The Tales of Duchal Castle
A demonic monk, a rebellious noble, a giant cannon, a King’s mistress….If I’ve got your attention, grab a coffee or a dram and I’ll tell you the story of one of my favourite places:
Duchal Castle is a special place for me, for its hidden solitude, and the walk I take to get there. It is well hidden and almost entirely reclaimed by nature. On my first visit several years ago, I had an interesting experience. Its a lovely walk through rolling Inverclyde farmland on single track roads, but I felt puzzled as I watched the landscape. Other than a few lone trees, it was mostly pasture. Even though the map said I was nearly there, I saw no ruins on the horizon. But as I rounded a corner the road dipped down and I saw a small wooded area. It wasn’t until I was on top of them that I realised I had found the ruins. Overgrown, spread out, hidden. It is an unexpected but clearly strategic river location.
As I entered the wood, the most prominent remains were easily visible to my left and I carefully navigated through the nettles to have a look. I made my way further into the trees. It had the peculiar feeling of being a large forest, yet it was just a small area. I could see the pastures out beyond the far banks of the rivers, yet I felt isolated and far removed from the rest of the world. (Probably because there was only one easy way out - back where I had entered the wood.) The the right, rocky pillars jutted up from the ground, strangled by trees and vines and seemingly topped with and flanked by crumbling remnants of a wall or tower.
An intense feeling of being watched put me on edge, a rare state for me. I’m not one to spook easily. Especially since I had no knowledge of the castle at that time to put my imagination into hyperdrive. But the intensity of the feeling of not being alone was strong. I kept involuntarily looking back over my shoulder. Nothing was there. Progressing down the narrow path, I found more fragments of the castle wall. I could see the river rushing through a built-in hole in one of the walls. (Some sources say this is a draw well). Continuing further on, the path dipped down over a short ledge and revealed access to the confluence of the two rivers ahead.
Back to the left, I thought I might be able to shimmy around between the castle wall and the river. It was on a steep treed embankment but I employed a death grip on several of the smaller trees and was able to get around. I contemplated how odd it felt to be looking UP at the castle ruin held together by trees roots.
As my eyes adjusted I was startled to see a tawny owl staring back at me from inside the roots of the tree. This isolated spot was clearly prime roosting. His cozy slumber in the dark underbelly of the castle wall had been rudely disturbed and off he flew. I twisted my head around to watch him go, my mouth still hanging open in admiration. On subsequent visits, like clockwork, I could find him there. Several times I was able to quietly walk right up underneath him and leave quietly, without ever disturbing him. It was a really special thing to watch an animal sleeping in the wild, and manage not to disturb it. The owl wasn’t there the last time I visited, but I’ll always look for him.
As I made my way to the water’s edge, I was stunned to find myself in a ravine, sheer rock rising up on the opposite bank. I have read that Duchal translates to “between two rivers” which is a very apt description. Another source says it means “the black stream or wood” - also fitting. To the right the Blacketty Water comes in at a sharp angle to meet the larger Green Water, creating a long narrow peninsula.
From a defensive perspective, it is a fantastic place for a castle. But its low setting in the landscape did not provide the traditional high profile that many castles command. There was once a drawbridge, and several sources say there used to be a manmade feature that joined the water on either side, completing the inaccessibility of the peninsula.
I retraced my steps back to the road and wandered up the river further. Up on the hill sits a beautiful tree that always draws me in. I connect with trees in a special way, so its no surprise to find myself sitting under one for comfort and rest, or staring at one, wondering what secret knowledge it holds. I like to visit this particular tree and my goal is to photograph it in all seasons. (The photo here was on a stunning summer day.)
I also went through the gate before the bridge and ruin, to see if I could get a view from across the water. I found a few lovely mossy stones that seemed to have been a path at one time. And I was able to zoom in on the draw well feature from the opposite side. I headed back to the road, and back through the undulating pastures, under the watchful eyes of chickens, sheep and cows. I felt as if I had left a place where time was standing still. I turned around every now and then to watch the wood slink back into obscurity, holding tight its secrets, clutching precious remnants of former glory in a riparian embrace.
Information about Duchal is limited to a few sources. I’ve done my best to find the most consistent information, but as with many places, there isn’t one definitive source. (If any of my information seems amiss, do feel free to let me know.) Duchal seems to have been built in the 13th century by Ralph de l'Isle (anglicised to Lyle) and was in the family for about 400 years .
