Suzy A. Kelly
Wha goes there, lurking in the mirk? Ignore the shiver along yer skin. I mean nae harm. See, I’m the factor o this auld stone skeleton kent as Seagate Castle. She was a bonnier sicht in ma time. There’s little left, save for roofless rooms and windaes bricked up by the 12th Earl of Eglinton. Stop keeking at the rusted iron gate and come awa in. Let the hinges groan and, by candlelicht, I’ll show ye roon the lonely ruins.
That’s it, step closer. Why is she cried Seagate when the watter is ower yonder? There was a harbour near here at Seagate Foot. It was so close tae the castle and toon that the lairds could keep sharp een on whatever ships docked there and even sharper yins on the taxes due fae them.
Vessels moor in the royal burgh o Irvine in yer ain time. In ma day, the same harbour lay in whit was kent as Fullarton, a separate village. The harbour shifted there in 1570, lang before ma birth, when the original harbour at Seagate Foot silted up. Wind and tide pushed the dunes until a new harbour needed building further up the River Irvine estuary. Learned fowk say Seagate was only a mile fae the sea back then.
Oh, and ‘gate’ isnae only whit ye inched through when ye left the cobbles. Naw, it comes fae Latin. The via marina, or so the elder monks fae the Carmelite friary will tell ye. Can ye no feel their whispers in yer lug? The auld spelling was gait, meaning street. So Sea-gait, the street tae the sea, became Seagate ower time. By 1606, Seagate Foot harbour was in a michty decayed state. So says Timothy Pont wha kent Irvine as Irwynne when he drew the first map of Scotland. I say this ‘cause ma ain trade was affected by the whims o the tide (and the excise men). Yet I understand it’s the castle yer here for. Stay by ma candle then. The wick grows shorter and ma sicht is failing.
Whaur we stand noo, behind the gate, is the pend o Seagate Castle. I paid it nae mind in life, but yon grand entrance above oor heids is whit men o letters cried a ‘gothic arch’. The rope mouldings and shields are choked wi moss but there’s the Eglinton-Montgomerie coat o airms, and the Drummond yin for his wife alongside it. Their initials, H. M. and A.D., are carved there. ‘Tis a sad tale of a marriage dissolved due to consanguinity.
The monks will cease following ye as we tread deeper intae the passage. It’s wise tae no peer too far intae the darkness for nothing couthy hides there. Ignore the sleekit footsteps in this room and dinnae let the creeping shadows quicken yer hairt.
Through the next gate. The ground flair is rib vaulted, aw 28 feet. Tae yer left, a guard room. See the shothole below the thin windae? Opposite, a vault leads tae the east wing, wi a further twa muckle vaults behind them. Bricht sun floods in fae the courtyard and jigs along the arches during daytime… for the living anyway. Yon’s the north-east turnpike stair. Ten feet across and a dizzying feat tae reach the tap step.
Ach, the ill-tempered sprites are nearing. They’re jealous o yer breath and no benign like the monks. Keep close until we cross the kitchen threshold. They will retreat. We’ll bide upon the upturned barrels before the fireplace while the blood thunders in yer veins. Dae ye drink? Guid. Ma still is nearby. Press me not upon that illicit venture for I’m no ready tae speir ma part in it. Let me pour ye a glass and toast yer health instead.
When yer ready, crawl intae yon gap behind the fireplace. The best-kent thieves stowed their goods in here. Gold and siller, jewels and trinkets, twinkling in the stanework. The Watch kent whaur to find the stolen property but an arrangement was made. Come tae the bars o Seagate Castle and ye micht lose yer life but ye micht jist as easily win back yer mither’s waddin ring… for a price.
Alas, we’ve no long. Keep yer gaze forward. Ignore the tightness in yer thrapple. Follow ma dim candle as we weave through the blithe courtyard gardens. Careful. Watch oot for the dung pit.
The cellar is in the north-east tower. This square tower is the eldest bit o Seagate and aw that remains o the second castle. The first Seagate was the widden fortalice o Hirun built on a motte, or muckle hill, sometime before 1184.
Och, but it’s only the night breeze messing yer hair. Nothing mair sinister. Nae need tae cry oot like a lost bairn yet.
See how the battlements stretch up tae the stars? This was a canny spot for guarding the auld toon. In fact, the cobbled street ye unwisely left is the maist ancient yin in Irvine. It draws aw sorts, living and deid, tae Seagate.
Ma candle is almost gone. Come. See how the rest o Seagate resembles a palace mair than a fort? This is Seagate Castle proper. Hugh, 3rd Earl of Eglinton upgraded it from an earlier castle in 1565. Fowk argue whether Mary, the ill-fated Queen o Scots, stayed at Seagate wi her attendants, the fower Maries, when she visited Irvine in the summer o 1563. Ithers say she bided at Eglington’s howff in Kilwinning and ate a grand banquet there. They also rammy over whether Wullie Wallace stuck his neb ower the parapet during negotiations for the treaty o Irvine in 1297. But I hae little book learning and cannae speir on either.
We’ll return tae the kitchen for a final dram. Sit. Settle yer nerves. Wha was I? A wicked man wha ushered his ain mither intae an early grave. They wrote aboot us in The Muniments of the Royal Burgh of Irvine in 1887. We smugglers used the ruins o Seagate Castle for oor ain ends, infecting the place wi an ‘evil repute’. Ma actions along the coast, as I sailed the Dove between Man and Irvine, are what stained ma spirit. That’s why God refuses tae allow me hame.
So turn wan and tremble. Ma tale is complete. We cannae ignore the ‘eldritch skriech’ at the door. Auld lang syne, they sing. In life, they stopped by Seagate ilka year to mourn the bard efter the Marymass. Death has no power tae end sic a tradition and so they’re here tae drag me back tae hellfire. They’ll mak sure I’m ‘niver brocht tae mind’ again. I’m no ready, I tell ye!
Dawn’s rays are breaching the ruins. Wi sorrowful hairt, I fade intae the mist. Farewell. Thanks for hearing a doomed man’s confession. Noo flee oot the gate before they catch ye… or else, like Tam, ye micht niver ‘win the key-stone o the brig’.
Seagate Castle is a Scheduled Monument and not open to the public for safety reasons. You can visit the outer walls and keek through the gate of the pend all year round. Seagate Street is cobbled and may be unsuitable for some types of mobility.