A house in the country | The Family of Wemyss of that Ilk | A fine country residence
A house in the country
Elcho Castle is one of Scotland’s best-preserved 16th-century tower houses. It was built around the time of the Protestant Reformation in 1560 by a member of the family of Wemyss of that Ilk. The family could trace their lineage back to the 12th century. A descendant of the builder of Elcho was created Lord Wemyss of Elcho in 1628 and Earl of Wemyss in 1633.
There is little history attached to the castle. It simply served as a fine house in the country for the laird and his lady, their family and servants, who lived mainly at their chief seat, Wemyss Castle, on the coast of Fife. By the mid-18th century, Elcho was no longer being used as a noble residence at all, but repairs carried out by the 8th Earl in about 1830 secured its future, and in 1929 the 11th Earl entrusted it into state care.
The Family of Wemyss of that Ilk
Elcho Castle was built by the family of Wemyss of that Ilk (‘of that Place’). The family took its surname from the barony of Wemyss, on the Fife coast, characterised by its numerous caves; the name Wemyss derives from ‘weem’ (Gaelic uamh) meaning ‘cave’.
There must have been a predecessor to the present Elcho Castle, for ‘Elchoch’ is mentioned several times as a place of strength in Blind Harry’s 15th-century epic Wallace, about the great 13th-century Scottish patriot. However, the first record of the lands of Elcho comes in 1429, when Sir David Wemyss of that Ilk and Hugh Fraser of Lovat agreed a compact at ‘Elthok’. In 1501 Sir John Wemyss refers to ‘my place of Elchok’.
During this time, the adjoining lands of Wester Elcho contained the priory of Elcho, a convent of Cistercian nuns, founded in the early 13th century. By 1550, the prioress and eight nuns were in financial difficulties. Sir John Wemyss (died 1571) helped them out financially. In return, he was appointed heritable bailie.
Over the following years, various parcels of priory land were leased to John Wemyss, and by the Reformation in 1560 almost all the lands of Elcho Priory were held by Sir John. The present Elcho Castle was started around this time – a statement that the family was firmly established in the lands of Easter and Wester Elcho.
A fine country residence
Elcho is of particular interest as showing the transition from castle to mansion building in Scotland. The castle manages to combine an imposing exterior with an interior that provided the noble occupants and their guests with considerable comfort and privacy.
Apart from a new roof and new window glazing in the 1830s, the castle has changed little since it was built – a large tower house with smaller towers projecting from it, some round and others square. To its south was a courtyard enclosed by an outer wall. Gardens and grounds surrounded the complex.