Continuing my series of extracts from my collection of 100 Places to Visit within an hour of Rigg House B&B, today I share one of our most favourite castle ruins in SW Scotland, Morton Castle. We love visiting Morton due its picturesque location which is almost always guaranteed to be a peaceful and deserted spot throughout the year. We love a good castle ruin and it is even better when you have one all to yourself for a few hours! It is perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Scotland, due in part to the distinct lack of signposts (not counting the one hand painted sign not far from the castle which you probably won’t even spot).
Morton Castle is located just outside of the town of Thornhill, approximately 25 minutes from Rigg House. Admission is free but there is no car park – although it is possible to fit a couple of cars at the entrance to the forestry road immediately opposite the footpath to the castle.
If you are fortunate enough to find this hidden spot then allow yourself at least an hour if you just want to check the castle out or a couple of hours if you want to do the nature walk which loops around the castle and down through the fields. Alternatively, if you fancy a bit of a longer walk, follow the footpath marked Morton Hill Settlement – it is a fair-moderate gentle walk so is a good ‘practice’ hill for our kids!
Like all castles, and especially Scottish ones, Morton Castle has many stories to tell. More so than any other castle I have visited, when you stand silently within the ruin it does send a chill through your bones, especially when you read up on some of the dastardly deeds which took place within those walls!
Morton Castle once formed part of a chain of castles which ran all along the strategically important Nith Valley, from the Solway Firth to the Clyde Valley. During the reign of Robert the Bruce the lands were held by Bruce’s son-in-law, Thomas Randolph (who later became the first Earl of Moray). By 1307 – although some historians believe it could have been as early as 1260 – a castle was constructed, along with an enclosed deer park.
When it was originally constructed, Morton Castle would have looked a little like another of our favourite castle ruins, Caelaverock Castle in Dumfries. The building would have comprised of a triangle of ranges around a central courtyard with an impressive gatehouse. Although Morton is in no way as well preserved as Caelaverock, two of the towers are still standing with the walls reaching an impressive 26ft high. A small portion of the archway to the gatehouse still remains which allows you to picture how the castle would have looked back in the day.
The Treaty of Berwick in 1375 secured the release of David II from the English but in return, the Scots were ordered to destroy 13 castles in Nithsdale, which included Morton. It is not clear how much, if any, of the original castle remains. The land eventually passed onto the Earls of March who rebuilt the existing castle in the early 15th century.
By 1618 the castle was owned by William Douglas of Drumlanrig (who later became the first Earl of Queensberry) and was occupied until 1714, although primarily used as a hunting lodge rather than a permanent dwelling. Some time in the 18th century a dam was constructed to flood the marshland, creating the artificial loch which now surrounds the castle on 3 sides. The castle was eventually abandoned and much of the stone was taken away until repair work to preserve the ruin was carried out in the 1890s.
Morton Castle now belongs to The Duke of Buccleuch as part of the Buccleuch Borders Estate – some 127,000 acres which stretch from Ettrick and Yarrow Valleys, running almost continuously into Dumfries and Galloway and down to the Scotland/England border. Medieval tiles found at Morton Castle are now on display at Dumfries Museum and a clock believed to be from Morton is now kept at Drumlanrig Castle.