On the south coast of Scotland, where the swift flowing River Nith enters the salt marshes of the Solway Firth, stands the medieval stronghold of Caerlaverock Castle. During the Middle Ages, the castle guarded an important gateway into the kingdom of Scotland. The lands of Caerlaverock (meaning fort of the skylark or elm fort) were ruled by British lords of Nithsdale after the Romans abandoned their hold on southern Scotland around 400AD. By 950AD, the Nithsdale lords had built a fort on the site that would later become the old castle. In around 1220, Alexander II of Scotland granted the lands to an incomer from the eastern Borders, Sir John de Maccuswell (Maxwell).
The Maxwells built the first castle (old castle) around 1220 but as it proved too small and prone to flooding, they built a new castle in around 1270. The castle is uniquely triangular in shape with three tall towers built integrally at each point of the triangle. As a result of the close proximity to England, Caerlaverock Castle was frequently brought into conflict during the Middle Ages. The castle walls were rebuilt in the 1370s after the War of Independence and further alterations were made to make the fortress more suited for lordly living. The siege of 1640 however, during the Civil War between Charles I and his Socttish subjects, proved to be the castle’s last, and after the Royalist garrison surrendered to the Covenanters, Caerlaverock fell into disuse.
Surrounding the castle are two moats (outer moat is now dry) and following archaeological excavations in 1958, three phases of medieval bridge construction was discovered in the outer moat. The courtyard (above) was the heart of the castle and when first built, the curtain walls were lined with timber buildings. Over the course of time, the Maxwells replaced them with stone buildings and a 15th century stone stair tower was added giving access both to the gatehouse and the west range.
The plain front of the west range (above left & right) contrasts to the grand facade of the Nithsdale Lodging. Built after 1450, the two-storey block has three rooms on the ground floor, each entered separately from the courtyard. Each room had a decorated fireplace with a larger room on the upper floor believed to have been used as a great hall or banqueting room.
At either end of the south range was a round tower. The south west tower, known as Murdoch’s Tower, still stands to full height. The tower takes its name from Murdoch the Duke of Albany, a cousin of James I, who is recorded as being confined there in 1425 shortly before his execution.
In 1603, James VI’s accession to the English throne as James I brought peace to the Border country for the first time in centuries. The new found confidence led to Robert Maxwell overseeing more building works within Caerlaverock and he was created Earl of Nithsdale in 1620. As they were built by Robert, the ranges along the east and south sides of the courtyard are known as the Nithsdale Lodging. The lodging was completed in 1634 and as security was no longer a priority, Robert had large windows installed in the east curtain wall. The Renaissance mansion had a richly decorated symmetrical facade with stone carving. The pedimented windows are adorned with figures from classical myths and legends.
The east range consists of two roomed apartments on each of the three floors and all featured a fireplace and toilet closets. After the siege of 1640, the castle was partially dismantled by the Covenanters to render it incapable of further defence. The castle was left to fall into decay until 1946 when the 16th Duke placed Caerlaverock in state care.