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Blackness Castle
Medieval Castle in Scotland

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Blackness Castle is a 15th century fortress, near the village of Blackness, Scotland, on the south shore of the Firth of Forth. It was built, probably on the site of an earlier fort, by Sir George Crichton in the 1440s.

At this time, Blackness was the main port serving the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow, one of the main residences of the Scottish monarch. The castle, together with the Crichton lands, passed to King James II of Scotland in 1453, and the castle has been crown property ever since.

It served as a state prison, holding such prisoners as Cardinal Beaton, and the 6th Earl of Angus.

Strengthened by Sir James Hamilton of Finnart in the mid 16th century, the castle became one of the most advanced artillery fortifications of its time in Scotland.

A century later, these defences were not enough to prevent Blackness falling to Oliver Cromwell's army in 1650.

Some years after the siege, the castle was repaired, and again served as a prison and a minor garrison.

In 1693, the spur protecting the gate was heightened, and the Stern Tower shortened as a base for three heavy guns.

Barracks and officers' quarters were added in the 1870s, when the castle was used as an ammunition depot, until 1912.

The castle was briefly reused by the army during the First World War.

It is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, in the care of Historic Scotland.

Because of its site, jutting into the Forth, and its long, narrow shape, the castle has been characterised as "the ship that never sailed". The north and south towers are often named "stem" and "stern", with the central tower called the "main mast".





Blackness Castle
Lothian EH49 7NH

Telephone from the UK: 01506 834 807
Telephone from the US: 010 44 1506 834 807
Telephone from France: 00 44 1506 834 807
Telephone from other countries: +44 (0)1506 834 807

Google map showing the location of Blackness Castle


Google map showing Blackness Castle



The barony of Blackness was held in the mid 15th century by Sir George Crichton, Lord High Admiral of Scotland, Sheriff of Linlithgow, and later Earl of Caithness.

The Crichtons were one of the most politically powerful Scottish families at the time, and were close to James II; Sir George was governor of Stirling Castle when the King murdered the 8th Earl of Douglas there in 1452, and George's cousin, William, was Chancellor of Scotland from 1439 to 1453.

The castle was probably built in the mid 1440s, during a time of feuding between the Crichtons and the "Black" Douglases, which had resulted in the destruction of Sir George's tower at Barnton in Edinburgh in 1444.

Blackness Castle is first mentioned in 1449, and was already serving as a state prison as well as Sir George's residence. The original building comprised a curtain wall and the north tower, with the central tower isolated in the central courtyard. A hall range may have stood to the south, while the whole was defended by a rock-cut ditch and accessed by a gate in the east wall.

Sir George Crichton handed over the Crichton lands, including Blackness Castle, to James II in 1453. His dispossessed heir, James Crichton, captured the castle and held it briefly against the King, who besieged and recaptured it the same year.

Blackness became a royal fortress, as well as continuing to serve as a prison, and was put into the care of a keeper, who was often the Sheriff of Linlithgow. In the 17th century, this office became hereditary in the Livingstone family.

Between 1534 and 1540, a programme of fortification was carried out under the direction of the King's Master of Works, Sir James Hamilton of Finnart. He was the illegitimate son of the Earl of Arran, and an expert in artillery fortification. Having spent time in Europe studying the subject, he designed his own castle at Craignethan in Lanarkshire as a showcase for his ideas.

At Blackness, he introduced technological innovations including a complex entrance with a caponier, one of only two in Scotland (the other being at Craignethan). The caponier, a passage within the external wall of the entrance, allowed defenders to fire into the entrance area, at the backs of any attackers who had breached the gate. The curtain wall was thickened on the inside to the south and east, from 1.5m (5 feet) to over 5m (16 feet) in places, and gun ports were opened up. The south wall was also heightened to enclose the new south tower.[9]

Work continued after Finnart's execution for treason in 1540, under the superintendence of the parson of Dysart, but came to a halt in 1542 on the death of James V, although minor works continued into the 1560s. After the forced abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1567, the garrison, under Alexander Stewart, remained loyal to her, although Stewart later changed sides to join the Regent's party. In 1572, Lord Claud Hamilton recaptured the castle for Mary, harrying shipping in the Forth until the following year, despite being blockaded. The castle fell to the Regent's forces in 1573.

