A unique construction
Orchardton Tower is unique: it is the only circular laird’s tower house built in late-medieval Scotland. Circular towers, called donjons, were integral to great curtain-walled strongholds of the 1200s such as Bothwell Castle
and Dirleton Castle
, where they were the focus of the lord’s private accommodation. But after this time they disappeared, to be replaced by exclusively square and rectangular tower houses.
We do not know why the owner of Orchardton built himself a circular tower house around the mid-1400s. A number of circular towers exist in Ireland, most of them in the south-west, in Clare and Tipperary. However, these are generally dated to the 1500s.
The tower that Cairns built
The builder is thought to be John Cairns, who acquired Orchardton in 1456. The date suggests that Cairns benefited from the redistribution of lands after James II’s overthrew the Douglases the previous year.
We know next to nothing about John Cairns, though his surname suggests a link with Alexander Cairns. Alexander was a cleric and chancellor (secretary) to Archibald, 4th Earl of Douglas (d.1424), and also provost of Lincluden Collegiate Church
The tower house that Cairns built may be unique in shape, but in most other respects it is typical of the fortified residences built for the landed gentry from the later 1400s onwards.
The main family accommodation was within the tower. This comprised a basement cellar, a hall (dining room) on the first floor and two upper floors housing private chambers.
The wall-walk at the top provided limited protection from lightly armed intruders. An unusual feature is the fact that the cellar is entered separately by another door and has no internal link with the hall on the floor above.
Tower and hall
In the 1400s the fortified homes of the nobility and landed gentry comprised two separate elements – a tower and hall.
The tower was reserved for the family, while the hall was where the owner performed the more public functions, as lord of the estate. Here the lord presided over the court, met with his tenants and hosted larger-scale banquets and other gatherings.
Orchardton’s great hall lies immediately to the south of the tower. It was on the upper floor of a two-storey building, but only its floor survives. The stone-vaulted basement below and other outbuildings, including part of the kitchen block, are more complete. The first-floor door into the tower would have been used by the lord to reach his great hall.
- The location – a little off the beaten track, in a pretty and peaceful corner of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.
- The tower’s unique shape – pleasingly circular.
- The tower’s interior – cosy square rooms, with the odd interesting feature, such as the fine arched aumbry (wall cupboard) in the lord’s hall.
Region – Dumfries and Galloway
6m south east of Castle Douglas on the A711.
Grid reference - NX 817 551.