Torthorwald Castle

Torthorwald Castle

Torthorwald Castle Details

  • Access: Public Access
  • Condition: ruined
  • First build century: 14th
  • Closest To: Torthorwald, Dumfries, Lochmaben
  • Grid Ref: NY033783
  • Last use century: 18th

Torthorwald Castle is a ruined tower and courtyard within impressive earthworks, probably of an earlier date. The site is on a vague ridge projecting from uneven ground which slopes generally westwards towards Dumfries, and overlooks the Torthorwald Burn to the north. To the east and north-east the ground us low lying and boggy, meaning that the site could only be approached from the north across the burn, the west up a slope, or the south along the ridge.

The earliest known possessors of the lands of Torthorwald are a family who took the place name as their surname, and are first recorded in documents of the mid 13th century, with David de Torthorwald witnessing an undated charter of Robert de Bruce, grandfather of the king, perhaps as early as c1250. David had an active career which lasted into the 1290s, and if he was a contemporary of Robert Bruce senior, he would have been very elderly when he died, and it is more likely that the date is later. We do not therefore know at what point the Bruces granted Torthorwald to David or his predecessors – and it is therefore difficult to understand what dates we might ascribe to the erection of the castle here. However it is notable that in none of the records relating to the family is there any indication that they had erected a castle here, and that the lands are referred to as a tenement, which would be an unusual style to give an estate with a castle.

The name Torthorwald means “the hill of Thorold” which is an Anglo-Danish surname and particularly common around Lincolnshire today. It may therefore be that the original Thorold was a retainer of the Earldom of Huntingdon, and came north in the mid to late 12th century to be granted estates at the same time that King William was starting to create dominance in the Dumfries area. It is possible that David was one of his descendants. However it is unlikely that the earthworks of the castle date to this period purely on the basis of scale, and most likely that Thorold had a defensive manor here, possibly on this site and with a defensive ditch – it seems possible to me that he utilised earthworks left from an earlier fort as the base for this building, although there is a lost hillfort a short distance to the north-west which would be remarkably close together.

In 1287, the Guardians of the realm issued an instruction that David de Torthorwald receive the fee that he had been promised by the late Alexander III. David held lands in Cumberland and elsewhere in England and served as a justice in Tynedale, so was one of those cross border magnates who had to choose sides during the wars of independence. Like Bruce, David chose to support Edward I, and swore allegiance to him in 1291 “in the deserted church of Blackfriars”. He did not desert his lord, and died before September 1296. His sons James and Thomas also faithfully served the English, James being killed in the King’s service – although we are given no date, he last appears in 1313, so may have died at Bannockburn. They were never able to reclaim their heritage, and instead their sister Isobel became the heir to David de Torthorwald. She is believed to have been married to Humphrey de Kirkpatrick, who received a grant of the whole lands and town of Torthorwald from Robert Bruce in 1321 as reward and in part compensation for destroying his family seat at Auchen. This grant would appear to confirm that the castle was not in existence at this time. This grant was confirmed in 1326, and it is perhaps no accident that the government of Edward III of England wrote to Robert Bruce asking him to confirm John de Torthorwald to his patrimony in 1328. The request was in vain, and the Kirkpatricks remained titular lords of Torthorwald for the rest of the 14th century, even if they did flee south in 1332 upon the invasion of Edward Balliol.