Robert Lyle, 2nd Lord Lyle was trusted by King James III. But somewhere along the way Lord Lyle was led astray. He fought against James III (who Wikipedia says wielded the sword of Robert the Bruce) at the Battle of Sauchieburn near Stirling. Lord Lyle continued his rebellious ways by joining the insurrection against King James IV in 1489. This was led by the Lord Lennox who held Crookston and Dumbarton Castles. Obviously this couldn’t be tolerated and the king took action, best summed up in this account by Reverend James Murray:
“It is not easy to estimate, or to overestimate, the difficulty of moving an army under such conditions as those with which King James had to deal. The roads between Crookston and Duchal must have been little better than “green roads,” ie ill made tracks. The labour and time necessary to drag heavy cannon, as well as all the other impediments of an army, must have been enormous. In the Castle of Edinburgh there is a huge piece of ancient ordnance, known as Mons Meg. It is interesting to know that this famous old cannon was brought to the siege of Duchal. Great consternation must have taken hold of the garrison when they saw the royal army actually enter the Greenwater valley, and encamp on the slopes around Duchal. I do not know whether Mons Meg in actual deed ever belched forth her fiery summons against the walls of the old castle. I rather think that the Lyles must very speedily have recognised that discretion was the better part of valour, and, with only a brief show of resistance, have surrendered. Pardon was granted to the rebels, apparently on very easy terms,. The wise policy of James was, not to attempt to crush the more powerful barons, but rather to propitiate them, and thus bind them the more securely to himself. At any rate, before very long, we find both Lennox and Lyle restored to favour.”
So next time you’re at Edinburgh Castle looking down the impressive barrel of Mons Meg, spare a thought for the Lyle family, who it would seem didn’t care to face her wrath. There’s also several mentions of another formidable cannon used during this encounter which was christened “Duchal” - but what happened to this cannon is unknown. Its also unknown whether Mons Meg or Duchal were fired at the castle at all. It does appear clear that it was not a major event. The naughty Lyles surrendered, and lost their lands briefly before the King let them have Duchal back. He would continue to visit the castle, where his mistress Marion Boyd (daughter of Archibald Boyd of Bonshaw) resided. She was apparently the “most important” and “first official” mistress of King James IV. She gave birth at Duchal Castle to his son Alexander Stewart Archbishop of St Andrews. Alexander was the eldest of James IV’s illegitimate children, and he had plenty of his own scandal surrounding his rise through church ranks. Father and son would later fall together at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.
1n 1578, just a few years after the Lyles sold Duchal to the Porterfields,, a feud between the Glencairns (of Finlayston) and Porterfields came to a head. James Cunningham (Master of Glencairn at the time and eventually Earl) cunningly got himself invited into the castle and then ransacked it, setting it on fire and putting himself in charge. Porterfield went to the King at Holyrood (in Edinburgh) and said, “Make him give me my castle back!” The king’s council complied and decreed, basically, “Come on guys, give him his castle back.” So Cunningham vacated Duchal.
It would appear the Glencairns and Porterfields were a medieval version of frenemies, and at times its hard to keep up with their status. Sometimes they were at odds, such as when Cunningham took the castle, or when the Glencairns were somehow involved with a “party of wild Highlanders from Argyleshire” who robbed and harassed tenants in the area. Reverend Murray said of their relationship, “In the dark days that were to follow, though Glencairn and Porterfield were not always on the same side, it is pleasant to find that their friendly relations were never interrupted. The Porterfields were stay at home people. But the Glencairns were ever in the thick of whatever trouble was going on. More than once, when the Earl was forced to go into exile, he committed his family to the care of Duchal, who faithfully fulfilled the trust.”
The Porterfields were Covenanters and it’s said that the castle became a place of shelter for persecuted Covenanters (a Scottish Presbyterian movement.) One account says that after spending years in prison for his covenanter sympathies, Alexander Porterfield was released and died at Duchal.
Sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century, Duchal was deemed too cold and damp by the lady of the castle. So it was dismantled to build Duchal House about a mile away. There seem to be conflicting dates as to when the castle was dismantled- many sources say 1710. But I’m not so sure after reading the astute observation (from Stravaiging Around Scotland) that the 1654 map notes both “Ducchal” AND “Ald Castle” - its something to scratch your chin about anyway. Regardless of this timeline, it drastically sped of the process of ruination for the once great castle. And one last juicy tidbit - apparently when the castle was dismantled, human bones were found in an upper room.
I like this descriptive account of a visit to the ruins in 1872: “Now consisting of only crumbling ivied walls and grassy mounds, from its extent and situation it has evidently been at one time a very strong place, and well nigh impregnable, fortified both by nature and art. The natural strength of the place, from the rocky nature of the site, and the two mountain streams surrounding it on three sides, had been increased by a careful adaptation of the walls to the necessities of defence: and doubtless, on the west or entrance side, there had been fosse, and wall, and drawbridge; though all indications of these are now obliterated.”