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Gallows Tree guide to Doune Castle

12 October 2009

Hugh Morrison with the book outside Doune Castle


Outside the great gates of Doune Castle once stood a tree where wrongdoers were reputed to have been hanged.

Historic Scotland has been anonymously gifted a copy of a Victorian guidebook with covers made from carefully cut, polished and varnished pieces of oak.

Inscribed on the front are the words ‘Made from the Wood of the Old Gallows Tree at Doune Castle’.

The text explains that the tree had finally blown down in November 1878.

Such was its notorious appeal that parts were cut up and used for furniture – several pieces are still at the castle for visitors to see – while others became guidebook covers, adding a whiff of sulphur for the owners.

The book, simply entitled Guide to Doune Castle was the work of the custodian, James Dunbar formerly of the 79th Cameron Highlanders.

This particular copy is an 1894 sixth edition which, the author explains, was printed because previous ones had been so popular, with total sales of around 9,000. Indeed, he adds that letters of praise had been received from a variety of people including former Crimean War officers and even Queen Victoria.

Towards the end of the book a series of newspaper reviews of previous editions have been included from venerable titles including The Glasgow Herald, The Stirling Observer, The Perthshire Advertiser and The Galloway Gazette.

Hugh Morrison, Historic Scotland collections registrar, said: “This is an unusual, if macabre, souvenir guidebook to Doune Castle.  

“The Old Gallows Tree, from which the book covers and furniture at Doune Castle were made, clearly captured the Victorian imagination.  

“We know little about the history and folklore of this former tree, or how many books with wooden covers survive, so would be very interested to hear from anyone who has any information about this.”

“The book itself is fascinating because it captures details of restoration that had  recently taken place.

“It is very much a period piece containing all sorts of things you wouldn’t expect in a modern guide – like poems about the castle and newspaper reviews of the book.”

In some respects the style and language of the book are very different from what visitors would find today.

A description of the banqueting hall says it is ‘singularly well adapted for that style of rude and abundant hospitality, when every man who followed the banner of his lord found a seat at his table, and every soldier who owned a jack and a spear might have a place at his hearth’.

However, the author’s desire to fire the imagination is very much in keeping with a 21st-century approach.

Historic Scotland has recently introduced a new audio guide, narrated by former Python Terry Jones, which tries to give visitors a real sense of what medieval life at the castle would have been like.

From the book

  • The guide recalls the restoration of areas, including the west tower, carried out by the earl of Moray.

  • The completion of the work was celebrated in 1886 with a grand concert by the Doune Select Choir.

  • A poem of 1888 by Alexander McMillan includes the verses:

Doune Castle, full five centuries old,
Midst rural beauty stands,
With walls of massive masonry,
The work of skilful hands –

Walls which, if they could only pen
The history which they know,
Would lay before us many a scene
Of merriment and woe.

The newspaper reviews

  • Glasgow Herald: “The little book, which has been compiled for the use of visitors, will prove of considerable advantage in enabling them to recall the main features of a pile around which cluster many notable incidents in Scottish history.”

  • North British Daily Mail: “After Inchmahome and its child garden memories of Queen Mary, the old Castle of Doune is perhaps the central spot in this unexplored region which will most richly repay the antiquarian and ordinary visitor, and Mr. James Dunbar, the custodian, has just issued a useful little handbook for the guidance of those who may pay it a visit.”

  • Perthshire Advertiser: “In this little book of sixty pages Mr Dunbar … narrates in charming style all that is worthy of mention in connection with Doune Castle … His work has evidently been a labour of love, it is so thoroughly done. No visitor to Doune Castle can be fully equipped without a copy of this extremely interesting guide.”

  • Stirling Observer: “Mr. Dunbar, the attentive and intelligent custodian of Doune Castle has just published a little work which is worthy of commendation, not only as a useful guide to this interesting ruin, but as the best description and historical account of the Castle which has yet appeared … The descriptive part is quite original, and affords evidence in every page that Mr. Dunbar has entered heart and soul into his duties as keeper of the grand old ruin. There is not a corner of the building which he has not explored, and if his explanation of present appearances cannot always be agreed with, their ingenuity and probability must be frankly admitted.”

  • Galloway Gazette: “Much research has evidently been resorted to, and many historical facts are brought together having a bearing on the events connected with the occupants of the building in the past, while they have been arranged with unpretentious ingenuity, and the result is a handy little book, which will be read either by visitors or others with much interest.”

Notes for editors

  • Doune Castle is 10 miles north west of Stirling off the A84. Tickets are £4.20 for adults, £3.20 concessions and £2.10 for children. Telephone 01786 841742.

  • The castle was built in the 14th century for Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, who ruled all of Scotland while King James I was held captive in England. After Robert’s death the castle, and the regency of Scotland, passed to his son Duke Murdoch.

  • In 1424 the king returned. Not long afterwards Murdoch was arrested and executed along with his sons – James I believed the duke and his father had done too little to secure his release. Doune Castle was confiscated by the Crown and was used as a royal hunting lodge.

  • Terry Jones, has made a series of historical documentaries, he also has strong links to the castle as he co-directed comedy classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, much of which was filmed there.

  • Historic Scotland has 345 historic properties and sites in its care. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country, including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace, the Border Abbeys, and Skara Brae. For further details visit:

  • Historic Scotland’s Mission is to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.

  • Historic Scotland is delighted to be supporting the 2009 Year of Homecoming with a series of initiatives including family trails, spectacular events and the creation of a Homecoming Pass for heritage attractions in association with other heritage organisations.

For further information

Rebecca Hamilton
Marketing and Media Manager
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8685 / 07788 923871

Hugh Morrison