Along the Firth of Forth sits the 15th century ‘ship that never sailed’. Blackness Castle castle often given the nickname thanks to the stone appearance, aswell as the location- sitting on the edge of a peer. The old fortress has a varied history- an admirals home, a clan headquarters, a royal fortress, a prison and a military storehouse.
The name Crichton comes from the village of the same name near Edinburgh, originally called Kreitton. It was founded by Thurstan de Crechtune- an old Scottish nobleman who is most famous for being apart of the laying of foundations at the Abbey of Holyrood House, in the early 12th century. It was his son, also called Thurstan, who became Thomas de Crichton and founded the clan.
Clan Crichton would become lords through peerage when Robert Crichton were awarded the Lord title by King James III at the end of the 15th century. The whole clan would now become known as the Lords of Sanquhar. This is not a reference to a town or village, it is simply a title of Dumfries- a little below the Earl. This particular generation of Crichtons then, who could effectively be known as the Lord generation, were also very notable as it produced another of the most famous Crichton’s, Robert de Crichton. He was the sheriff of Dumfries for more than a decade from 1461.
James Crichton is by the most famous of the clan, you may know his name, Admirable Crichton, but this is not the same character- the one in the old film Admirable Crichton was a fictional butler. James Crichton, the 4th Lord, is noted as somewhat of an ancient child prodigy. Looked back upon as a Polymath, he was gifted with great intelligence in arts and sciences and was known as a famous swordsman in France. This largely due to 18 months spent serving in the French military where he was regarded as an expert in fencing. James Crichton died in 1582, age 21.
As for their base, there have been various Clan Castles. The most notable was the castle of the same name, Crichton Castle, just outside the village of Crichton- which is still there today. This followed the departure from their initial castle, Sanquhar Castle, which was abandoned before being sold to Sir William Douglas in the 17th century. Blackness would be by far the most famous of the Crichton built castles.
A Key Location
Blackness castle was built by George Crichton, also an Admiral of Scotland in his time. The admiral George was highly regarded and enjoyed much success it seems, as shortly after becoming the Admiral of Scotland in 1441, he was also honoured as the Earl of Caithness. The Admiral would subsequently feel fitting of a castle to match his growing achievements and he had Blackness Castle constructed in 1444. However, the honourable George would only have the castle for around a decade though, as King James II took a liking to its strategic position and simply had it seized- or atleast he thought so.
Sitting along the firth of forth, its location was considered ideal for protecting the coast. George Crichton was actually compliant in giving up the castle, he had good relations with the crown but the same could not be said for his son, James Crichton (not the swordsman). James refused to give up the castle and even put his own father in the castle jail- the same jail that he himself had built. This was an attempt to stifle him, though was not a good idea.
King James II was nothing if not a lover of war. Embracing the challenge presented to him, he personally (along with the queen) made his way to the castle, with his army. As the King and Queen watched on, the castle was relentlessly bombarded before the Crichton son (and his own army) eventually surrendered. The castle was now in the hands of the House of Stuarts.
The castle underwent significant work in the early 16th century, to bring it up to scratch to Royal standards. James Hamilton, an acquaintance of the King and a much esteemed engineer and architect, was the man who would bring about the new and much improved fort. The royal engineer overseen the construction of the central and south towers, while gun ports, the caponier at the gates, aswell as notable improvements in the strength of the walls (in some cases the walls were trebled in thickness).
Following the upgrades the castle went on to serve as a prison for the rest of the 16th century. Close to Edinburgh, it was considered an ideal location of holding prisoners of high status. It was common in these days for jails to come under violent attack when holding these types of prisoners, so a prison within a castle made sense. These castles, like Blackness, would have had advanced defence structures, and a garrison of upto 20 soldiers.
As for the prison here, some ‘big names’ were once held here- the notorious David Beaton (the Chancellor of Scotland, killed at St Andrews Castle by the reformers), his long stay here only further serves to prove my previous point, as if he were jailed anywhere else at the time- he would likely have been freed quickly.
