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Lochleven Castle

The setting for the most traumatic year in the life of Mary Queen of Scots

Lochleven Castle

Royal visitors – and royal prisoners

The island fastness of Lochleven is associated with many colourful events and has been visited by countless distinguished personalities during its history.  Some of those taking the boat across Loch Leven came of their own accord, including King Robert Bruce (in 1313 and 1323). Others were held prisoner within the castle’s walls – such as Robert, the High Stewart, in 1369, two years before his coronation as Robert II, the first of the royal house of Stewart.

But the castle will be forever associated in the memory with another Stewart sovereign, Mary Queen of Scots. She first visited in 1561 as a guest of the owner, Sir William Douglas. But her last stay, in 1567–8, was as his prisoner. It was at Lochleven that she was compelled to abdicate her throne in favour of her infant son, James VI. The castle walls held her for less than a year. In May 1568 she escaped across the loch and before that month was out she was in exile in England. She never saw her native land again.

Island stronghold

In medieval times, the island of Lochleven was much smaller than it is today – drainage works in 1836 saw to that. When Queen Mary was a prisoner, the walled castle enclosure with its little garden to the north were all that appeared above the water.

The stout stone defensive wall may have been built around 1300 during the Wars of Independence with England. It may be that it was built by the English themselves, to serve as a strong safe place from which to control the surrounding countryside. A later tale tells of Sir William Wallace himself capturing the fastness and killing all 30 ‘Inglismen’ he found there. In 1333, after the defeat at Halidon Hill, Lochleven was one of only five castles holding out against the English.

Tower house – and prison

Dominating the castle ruins is the lofty four-storey tower house. Its 14th-century date makes it one of the oldest in Scotland. The original entrance (subsequently closed up) is 5m above ground level, and gave access directly into the lord’s hall on the third floor. This is most unusual – perhaps the residents feared the additional hazard of flooding.

The interior is arranged in the usual manner, with kitchen and service accommodation in the bottom two floors and living space above. The floor above the hall served as Mary’s prison; Sir William Douglas, her gaoler, had a window converted into a tiny oratory specially for her. The top floor housed her doctor (Mary miscarried of twins while held here), and it was there that Mary disguised herself prior to her escape.

Events at Lochleven Castle

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26 March 2015

The Honours of Scotland

Edinburgh Castle

Event information