Humphrey de Kirkpatrick returned to Scotland, and was one of the nobles who delivered the ten year old King David and his court to France in 1334, and fought for David at Nevilles Cross in 1346. Some sources state that he and his brother Roger were killed in this battle, but this seems unlikely as records show Humphrey then spent some time in England as one of the hostages for the release of King David II, and died south of the border in 1357. His successor was his younger brother Roger, who was murdered the same year after taking Caerlaverock Castle from the English, and he in turn was succeeded by his son Sir Duncan. In 1398 he was granted a new infeftment of the barony of Torthorwald, which may have been something to do with his marriage, since his daughters appear to have been born at about this time. The eldest of these, Elizabeth, received Torthorwald upon her father’s death. She was married to William Carlyle, who in 1425 was designated as “of Torthorwald” indicating that Sir Duncan had died by this date. It is believed that the tower of Torthorwald dates from the 14th century, and would therefore most likely have been founded by the Kirkpatrick family, although which one is not clear. Humphrey had about 30 years or so (less his periods south of the border) and Duncan about 40, so either of these is quite possible. Given the ongoing warfare in the early part of the reign of David II, much of which involved the south-west (where the Balliols were strongly supported) suggests that the castle may have been founded by Humphrey or the Torthorwalds in the reign of Robert Bruce (unlikely as he did not permit castles to remain during his reign by and large), between Edward Balliols deposition in 1336 and Nevilles Cross in 1346 (possible) or after Nevilles Cross – we do not know when he was released from captivity, but this period involved the reconquest of the south-west so was another period of active campaigning. On balance Sir Duncan seems the more likely, but it is possible that Humphrey built the tower once he was confident that the south-west was subdued.

Although the original extent of the earthworks enclosed a roughly oval area, the northern and part of the western and southern sides have been substantially damaged by quarrying. The tower would originally have occupied a central position within this compound, as is shown on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps, although even these show the south-western corner appears to have been ploughed out prior to the 1850s. The earthworks consist of a large ditch, perhaps 5-6 metres deep and 10 across, with an upcast rampart on the outer edge. A dog-leg extends outwards from the rampart on the eastern side and appears to permit the ditch to have been at least partially supplied with water from the boggy area on that side by trapping water and diverting it around the castle clockwise. However, in the middle of the southern side a causeway crosses the ditch and at first glance this seems the most likely entrance to the castle. However this does not appear on either the 1856 or 1900 OS maps, and first appears on the 1965 survey, so it may be a recent alteration. What is curious is that the foundations of a curtain wall can be followed around the eastern side of the castle at the edge of the ditch, and there are gaps in the wall which are presumed to represent gateways on the east side, and opposite the causeway. Directly south of the tower this wall turns northwards to meet the tower house on its external (west) side, and at the corner of the courtyard there are suggestions of a round mural tower. To the north of the tower are no remains of a curtain wall, and instead the footings of two ranges of buildings have been identified. The quarrying to the west reaches up to the edge of the courtyard wall, which seems rather odd as it indicates that the curtain wall south of the tower was placed partway across the enclosed area of the earthworks.

The tower was originally about 14.5 by 13 metres and entered at first floor level on the east side, with a winding stair just to the south housed within the wall leading down to the basement. A straight stair housed in the southern wall rose from the centre of the wall to the corner to access the second floor. At this date the floors of the tower were not vaulted, are most likely to have been supported on timber joists. This tower was then extended and substantially redesigned with the removal of the entire north wall and a final footprint of about 17.25 metres by 13. The walls were not as massive as the earlier phase, and a new entrance was constructed on the ground floor. In order to support the massive double vaults, the thickness of the east and west walls was increased by 75 cm. The new vaulted basement filled the space originally occupied by the ground and first floor of the old tower, and the top of the vault was about 4.5 metres high. Above this the new great hall was provided with a pointed vault over 7.5 metres high. A new winding stair was created in the south-west corner of the wall to provide access from the great hall to the upper floors, of which nothing survives – the 4.5 metre tall stub of masonry rising above the great hall in the south-east corner is of a later date. What is very odd about this new design is that the extension to the north was added AFTER the new double vault was completed, suggesting that it was decided that the new design wasn’t big enough after all. The new section was inconsistent in floor levels, and was separated from the original part by a narrow stone wall about 60 cm thick. It is almost as if this extension acted as a wing, but added on the full width of the tower. Although the oldest part of the castle is believed to be 14th century, and the work of Humphrey or Duncan Kirkpatrick, the new layout and vaulted tower is very much 15th century in style.

