Castles and Country Houses in Ayrshire – Turnberry, Dunure, Greenan and Portencross Castles

Turnberry, Dunure, Greenan and Portencross Castles

Did you know that many of the castles to be found in Ayrshire have ancient monument status and not all are inhabited/used today and some are ruins but all are worth a visit.  In this final part of my blog on Ayrshire Castles and Country Houses I’m going North up the Ayrshire Coast from Turnberry Castle to Dunure Castle to Greenan Castle then onto Portencross Castle……Enjoy

Turnberry Castle

View of Turnberry Castle - AyrshireThe ruin of Turnberry Castle is situated just 17 miles South of the County Town of Ayr and occupies a rocky piece of land which now also houses the Turnberry lighthouse.  It can be accessed by crossing the Trump Turnberry Golf course from the coastal road (the A719) close to the fishing village of Maidens. There are a number of sections of ruined wall which indicate that it was once an impressive courtyard castle, and it is best appreciated at low tide, when it is possible to walk out onto the rocks to see the walls of the ruined castle.

It’s thought that the castle was probably built in the 13th century and was a property of the Earls of Carrick. It was at Turnberry Castle that King Robert Bruce 1 (the son of Marjorie, Countess of Carrick and Robert de Bruce of Annandale – later granted the title of Earl of Carrick) was born.  

In 1297, during the early Wars of Independence, the castle was burned by William “le Hardi” Douglas. After his coronation and swift exile in 1306, King Robert Bruce returned to Scotland in 1307, landing at his former home Turnberry, which had been repaired and reoccupied by the English. He did not succeed in taking it, but forced the garrison to abandon the castle. In 1310 it was slighted (the act of deliberately damaging a high-status building, especially a castle or fortification, which could include its contents and the surrounding area) on the instructions of Bruce in line with many other castles, but evidence shows that between 1326 and 1370 show that it was repaired.  Unfortunately the castle does not feature again in records, so we do not know its subsequent history.

The castle appeared to be defended by a substantial curtain wall and ditch across the peninsular, presumably with a gate entered via a wooden bridge across the ditch. There is no evidence of wall towers, but it seems probable that the land-facing wall was supplied with these. The northern end of the ditch was overlooked by the large keep. The rest of the peninsular was surrounded by curtain walls which followed the irregular outline of the rocks, here and there bridging awkward inlets instead. There was at least one sea gate, defended by a large portcullis, and it was through this gate that Bruce entered the castle in 1307. The sea gate leads to a badly ruined vault forming the basement of the keep, and was supplied with stairs leading up to an enclosed courtyard. An eroded cave in the rocks may have been a second sea gate. Today this leads to what may have been another covered vault, or else the castle dock. There is no evidence to suggest there was permanent access to this area from the castle, so if this cave existed in the 13th century, access to the dock would probably have been by removable ladders! The irregularly shaped outer ward is largely destroyed and is occupied by the Turnberry lighthouse which was built in 1873.

Although access is possible to Turnberry Castle today, it is not signposted. Take care as the site of the castle can be dangerous, particularly in the wet, and there are no safety fences. If you do go and visit the ruins of Turnberry Castle you can always grab a coffee at Turnberry Lighthouse……

Dunure Castle

Dunure Castle AyrshireThe now ruined Dunure Castle (just 5 miles South of Ayr on the beautiful coastal road – the A719) was once the main fortress of the powerful Kennedy family, the Earls of Cassilis. Today the Kennedys are much more closely associated with Culzean Castle (which I featured in my first blog in this series).  Culzean is less than four miles down the coast from Dunure Castle but for several centuries from the 1200s, Dunure Castle was by far the more important of the two.

