An ‘Ancient Housse Ofte Perrilld’
By Suzy A Kelly
The maid-servant’s foot taps the pedal in time to her heartbeat. Atop the distaff lies golden flax, tied with her favourite ribbon. She has turned this wheel, spinning flax into the finest linen thread, for most of her life. Her fingers tease the yellow fibres towards the spinning wheel in a gentle motion. What happens next is unknown. Perhaps a tired hand knocks over a lit candle. Regardless of how, McKay’s History of Kilmarnock (1854) says the flax ignites. Ferocious tongues of red flame tear through the lower part of Dean Castle, destroying the roof along with furniture, tapestries, and a collection of rare books. William Boyd, the tenth and final Earl of Kilmarnock, is travelling home from Europe when he reads in the newspaper that fire has damaged his family seat beyond repair.
The Boyd family suffered many such trials in their 400 year stewardship of Dean Castle. Reverend Pont, creator of the first map of Scotland, remarks on William’s ancestors in his famous Cunninghame Topographized (c.1604-8). Pont describes the epitaph of Lord Robert, who died in 1589, as having restored a castle that was ‘ofte perrilld’ over the centuries. However, the history of the Boyd family in Ayrshire predates Dean Castle’s construction when the first Lord Robert fought off Norse invaders with the Scottish army at the Battle of Largs in 1263.
The Boyds were a distinguished martial family who became embedded in the highest levels of Scottish politics. Lord Robert served as a commander under Robert the Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. In return, the Bruce seized land from his rival John Balliol to gift Robert the Lordship and Barony of Kilmarnock in 1316.
Built in a dean, or steep wooded valley, Dean Castle lies a mile to the north of modern-day Kilmarnock. It is surrounded by mature forest and is where the Borland and Craufordland streams converge as the Kilmarnock Water.
Lord Thomas Boyd completed construction of the original Keep in 1350. This was after the Wars of Independence and a year after the Black Death reached Scotland to kill a third of the nation’s population. Dean Castle was weel-kent as ‘Kilmernock Castell’ back then and remained so until 1700.
The Keep is a defensive structure with walls ten feet thick. They soar to around sixty-three feet high and finish in battlements with stone parapets. The internal layout is over four floors with a cellar at ground level housing the kitchen. The main entrance was on the first floor in those days. This is where you will find the banqueting hall with a minstrel’s gallery and a guardroom. The Solar, or private chambers, are on the second level along with a small private chapel. Access to the dungeon is through the guardroom. It measures a claustrophobic four feet in width by fifteen feet deep. Guards lowered prisoners down by ladder via a scuttle hole. John, an engineer readying Dean Castle for its impending re-opening told me, ‘That’s if you were lucky. They might just shove you in.’
Once confined, prisoners existed in darkness. A vent near the top only inches wide allowed them to breathe. A nineteenth century caretaker, a Mr Woodburn, fashioned a hole in the ruined dungeon wall to store his milk in it.
Lord Robert Boyd constructed the palace, or lower castle, in 1460 as the family expanded their power and influence through politics. The layout is similar to the Keep. Windows were an important addition, demonstrating the societal change happening in Scotland; from a preoccupation with warfare to conspicuous displays of wealth. James II conducted Lord Robert, Son of Thomas, into the peerage in the 1450s. Along with his brother Alexander, Robert assumed protection of young James III in 1466. A subsequent Lord Robert delivered the Duke of Norfolk’s diamond to the exiled Mary Queen of Scots in 1569 and pleaded with Elizabeth I on her behalf a year later.
It’s fair to say Dean Castle has witnessed some of the most powerful moments in our nation’s history. However, it belongs to more than the distant past. John tells me Edgar Allan Poe is said to have based his Fall of the House of Usher on the ruined palace. If true, this cheers my wee gothic heart. The castle has other links to literature too as they filmed Season 2 of Outlander, the streaming series based on Diana Gabaldon’s novels, here. When Claire and Jamie visit Jamie’s uncle to prevent Culloden, their retinue readies for Lallybroch from inside Dean Castle’s historic courtyard with its 14th century Keep and 15th century palace with protective barmkin wall.
Eleven years after the fire that forced him and his wife Anne to relocate to Kilmarnock House, the Crown convicts Lord William Boyd of High Treason for fighting at Culloden, alongside the Lords Lovat and Balmerino. On 18th August 1746, William stands on the scaffold at Tower Hill in mourning dress, his hair unpowdered and wrapped in a cap. He bows to the crowd before paying the executioner to ensure a swift ending. Three strokes of the axe later, the Earl of Kilmarnock is dead. The Crown then seizes William’s property, lands, and title, devastating the surviving Boyds. As William’s son James and his brother William fought for the Hanoverians in 1745, the Crown eventually restores everything to James. However, he is still forced to sell Dean Castle to repay his Jacobite supporting father’s debts. The buyer was William Cunningham, 13th Earl of Glencairn. His son James, 14th Earl of Glencairn, was a friend and patron of the Bard o’ Ayrshire. The poet later obtained Lord Balmerino’s dirk and carved the initials R.B. into the metal of the sheath. You can see it on display at the nearby Dick Institute along with William’s portrait, thought to be painted by Allan Ramsay.
The de Walden family later inherited Dean Castle through marriage. With the palace uninhabitable, the new stewards created a family home in the shadow of the ancient Keep. With the addition of the Dower House, the castle became the three historic buildings in one that we know today. Howard de Walden added a gatehouse with twin sandstone towers as part of his renovations in the 1930s-40s. He also added a wooden fighting gallery above the barmkin wall, which is where our Outlander heroes enter the fictional Lord Lovat’s home of Beaufort Castle.
Howard de Walden gifted Dean Castle and 40 acres of land to the people of East Ayrshire in 1975. His extensive collection of arms and armour, early musical instruments, artworks, and 15th century tapestries are on view here. The council purchased a further 160 acres of land in the 1980s to form the current country park.
Dean Castle is ours to enjoy once again from 1st April 2023 when it reopens for the first time since 2019 after a mammoth £5.2 million restoration project.
Entry is free. Parking (including accessible parking) is available on-site. Disabled access is available to the grounds, courtyard, café, and now to the lower floor of the Keep. See East Ayrshire Leisure website for opening hours.