The castle's defences were not tested until 1650, when Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army besieged Blackness during his invasion of Scotland. By this time artillery technology had improved beyond anything that Finnart's defences could withstand, and the garrison soon surrendered under bombardment from land and sea. The damaged castle was abandoned.

The castle was not repaired until 1667, when it was again used as a prison, holding a number of Covenanters; religious rebels who opposed the King's interference in church affairs. The south tower was rearranged, with a bakehouse installed in the basement, and a new stair tower.

Further changes were made in 1693, when the spur was heightened with a wall-walk, and the north tower was reduced to provide three gun platforms overlooking the Forth.

After the Union of Scotland and England in 1707, the castle ceased to be a prison, instead being one of four Scottish fortresses to be maintained and garrisoned by the British Army, along with Stirling, Dumbarton and Edinburgh. The garrison at Blackness numbered around fifteen men in the late 18th century.

Between 1759 and 1815 Blackness was again pressed into service as a prison, this time to hold French prisoners of war during the series of conflicts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the Seven Years' War and the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1870, the role of Blackness changed again, and it became the central ammunition depot for Scotland. Numerous works were carried out, including the roofing-over of the entire courtyard, and the levelling of the ground to the east. The defensive ditch was filled in and barracks built to the south. The cast-iron pier was constructed in 1868, with a gate and a drawbridge, one of the last to be built in Britain.

The depot closed in 1912, although it was briefly reoccupied during the First World War, and the castle passed into the care of the Office of Works. A restoration programme was undertaken between 1926 and 1935, which entailed the removal of almost all the 19th century works, and the rebuilding of medieval-style features, which may not fully reflect the original features of the castle.






The castle stands on a rocky spit in the Firth of Forth, and is oriented north-south. The castle comprises a curtain wall, with integrated north and south towers, and a separate central tower in the courtyard. To the south-west, a defensive spur forms the main entrance, while a water gate to the north-west gives access to the 19th century pier. Outside the walls are 19th century soldier's barracks and officer's quarters. The castle is said in popular legend to have a ley tunnel linking it with the House of the Binns, which lies about 1.9 miles (3.1 km) to the south.

Originally of three storeys, the small North, or Stem, Tower was reduced to two storeys in 1693. The upper chamber had a fireplace, while the lower chamber was a pit prison. Accessed only from a trap-door above, this chamber has a drain opening to the sea, which washes in at high tide.

The South, or Stern, Tower dates largely from the mid 16th century, possibly replacing an earlier hall block. On the south wall, the 16th century stonework was added onto the battlements of the 15th century curtain wall, leaving the pattern of alternating low and high sections "fossilised" in the wall.

The tower is built over the thick-walled artillery positions in the basement, which defend the south and east approaches, and have similarities with the contemporary "blockhouse" at Dunbar Castle, further along the coast.

The gunloops in the basement are up to 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) across at the mouth.] The South Tower provided the main accommodation in the castle, with chambers in the north-west wing, and a large hall on the upper storey. This hall was subdivided during the castle's time as an ammunition depot, although it has since been reinstated. In the 17th century, the large south-facing window was in use as a gun emplacement.


The five-storey Central Tower, or "main mast", was built in the 15th century and heightened in the 16th. It measures around 11x9.8m (36x32 feet), and the walls are 2.3m (7.5 feet) thick at the base.[

Each storey contains a single large room with a fireplace, a garderobe or privy, and numerous chambers within the walls. The storeys were originally linked by a narrow spiral stair, until a larger stair tower was constructed at the east corner in the 17th century. The castle's more important prisoners were held here. Men such as Cardinal Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews and James V's ambassador to France, and Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, regent of Scotland in the 1520s, would have had a reasonably high standard of living, including their own servants, while in prison.

The basement is vaulted, and the roof is also built on a stone vault. The parapet was rebuilt in the 20th century, although the course of projecting corbels on which is stands is original. Outside the tower is a well.


