Captain’s Log Day 6: Jamais Arrierre


Threave Castle

Get ready, we’re going to visit a few things in Castle Douglas.

Castle Douglas has a fabulous park with a loch with islands in the center. We read about it in “Foot Forward in Castle Douglas,” a guide book from Diane, so we checked it out. It was very pretty in the gloaming.



The clock tower, also in the evening:


Our B&B, Douglas House, has a precious art nouveau fireplace:



We also recommend Niko’s, a Greek restaurant, that is sort of a Castle Douglas institution. He has mezze nights with musicians and a pretty hefty prix fixe that happened to be slated for our night two, so we took the opportunity to eat there on night one. We had a good view of the street which was plenty entertainment watching people participating in a city wide window display scavenger hunt competition, looking for things that don’t belong in specially done up window displays along King Street. Many stores also entered in a competition for best Glasgow 2014 themed display. But our food was quite engaging when it came too:


IMG_3079 IMG_3078

We had planned to hire cycles for our outing today, but the weather was just so… so… so un-Scottish. If it were threatening rain, we’d be fine. We lived that in Santa Cruz. If it had been a pleasant forecast, we might have had to fight for the cycle hire. As it was, it was bloody hot.

Cycling, while going downhill with the wind in your face, can be a great cooler, not so much if you have to park it because of nesting osprey’s either. NESTING OSPREYS! Unfortunately, no photos of osprey chicks for you, but there are two reasons why we did not rent bicycles and go slugging and sweating and then zooming through Douglas territories in Dumfries and Galloway, which is pretty much bicycle heaven.

The Castle Douglas Cycles does hire though. One can do this.

We found a nice sandwich shop on King Street and made a picnic lunch up and headed to Threave Gardens.

We drove, and so we encountered a bit of Scottish humor from the person or persons who subtly defaced this sign into Threave. You might need to click on it to make it bigger.


There are two organizations that manage historic properties in Scotland: Historic Scotland, and the National Trust for Scotland. Both have year memberships and Historic has an “Explorer Pass” for 3 or 7 day adventurers to primarily Stirling and Edinburgh. The Historic one, because of Edinburgh Castle’s sky-high fee, is worth looking into if you do a trip and visit anything else. Both orgs offer passes for couples/families, and the National Trust pass is a saver for us. We picked it up at Threave, unfortunately too late to discover it was reciprocal with Trusts in England, Wales, Australia… etc. So we could have used it at Hadrian’s Wall, National Trust for England Properties. They did not explain this well at Housesteads, nor did I see it prior to travel. Oops. Know before you go!


Anyways, the Trust operates both garden, a baronial style house, and castle, as they were all the same property at one point. A merchant, William Gordon (Ha! Another Gordon!), bought the land after he went to Liverpool to make his money trading wares from all across the Atlantic. He was originally from Angus, and was endeared to Fyvie Castle, so when he had the money he wanted to live in a place like that. It has a round entrance and a pretty facade that is very reminiscent of Fyvie from much farther north. Fyvie had been owned by several different noble families, including the Gordons, in it’s time. William must’ve felt some inspiration or connection there.


He really designed the house at Threave tot suit his tastes, but it was given a thorough remodeling in the Victorian era by one of the wives, replacing dark woods with bright white paint and cheery colors, turning a vacation hunting lodge man-cave into a family home.


A family home that happens to have the folly of a lovely ruined castle just across the river. The boys can still go birding or for rabbits. What fun!


The last Gordon couple to live there were childless but devoted horticulturalists, so they donated/founded a gardening school there, with the house as dorms and classrooms, and the surrounding grounds as canvas and laboratory. All the furniture and valuables were stored (including a massive billiards table) and the students moved in. Lots of them. There were fifty or so students at it’s height, but now there are more like five who live on the premises, and the furniture moved back in. (The Trust and Tourism!)

Meanwhile, the folly of the ruined castle is pushed: Be sure to go and see it! Have you gone to see it yet? It’s fun! You can take a wee boat! The admission is the same ticket! (People do get confused.) But since there is so much to see, there were far more people meandering the gardens,


…checking out the fruit and veg in the walled garden…


…or the sculptures…


…or the house…


…or other parts known better to the red squirrels or all the birds:


But for children… the castle was on everyone’s stopping list for a Grand Day Oot. So Grand today it looked like the old Microsoft desktop wallpaper (which coincidentally I learned recently is land belonging to Domaine Carneros – it is now covered with vines and is delicious).