This suggests that the larger tower was the work of the Carlyle family. William Carlyle remained laird of Torthorwald until about 1463, and was followed by his son John Carlyle, who was made the first Lord Carlyle of Torthorwald in 1473. In 1501, his grandson received a charter of the lands and barony of Torthorwald including the castle and fortalice, confirming that the castle was considered as such by that date. We can assume that apart from domestic changes, to a large extent Torthorwald Castle was complete by this date. John Carlyle was followed by Sir William, who continued as Lord Carlyle until his death in 1525, when his son Sir James took over, but unfortunately Sir James died in 1526 and it was not until 1529 that a decision was reached about the estate, when James’ widow received a liferent charter and his brother Michael received the lands and barony. Relations between them must have been strained as Janet was evicted from “the place of Torthorwald” by Michael in 1544, indicating she remained in residence at the castle, and the Crown was forced to intervene. In 1547, Michael pledged men to the English, and handed the castle over to them, but it was recovered in 1548 by Lord Maxwell. Lord Carlyle was struggling financially, and was forced to sell the lands and castle to his eldest surviving (third) son, another Michael, in 1573. In 1575 he was dead, and the sale to Michael junior was contested by Elizabeth, the daughter of his second son.

Matters became further confused in 1575 when the Regent Morton ignored the sale to Michel, and granted the ward of the lands and barony of Carlyle (including Torthorwald) to George Douglas of Parkhead, and put Michael Carlyle to the horn when he refused to move out! In 1580, when Morton had fallen from power, Michael Carlyle sold most of the estate to Lord Maxwell, retaining the castle and lands of Torthorwald for himself. Unfortunately Douglas of Parkhead refused to move out, and was himself outlawed. Further shenanigans followed, and James Douglas, younger of Parkhead was granted the dues of Torthorwald belonging to Michael Carlyle “callit of Torthorwald” and his brother George was granted the escheat of Michael Carlyle’s goods. Later in 1583 the gifts to the Douglases were revoked and instead granted to John Johnston of that Ilk for the rest of Michaels lifetime, and a month after that the grant was made in perpetuity. In 1585, Lord Maxwell took over the castle. In 1587 the 12 year legal dispute among the Carlyles was resolved when Elizabeth Carlyle was infeft in the lands and barony of Torthorwald, and then married James Douglas of Parkhead. However in 1592 Michaels son John was infeft in Torthorwald as his heir, so perhaps the estate was partitioned. In 1594 the lands and castle were granted to George Douglas, the younger brother of James of Parkhead (suggesting that Elizabeth and James had no children) but by 1597 Lord Maxwell had taken it over again, and defiantly held it against the crown. The castle was then held by Lord Sanquhar, then Lord Ochiltree, and finally in 1602 to Sir James Johnston of that Ilk, with the instruction not to hand it over to George Douglas “under pain of perjury and defamation”. After further exchanges of ownership in 1606, 1609, 1613, and 1622 finally ended up in the hands of the Douglases of Drumlanrig, who may have occupied it up to the start of the wars of the 1640s. Given all these changes of ownership, it is hard to see what period after the 1530s any further developments might have taken place at Torthorwald Castle. By 1690 it was probably uninhabited or damaged, and does not feature in the hearth tax, although there is no record of it having been attacked and damaged, and it appears clearly marked on Roys map of c1750, with earthworks clearly showing as more complete on the north and east than south and west. By 1788 it was ruined, and remained in similar condition up to the collapse of the north-east corner in 1993.

Today what survives of the castle is the southern gable end, clearly showing four phases of construction and with a substantial crack towards the east side, part of the west side, which was stabilised in the 19th century, and parts of the west wall. Trees are growing out of it in places, and much of the fine masonry has been lost; only a small portion of the upper vault has survived. IT is fairly clear that what remains is fragile and unstable, yet there appears little appetite to stabilise the remains. Clearly the earthworks are denuded in places by the quarrying, but are still impressive where they survive to a larger extent, and the footings of the curtain wall and buildings are all but buried and invisible. Despite this, the lack of obvious parking, and the access being across the boggy area of the ditch (and therefore crossed by a combination of laid timber and mats) Torthorwald Castle is worth a visit. It was once an important and impressive border fortress, and I am sure will not be there for much longer.

HES Canmore database entry