Stewart sovereigns and Sinclair earls
In March 1460 James II acquired the estate of Ravenscraig for his queen, Mary of Gueldres. Work immediately got underway on her new castle.
Five months later the king lay dead, killed by one of his own guns at the siege of Roxburgh. Undaunted, his widow asked her master mason, Henry Merlioun (who also designed the queen’s Trinity Collegiate Church in Edinburgh), to continue with the construction.
The building work was sufficiently advanced by 1461 to allow the queen’s steward and other servants to stay there for 25 days. But it is not certain whether Mary ever lived here before her own death in December 1463.
In 1470 her son, James III, granted the castle to William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness. This grant was to help compensate him for resigning the earldom of Orkney and lordship of Shetland to the Crown.
The Sinclairs completed the building and held it thereafter. But occasionally royal Stewarts came to stay, including James V in 1540 and James VI in 1598.
A strong residence
Ravenscraig was built as a noble residence, but one with defence well to the fore. The central entrance passage was approached across a deep, rock-cut ditch by a bridge, probably with a withdrawable section nearest the gate. Immediately inside was a guardroom. The rest of the central block was taken up by stone-vaulted cellars.
The high west tower housed the four-floor apartment of the owner (first the queen, then the Sinclair earls). Access was at first-floor level, via a forestair rising up from a small, secure courtyard behind.
The east tower housed the well, and individual apartments for the owner’s senior officials in the upper rooms. In the courtyard behind were the kitchen, bakehouse and other domestic offices. Protection was offered by a wall skirting the edge of the steep-sided promontory.
No artillery fort
Thanks to its massive, 3.5m-thick frontal wall and proliferation of gun holes, Ravenscraig has generally been regarded more as an artillery fort than a castle. This view holds that it was built to help defend the Firth of Forth from an English invasion.
But a study of the many masons’ marks on the stonework shows that the only parts completed by Queen Mary’s death were the east tower and the foundations of the central range. And the only gun hole there, an inverted keyhole type, is clearly a later insertion.
It fell to the Sinclairs to complete the construction. It was only at some date in the mid-1500s that they built a gun platform over the central vaults – where Queen Mary would have built her great hall, had she lived a little longer.
Please note that you can only view the exterior at Ravenscraig.
- The landward approach – the formidable frontal wall has a fine array of gun holes and an impressive rock-cut ditch.
- The well – in one of the numerous dark and gloomy cellars.
- The view – across the Firth of Forth to the city of Edinburgh beyond.
- The fulmars – the castle’s main residents today, nesting on the masonry ledges.
Region – Kingdom of Fife
On the eastern outskirts of Kirkcaldy, off the A955 Dysart Road.
Grid reference - NT 290 924