For a relatively small country, Scotland is awash with castles, reflecting political intrigues, battles and ambitions from the 11th and 12th centuries onwards, not only against the invading English but between ruling families within Scotland itself, to the elegant 18th century stately homes such as Robert Adam’s masterpiece, Culzean Castle, designed to impress rather than protect. Apparently over 2000 castles are recorded, though many of these have entirely disappeared today.
One of the most interesting characters in the rich and complicated history of Scotland is Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany and Regent of Scotland from 1388 until his death in 1420. It all gets a bit complicated, but Robert Stewart was the great grandson of the famous Robert the Bruce and was one of the most ruthless Scottish noblemen of his time. He collected titles, wealth and land through marriage and any other means available and is reputed to have been responsible for the murder of his nephew the Duke of Rothesay and brother to the future King James I of Scotland. Conveniently for Robert Stewart, James was held prisoner in England, so Robert could continue his rule as Regent, as he had done for two previous kings who had become incapacitated (both members of his family of course). James I achieved his revenge when he did eventually return to Scotland, by which time Robert had died but his son Murdoch had succeeded as Regent – James had Murdoch executed for treason in 1425, titles and land were confiscated, and that was the end of the family’s wealth and power.
Robert Stewart’s architectural claim to fame is the construction of Doune Castle which, on a wet cloudy autumn day has all the atmosphere of those bloody times. The previous castle built in the 13th century was rebuilt by Stewart between 1388 and his death in 1420 as a fortress and as a royal castle and, later it became in more peaceful times a royal hunting lodge and dower house, but reverting to a military fortress during times of war and rebellion. By 1800 it was a ruin, albeit the walls are reasonably intact and still show the architecture and layout of the castle today.
We then follow Robert Stewart to Stirling Castle where he died in 1420, to be buried in Dunfermline Abbey. Today, Stirling is probably the most architecturally-interesting of the royal Scottish castles, with its Renaissance architecture and sculpture from after Stewart’s time, though some of the oldest parts of the castle do date back to his period as Regent. What is astonishing about Stirling is how refined it is, reflecting current European tastes of the time. The castle we see today was designed to impress guests as much as to provide fortification and the interiors have been restored to show how sophisticated it was in its day.
Then off to Edinburgh Castle, thought to be the most besieged castle in Britain, which today is a mixed bag of styles representing centuries of history, plotting, intrigue, treachery, battles and sieges from the simple Norman chapel of St Margaret to the impressive 20th century Scottish National War Memorial. It would inevitably have been Robert Stewart’s main residence as Regent. A few decades after the execution of Murdoch, the title had been reactivated, but trouble continued - the new Duke, Alexander Stewart, was imprisoned in the castle for plotting against King James III. Not a very successful imprisonment, he managed to get his guards drunk and escaped by lowering himself on a rope, eventually coming back with an army with the Duke of Gloucester (who became King Richard III) to lay siege to the castle with the Scottish King James III trapped inside….
The title has died out and been recreated several times, but, while we have a Duke of Rothesay (heir apparent to the Scottish throne), there is no Duke of Albany today, the candidate being either the Duke of York or the Earl of Wessex, neither of whom have Scottish titles.