Bridging the moat at Threave Castle
5 October 2007
The mighty island fortress of Archibald the Grim was designed to keep most visitors out, but Historic Scotland has just completed a project at Threave Castle to make sure it’s as easy as possible to get in.
A new oak footbridge has been built which improves access across the moat and into the main tower. However, getting over 2.5 tonnes of wood, and other materials, across the river Dee was quite a challenge. After all, one reason for building a castle on an island was to stop enemies armed with siege equipment like battering rams from getting close enough to use them.
The charming little boat Historic Scotland uses to ferry visitors back and forth was not a suitable workhorse, but with modern technology (and the generous help of local farmer, David Edgar) the problem was solved.
When the river level was suitably low, a tractor and trailer were used to haul everything from one bank to the other. Not something Archibald, 3rd earl of Douglas, could have anticipated in the late 14th century.
Bob Hislop, Historic Scotland District Architect, said: ‘It was great for us to have modern machinery and the farmer’s help to get the oak planks and other materials over the river. It really brings home what an achievement it was for the medieval builders to move the vast quantities of wood and stone that were needed to build the castle we see today.’
The footbridge replaces one that dates from the 1970s but has been built to the latest specifications. One benefit is that it is longer and has less of a slope, making it easier for visitors with mobility problems. The design and materials also mean that it is likely to be many decades before it needs to be replaced.
In Archibald’s day there would have been a drawbridge across the moat which could be pulled up for safety at any time. Historic Scotland has reflected this in its own design.
Bob continues: ‘The bridge was very carefully designed so one section could act as a drawbridge and is the right size and shape to be pulled up into a recess in the masonry to secure the castle off from the rest of the island. It’s a reminder that in the Middle Ages the bridge was not just there to let people in, it was also for keeping unwelcome guests out. Thankfully these days the visitors are much friendlier!’
Notes for editors
Threave Castle is three miles west of Castle Douglas on the A75. Tickets are £4.00 for adults, £3.00 concessions and £2.00 for children.
While the drawbridge element is designed to be fully functional, there is no mechanism on the castle walls to pull it up.
The island is likely to have been used for a long time before Archibald had his tower built there. He earned his nickname “The Grim” due to his “terrible countenance in weirfair”. Archibald died at the castle on Christmas Eve, 1400.
Threave Castle was once a very up-to-date defensive site with artillery fortifications to protect it from the growing threat of gunpowder. Even when King James II prepared to lay siege to the castle with his most powerful weaponry in 1455, as part of a bid to smash the power of the Black Douglases, the garrison had reason to be confident. After two months they did surrender – but this may have been the result of bribery rather than fear.
Historic Scotland has 345 outstanding 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: www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/properties.
Historic Scotland’s Mission is: to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.