit and there were only a handful of cakes left by late afternoon. Mind you, the scrummy millionaire's caramel shortbread went down a treat!
Dumfries and Galloway is an attractive region for exploring. Threave is one of its many little jewels and I thoroughly recommend it.
10 Hotels in Castle Douglas
Castle Douglas Hotels
King Street, Castle Douglas, DG7 1DB, gb
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Ernespie Road, Castle Douglas, DG7 3JG, United Kin
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35 King Street, Castle Douglas, DG7 1AA, gb
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63 Queen Street, Castle Douglas, DG7 1HS, United Kingdom
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7 Queen Street, Castle Douglas, DG7 1HX, United Kingdom
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Gatehouse of Fleet DG7 2HY, Castle Douglas, DG7 2HY, United Kingdom
Benmore, King Street, Castle Douglas, DG7 1LB, United Kingdom
Dalry, Castle Douglas, DG7 3UD, United Kingdom
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