Pictured: Nemesis of the Protestants David Beaton (Image courtesy of electricscotland.com)
Under Lock & Key
The installation of a sophisticated defence at the castle wouldn’t make it a long-time military stronghold as previously thought. Oliver Cromwell would see the end of that. His men besieged the castle in the mid 17th century, from land and sea, and the defence soon collapsed under the wave of heavy artillery fire. It was subsequently destroyed and abandoned. In the late 17th centruy, the castle was again taking into possession of the crown, with a jail at the front of their plans for the estate- a good place to hold the Covenanters.
The Covenanters were a group of Scottish Presbyterians rebels. They had signed the National Covenant in 1638 which led to them being persecuted for more than a century all over the country. They were the last remaining reformers- children of the reformers would be a better way to describe them. Their main issue was with the King. Although the rebels generally supported the crown, they did not support the King being Head of the Kirk (head of the church)- believing this should be the place of Jesus Christ only. The crown fought back, and many of the covenanters were jailed here at Blackness castle.
One notable case was that of Reverends Henry Hall and Donald Cargill. Influential men in the movement, they had previously escaped capture and fled to France. The two returned to Scotland in 1680 and were making there way to a fellow rebels house in Queensferry- unaware that the willy old governor of Blackness, Robert Middleton, had got to the house first, after receiving a tip-off. Hall was first into the house and a tussle soon began with Middleton. Overpowered by the bulky governor, Henry Hall was taken to Blackness. Cargill was successful in escaping the house, but not before an assistant of the Blackness governor had clobbered him over the head with a rock. This led to his later capture- as he had fainted on his way back to Edinburgh. Both men were later executed.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the castle continued its usage as a special prison for the crown. Following the Union of the Crowns in 1707 the castle underwent a restoration project- to restore it as its previous military fort. It continued to be famous for hosting criminals though. Aswell as the protestants, French prisoners of war were also held here- more than 50,000 of them. They largely were plucked form the Napoleonic Wars, aswell as its predecessor- the massive Seven Years War.
Its worth noting the suffering that prisoners here would have faced, and many died of disease as a result of their stay here. The tides of the Firth of Forth would batter the castle a few times daily. The cellar in which prisoners were kept was particularly open to these tides sweeping through- leaving the prisoners up to there criminal necks in the dirty, cold sea water.
Like most castles there is a haunted aspect of Blackness. The main phantom here is an old knight, still in his armour. Believed to have been hidden in the prison tower, he became trapped and was forgotten about. Today he remains there. In the 90s, as a mother and her two children approached the top of the stairs on the prison tower- the knight appeared out of nowhere and waved his sword in the air. The young family quickly scampered back down the stairs, but to their horror the knight pursued them- disappearing as they reached the peer bridge.
Elsewhere, and in the early 21st century a group of ghost hunters had managed to gain permission to stay at the castle overnight- on Halloween. Loud and repeated banging noises began disrupting the group in the middle of the night. The scrapping noises led them to believe that furniture was being moved in one of the old bedroom chambers above them. A few went to investigate, though upon entering the room the noises came to a halt. As they returned to the rest of the group in the room below, the noises started up again. They group later abandoned their bizarre sleepover.
The castle last use came as a military dept for Scotland in the 1870s and 80s. Significant work was underwent at the castle once more, with a modern peer and barracks being established. the defence pitches were filled in with concrete and a roof installed in the courtyard. None of this can be seen on the grounds today however, as new owners Historic Scotland had these military renovations removed, and the castle restored to its previous state,.
In the 1920s the castle was completely abandoned by the military and was taking into state care by Historic Scotland. In would be reopened as the tourist attraction it is today in the years to come. Notably it was popularly used in the series Outlander, and this is not the first time it has been a film set. Hamlet, The Bruce and Doomsday were all filmed (partially) here.
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