The castle is highly entertaining to get to. There’s a little info spot at a parking lot off the road, which leads to a lovely walk through the countryside on a corralled and fenced trail with gates every so often  for when one pasture bleeds over into the next on the other side. The path is for bird watchers as much as it is for castle access and a birder can follow it to blinds or benches.


The path then gets shady by the river where there is a small mound or slopping hillock, though you cannot see the river just yet.


You round the corner so see Threave Castle through the trees, framed just so


But there is the much decisive split in the road: left, to the stepping stones, or right, to the castle. Well, we know (and every shop lady and guide impressed upon us “It’s fun, You can take a wee boat!” ) you take a boat, so we turned right. If you keep going, you can look back and see the stepping stones, which seem to go to some other island in the River Dee, and not the island the castle is on. Entertaining, though. It leads to a bird blind, which could be better than the river crossing.


The path is short and affords some good views, though partial, of the castle. Then quick as that, we were at the dock. The boatman was offloading another couple, so we had excellent timing. He had a good, but old looking fiberglass motorboat, and was one of the few people wearing a hat. Or sunglasses. He’s also good at chatting with everyone and giving advice in the minute or two you’re on the boat. He could be a wake side confessional,  a Tourist Information, or a phone a friend for trivia. His demeanor would make the River Styx seem inviting. Just ring the bell for the ferryman.

Our ferryman ferried us over the Dee (and back later, fortunately, when we learned he has uncanny knack for the time of day by the angle of the sun) and we paid our dues (showed our Trust thingy) to the docent in her six by six shack of mementos, snacks, and plastic swords. The last seem to be the most popular, as when arrived, we discovered that the Douglas holdings were besieged (he has a wee plastic sword):


The enemy had even set up their own fortifications:


Naturally, we had to inspect castle and the defenses. The Castle was built by Archibald, the 3rd Earl of Douglas. The walls on the outside were a late and hastily built addition against cannon and were ordered by James, the 9th Earl, but there are still wide angled windows for multiple archers in the medieval style. The Douglases cleared multiple outbuildings from the island (which was it’s own classic castle), razing them for the building materials for these walls.

James was ahead of his time; this is one of the earliest anti-canon defense structures in Britain. When William, the 8th Earl, was killed and promptly defenestrated by King James IV of Scotland, II of England, at Stirling, James knew he was a marked man by against King James, who wanted to put an end to the Black Douglases. He’s the same one who brought in the “giant bombard,” which we like to think was Mons Meg (but probably wasn’t forged locally). Also, haven’t we learned anything about accepting invitations from kings to go chill with them at their castles yet?

Threave is an island, and would have had buildings, the castle community, around it, but by the time of the siege, it was an island fort with a cannon wall and earthen mounds to resist an infantry attack. Lovely signage sketches demonstrate this for some visual aids:


The tower was ringed with firing platforms for archery or firearms, and room for artillery on the roof. This isgn doesn’t dhow the artillery well, but you could safely put two pieces.


The rounded keyhole shaped windows in the defensive wall are also for cannon or aquebus (smaller size, angled like an archery window) at close, or far ranges. The Dee would also have been deeper then, and come up to the castle at it’s rear, with the little harbor a clearer point as shallows.


Aquebus window:


Adam with it, for size perspective:


Adam was not much taken by some of the damage to the walls. But where he is standing, it would have been water.


As the privy sluice demonstrates:


The interior is amazingly preserved. You enter in on the kitchen level with cellars and a pit prison below. Since this roof is damaged but present, the walls and floor are not as exposed to the elements. Entry, such a cool fire place:


Uh oh, someone in the pit!


You can then go up the stairs to the main hall:


The windows are very large, as our resident Douglas demonstrates:


And the view is superb:


Though, Most of this to the right would have been water, and there would have been less lilies with a stronger River Dee. Some of the pasture would have been marsh. This is why there was no need for rear defenses along the Dee side of the castle; no one could set up artillery there if they tried!

James Douglas even got England to help fund his defense, but, in going back to England for help, he missed the siege at Threave. His men were offered land and titles for their surrender and his wife, James ends up working various intrigues for Edward the 4th of England, joining his court, and marries Anne Holland, daughter of the 2nd Duke of Exeter and becomes a Knight of the Garter. Way to turn your life around.

Margaret, who was rumored to be there, survives and marries John Stuart, Earl of Atholl. She had no Douglas children, so James II didn’t have to worry there. One of her daughters marries Alexander Gordon, the 3rd Earl of Huntly though, so there’s a small world connection. But the Earldom of Douglas is no more.

Then it is one last look at the castle before heading back to town.



~ by glasslajora on July 31, 2014.

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