The castle’s origins probably date back to at least the 1200s when a stone keep was built on an easily defensible rocky outcrop overlooking the Firth of Clyde. The Kennedy family prospered, with one member marrying a daughter of King Robert III while another went on to become Bishop of St Andrews and the founder of St Salvator’s College.  As they prospered, so their castle expanded. New ranges of buildings were added at a lower level slightly inland, and a curtain wall was erected to surround the whole castle. The new buildings included a kitchen range and a chapel, a great hall and a prison, plus living accommodation for the family and their retainers.

Dunure Castle featured several times in history during its active life including hosting Mary Queen of Scots for three days from 4 August 1563.  She was a guest of Gilbert Kennedy, the 4th Earl of Cassilis. Mary made a number of progressions around her realm during her short reign, and Dunure thus joins a long list of those who would be able to display a “Mary slept here” plaque.

By the mid 1700s, Dunure Castle was a ruin but by the mid 1800s its potential as a visitor attraction was being recognised, and this brought a halt to the systematic destruction of what was left. Luckily now after many years as a derelict and dangerous ruin, the castle has been consolidated and is now partly accessible to visitors – so make a plan to go and see it – it’s on a headland just to the South of the beautiful wee village of Dunure (where some of Outlander was filmed)……..

Greenan Castle 

Greenan Castle AyrshireGreenan Castle is a 16th-century ruined tower house, around 2.5 miles (4.0 km) south-west of Ayr It’s perched on the top of a sea cliff and was originally a promontory fort converted into a motte-and-bailey (a fortification with a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised area of ground called a motte, accompanied by a walled courtyard, or bailey, surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade) in the 12th century.  In the 15th century a tower house was built by the Lords of the Isles, which later passed into the hands of the Kennedy family.

The lands of Greenan were forfeited by John, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles in 1476 for treason against James III. In 1493 James IV granted the Lands of Greenan to William Douglas, son of Archibald, Earl of Angus.  The castle passed through various members of the clan before ending up in the hands of Thomas Kennedy, Earl of Cassillis in 1766. Around this time the residential use of the castle seems to have stopped and today the structure is a ruin.

The entrance lintel to the Castle has the inscription, JK 1603 FMD, for John Kennedy of Baltersan and his third wife, Florence MacDowell, who held the lands, Greenan Mill, and salmon fishing rights on the River Doon at that time.

Today the Castle looks amazing on the skyline as the sun is setting – and there is a lovely circular walk from the town of Ayr along the beachfront that takes you past the Castle and back along the old railway line – past the Brig’O’Doon and back into town……..if you get the chance take a wander by………and just enjoy what’s left of Greenan Castle.

Portencross Castle

Stunning sunset over Portencross Castle
Portencross at Sunset taken by George Crawford

This is the final Castle I’m going to include in my blog series Castles and Country Houses of Ayrshire.  This is all about Portencross Castle which is located further up the Ayrshire Coast near the town of West Kilbride.  It isn’t the biggest Castle but has a beautiful setting. An unassuming tower house, it stands alone on a low headland between a long sloping beach and a small natural harbour. 

Portencross has been inhabited for thousands of years. An archaeological dig found evidence of an Iron Age settlement (The Iron Age was from around 800BC to 100 BC) on Auldhill, just behind Portencross Castle.  The Castle was constructed in three phases starting around 1360. It was the home of a branch of the Boyds family of Kilmarnock who were given the lands around Portencross by King Robert I as a reward for their help at the Battle of Bannockburn.  Though it’s hard to imagine it Portencross was once the preferred venue for the signing of important royal charters and Robert II, grandson of Robert the Bruce, was a frequent visitor.

Abandoned in the 18th century, Portencross later took on an unexpected new life as a base for local fishermen, who mended their nets in its cellar right up to 1980. The dangerously dilapidated fortress underwent extensive building conservation works in 2009 thanks to the amazing fundraising efforts of the Friends of Portencross, who have now opened this tiny treasure to the public – so so why not book a tour and find out all about Portencross Castle………..

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Blog Series – and each article has given you ideas for the many amazing Castles and Country Houses there are in Ayrshire – just waiting for you to visit – enjoy…….

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