The Evolution of Royal Dundonald Castle
by Suzy A Kelly
On 1st November 1773, two men of letters ride through the Ayrshire countryside on horseback, from Treesbank House in Riccarton to Auchans House at Dundonald. They are meeting Susanna Kennedy, the accomplished 95-year-old Countess of Eglinton, widow of the ninth Earl and mother to the tenth. Dr Samuel Johnson (Staffordshire-born writer, critic, and lexicographer) and his friend James Boswell (Edinburgh-born advocate, soon-to-be biographer and 9th Laird of Auchinleck) have just completed their tour of the Western Isles. Johnson is reluctant to make this journey. Yet they pause to appreciate nearby medieval ruins. When Boswell boasts that this grey, roofless pile was once the residence of the kings of Scotland, Johnson is said to have ‘roared and laughed till the ruins echoed’ at the idea of ‘King Bob’ living in such ‘homely accommodation’.
Dundonald Castle has seen much restoration since then and celebrated its 650th anniversary in 2021. Archaeological evidence suggests its lands were inhabited since the Bronze Age (c.1000 BCE–c.500 BCE) and possibly earlier. Deciduous woodland of elm, ash, and oak line the surrounding hilltops. Below the canopy, wood anemone and bluebells bloom throughout the spring, with the smell of wild garlic pervading the air. Classified as ancient, Dundonald Wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, offering protection to nationally scarce beetles and fungi.
The castle sits atop a volcanic plug of quartz-dolerite/whinstone, 67m above sea level. This affords visibility beyond Loudon Hill to the east, Ben Lomond to the north, the Ayrshire coastline, and seas around Arran to the west. It is a natural location for defensive architecture.
The first remains of a settlement on the castle hill plateau belong to the Iron Age (c.500 BCE–c.500 CE) fort of the Damnonii tribe. It comprised timber roundhouses 9m across with inner/outer walls protecting inhabitants from predators and hostile forces. Glass beads, shale Dundonald village is named after the second fort, a citadel, whose chieftain was named Donald. This ‘fort of Donald’ (Din Dyfnwal in P-Celtic Brythonic and Dùn Dòmnall in Q-Celtic) was a power centre inside the kingdom of Strathclyde, with Pictland and Dál Riata to the north and Northumbria to the east. The rectangular buildings were protected by stone and wooden ramparts 4m thick. These later vitrified, or melted, during a devastating fire. In Robert Chambers’ Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1858), the forts and medieval castles combine:
There stands a castle in the west,
They ca’ it Donald Din;
There’s no a nail in a’ its roof,
Nor yet a wooden pin.
Three medieval castles were then constructed on the site. The first was a motte-and-bailey built by Walter FitzAlan, the first hereditary High Steward of Scotland in c.1160. Inside the walled bailey with ramparts was a keep with feasting hall built on a huge earthen mound or motte. The second was a baronial fortress with twin-towered gatehouses built by Alexander, the fourth High Steward, in 1260. This had additional outbuildings and inner/outer courtyards. The east gatehouse well is visible today. Robert II remodelled this castle to celebrate his ascension to the Scottish throne in 1371.
Robert II (1316-1390) was the son of Walter, the sixth High Steward, and Marjorie, Robert the Bruce’s daughter, who died post-childbirth. Upon the death of his childless uncle King David II in February 1371, Robert was crowned by the Bishop of St Andrews at Scone in March. Although Robert rebelled against his powerful uncle, threats of disinheritance brought him back into the fold, enabling him to become the first Stewart monarch.
Royal Dundonald Castle was designed for the practicalities of an age marred by martial warfare. By Robert II’s time, Scotland had suffered through the first (1296-1328) and second (1332-1357) Wars of Independence first prompted by Edward I’s desire to subjugate his Scottish neighbours. The Bruce-Balliol conflict over the Scottish crown also restarted.
Dundonald’s defensive capabilities are evidenced in its location as well as arrow slits and possible barbican. Robert II’s modifications included a new three storey wing with accommodations befitting a king of Scotland. Entry is now through the ground-floor cellar that once stored casks of wine and ale. However, Robert II’s visitors entered via the first floor and were greeted in the laigh hall with its impressive barrel vaulted ceiling with excellent acoustics for feasting. The great upper hall and chapel sat on the level above this. Heraldry is carved into the stonework throughout the castle to promote the legitimacy of the Stewart rule, although the shields are no longer brightly painted.
Dundonald Castle has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. When Robert II died there in 1390, the castle continued as a noble residence until the late 16th century when the then Lairds of Dundonald retired to nearby Auchans House. According to Dundonald’s Session Book, once the castle was abandoned, 17th century ne’er-do-wells, like fornicators and those accused of witchcraft, were imprisoned in the dank oubliette until their trial. You may climb inside it today to visit the giant cave spiders.
Outside archaeological and historical records, Dundonald Castle has inspired works of fiction and folklore. Jules Verne’s The Underground City (1877), set in a mining village, prompted rumours of secret underground tunnels below the castle. Tales of 18th century Loans smugglers sneaking rum barrels through Dundonald Wood to avoid the excise men may have furthered this misconception. I explored such lore in my short story collection Dundonald Tales (2018). Please forgive my brass neck but having your first book launch in Robert II’s auld hoose, on the site of Donald’s original dun, is not to be forgotten or taken for granted.
Dundonald Castle is more than its whinstone walls and limestone mortar. Those who grew up in its shadow picnicked there at Easter, rolling our painted eggs down Dumpling Hill before getting trapped in bramble bushes. It is the site of Primary School trips where history became more than just dates on a page. Before its restoration (and the concept of Health & Safety), we scrambled up its walls unsupervised with adolescent friends. As adults, it became a contemplative space from which to view the amber sunsets over Goatfell and Lady Isle. It held such sway over our imaginations that some of us were married in it.
Dr Kirsteen Croll, General Manager, explained Dundonald Castle is a community owned enterprise, with The Friends of Dundonald Castle (the SCIO that owns it) working alongside Historic Environment Scotland to foster continuity of care for the coming generations. “We encourage everyone to take ownership of the castle,” she says. “It belongs to us all.”
Dundonald Castle exists to welcome everyone, be it individuals or groups of knitters, poets, walkers, scrabble players, or young archaeologists. Its dedicated staff and volunteers work tirelessly on educational outreach programmes for children and adults and organise live theatre, music, and film events. They ensure accessible trenches are provided during archaeology weeks and arrange early openings for neurodivergent visitors like myself. Wheelchair users like me can still attend castle tours through talks given by local guides in the fully accessible visitor centre.
For these reasons and more, Dundonald Castle remains the forever beating heart of its village.
Please see dundonaldcastle.org.uk for current admission prices, opening hours, and forthcoming events.