The 16th century forework, or "spur", which provides additional protection for the main gate, is largely the work of Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, and contains numerous defensive features. Originally a rock ditch ran in front of the entrance, and was crossed by a drawbridge. The original 1693 yett, a latticed iron gate, is still in place. Once through the entrance, any attacker would have had to negotiate a dog-leg passage, exposing his back to fire from the caponier. Part of this passage was also exposed to attack from the parapet walk on the upper storey. In the late 17th century, the spur was heightened, and gun batteries added above.[

Since the castle's restoration, it has been open to the public as a historic monument. The buildings of the castle stand empty, although there is a small exhibition in the former barracks outside.





The castle has been used as a filming location in several productions, including Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet (1990),Bob Carruthers 1996 film The Bruce, a BBC/A&E television miniseries of Ivanhoe (1997), and the science-fiction film Doomsday (2008).

Film Location For:

Hamlet (1990)    





Blackness Castle looks across the River Forth to the naval dockyards of Rosyth, and along it to the Forth rail and road bridges.

The castle is first mentioned in 1449, although there had been a port at nearby Blackness serving the royal burgh of Linlithgow since the thirteenth century.

Today's visitor approaches through the little village of Blackness and along a narrow road leading to the small car park within the grounds set out to the south of the castle itself.

Blackness Castle forms one side of a grassy area surrounded by buildings. Most of these date from fairly recent times. The south range housing the Historic Scotland shop was built as a barracks in the 1870s, while the more ornate west block served as the officers quarters from the same era. The castle came into royal hands in 1453 when the surrounding lands were annexed by King James II. It spent much of the next century serving as a royal prison housing the more prestigious of the King's various enemies.

Much of what you see today dates back to a major reconstruction between 1537 and 1543 under King James V. This transformed Blackness Castle into one of strongest artillery fortifications of its age. This is most obvious in the labyrinthine entrance via the west spur of the south tower, which includes a caponier designed to deal severely with those unwanted visitors who succeeded in getting through the outer gate.

This passage within the thickness of the wall provides loopholes pointing back into the courtyard between the outer and inner entrances.

But the most formidable aspect of Blackness Castle's 16th century defences are to be found in the South Tower, where the south facing walls were strengthened to produce a wall 5.5 metres thick. These are pierced in several places at ground level to allow artillery to fire to the south and south east.

These defences served the castle well until Oliver Cromwell's Scottish campaign in 1650 (see our Historical Timeline). By now artillery was more powerful and had much longer range, and Cromwell had the advantage of attacking from both land and sea. The castle eventually surrendered, though not before being badly damaged. It was repaired and further altered in 1660.

Blackness Castle's later history echoed its earlier role as a prison when it helped house the large number of French taken prisoner during the wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1870 it became the army's central ammunition depot in Scotland. It was at this time that the buildings around the grassy courtyard to the south of the castle were built, together with the pier. Meanwhile, the whole of the open area of the castle was covered with an iron and concrete roof.

1912 the army left Blackness Castle, only to return during the first world war before departing for good in 1918. The castle was designated as an ancient monument, and between 1926 and 1935 a major programme of work undid many of the changes since 1870, returning the castle to a representation of something more medieval.

Having made your way through the entrance complex, you find yourself in a remarkable courtyard, formed largely of natural rock still extremely uneven after 600 years of constant wear. Equally remarkable is the shape of the castle itself, looking like a ship pointing out into the River Forth. As a result, the South Tower is also known as the Stern Tower; while the North Tower, at the more pointy end of the castle, is also known as the Stem Tower.

This shape can be well appreciated from the North Tower as you look along the wall walks extending either side of the castle and past the Central or Prison Tower. While you are in the North Tower, spare a though for those who annoyed the prison guards enough to be cast into the pit below it: accessed via a hatch in the floor of the lower level of the tower. Its only benefit was running water: twice a day at high tide.

The best views of the River Forth and the surrounding landscape can be had from the roof of the Central Tower. This is the highest point in the castle and an excellent place to catch the sun - or the wind - as you admire the illusion of the apparently conjoined structures of the rail and road bridges.





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