Frontier post | Unique castle | Tale of two sieges
Caerlaverock Castle is one of Scotland’s great medieval fortresses. For 400 years it stood on the very edge of the kingdom. To the south, across the Solway Firth, lay England. For most of its history, Caerlaverock played an important role in the defence of the realm.
Long before the castle was built, the Romans built a fort on the summit of Ward Law Hill, overlooking the castle from the north. By about 950, the British lords of ‘Karlauerock’ (the name may mean ’fort of the skylark’) had built a fort on the site. Around 1220, Alexander II of Scotland, needing trusted men to secure the Scottish West March, granted the estate to his chamberlain, Sir John de Maccuswell (Maxwell). Sir John built the ‘old’ castle. Within 50 years, his nephew, Sir Herbert, had moved to a new castle just 200m away to the north. There the Maxwell lords remained for the next 400 years.
Caerlaverock’s triangular shape is unique among British castles. Why it was built this way is not known. A walk around the castle gives a sense of its strength, its economy of form and its pleasing geometry. Three lengths of defensive curtain wall are linked at their three angles by high corner towers. The north tower, facing into Scotland, is a mightily impressive twin-towered gatehouse, where the Maxwells had their private suite of rooms.
Down the years the Maxwells repaired and upgraded their ancestral castle. The formidably impressive slotted defences (machicolations) at the tops of the three towers date from the late 14th/early 15th century, after the ravages of the Wars of Independence with England had taken their toll. Inside the castle walls stands the remarkable Nithsdale Lodging, built in the 1630s by Robert Maxwell, 1st Earl of Nithsdale. Its attractive façade, embellished with ornate Renaissance stone carvings, contrasts wonderfully with the severity of the ancient castle walls.
Tale of two sieges
Caerlaverock was besieged and captured on numerous occasions. However, two sieges stand out.
The first, in July 1300, involved Edward I of England in person. He brought the full might of his army to bear on the stronghold, and the small garrison surrendered within two days. The contemporary account of that siege is one of the most fascinating recorded for any castle in the British Isles.
The second siege, in 1640, was the castle’s last. It was brought about by Lord Maxwell’s adherence to Charles I in that monarch’s struggles with the Covenanters (religious dissenters). On that occasion the garrison held out for 13 weeks before surrendering. Following the siege, the castle was stripped of all its valuable fixtures and fittings, and the great south curtain wall was demolished to render the building useless as a place of defence.