Glengarnock Castle, a striking medieval ruin near Glasgow

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Standing on the edge of a rocky ravine in North Ayrshire, the precise origins of Glengarnock Castle’s impressive ruins are shrouded in mystery, but they’re tied to one of the region’s longest-running medieval feuds.

For 120 years, a lengthy and violent dispute involving two powerful North Ayrshire families brought turmoil to the region, only coming to an end when the 4th Earl of Eglinton was murdered in 1586.

Historical sources suggest that the castle came into use during this time, but although most of the upstanding walls date to the 1450s, there is other evidence that the origins of the castle may in fact be much older; a handful of artefacts, including a copper alloy sword pommel dating to 1250-1400, have been found nearby. So how old is Glengarnock Castle really?

Historical records are sparse and obscure, but Victorian accounts suggest that the earliest castle may have been built in the 12th century by the De Morville family.

More reliable sources show that the Barony of Glengarnock passed to the Riddell and Cunninghame families by the 13th century, and that most of the castle that is currently still visible is thought to have been constructed in the early to mid-15th century. It was around this time that a serious feud was developing between the Cunninghames and another powerful family in North Ayrshire: the Montgomeries.

The feud was violent and brought about a period of unrest for the region which lasted over 120 years, and culminated in the murder of the 4th Earl of Eglinton in 1586.

While the Cunninghames of Glengarnock seemed to have kept themselves aloof from most of the trouble during the earlier decades of the tensions, they became more deeply embroiled by the dispute, and several members of the family found themselves on the wrong side of the law from the 1530s onwards – various relatives were charged with a wide variety of crimes, from breaking and entering to a number of murders. It was during this period that the castle was visited by Mary Queen of Scots in 1563.

The castle in the 17th century

By the 17th century, the Barony of Glengarnock had passed into the hands of another branch of the Cunninghame family, the Cunninghames of Robertland, who became involved in the Civil War, records show that Glengarnock Castle may have been garrisoned at that time, however it seems the castle did not play a significant role in the wall, as it didn’t attract the attention of Cromwell who had made a habit of destroying castles he believed to be a threat, or seizing those he thought would be strategic strongholds.

At around this time, we get the earliest known map showing Glengarnock Castle – drawn by Blaeu, Glengarnock Castle is depicted as a simple circle and annotation, in contrast to the substantial buildings he uses to indicate larger castles and country houses. In fact, he seems to employ the circle and annotation symbol to farmsteads, which may indicate that the castle had lost its role as a high status dwelling.

By the late 1600s, the Cunninghame Robertland family was struggling financially and the Barony was sold bringing to and end the long association of the Cunninghames with the Garnock area.

Falling into ruins

It’s unclear when exactly Glengarnock Castle fell into disuse however, a 1775 map of Ayrshire shows the site denoted as a ruin so it is for certain that by the mid to late 18th century, the castle had been unoccupied for some time.

By the mid-19th century, archaeology as a discipline was developing, and together with the romanticisation of Scottish culture, sparked renewed interest in the castle. There are several written descriptions of the castle from this time speculating on the origins of the castle based on local legend, and describing what physically remained of the building. In 1839 it was noted that particularly bad winter storms had caused a significant portion of the remaining walls to collapse. In subsequent years, there are a number of reports of the owner of the castle, Robert William Cochran-Patrick commissioning remedial works to help to stabilise what was still standing.

Archaeology at Glengarnock Castle

Although it’s not usually possible to visit Glengarnock Castle in person, the ruins are soon to be the site of a new archaeological investigation, which local residents and members of the wider public will be able to take part in.

How old is Glengarnock Castle really? How far do its ruins spread out? And what sense can be made of the other ruined walls and buildings that line the ravine’s edge?

Starting with a Dirty Weekend trial excavation to assess the site in July 2021, local residents and other members of the public will be helping DigVentures archaeologists to answer those questions using a combination of excavation, and geophysical survey.

If the results are good, the team will return for a full-blown fieldwork mission in 2022, which will also be open for people to join. Both stages of the fieldwork project will include a combination of free places for people who live locally, and crowdfunded places for people who can afford to contribute or live further afield.

The project itself is being developed by Garnock Connections – a landscape partnership which aims to reveal the rich history and beauty around the Garnock River, with local residents at the heart of the process.

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Harriet Tatton

Written by Harriet Tatton

Harriet is one of DigVentures' community archaeologists. She loves museums, skeletons, and a good cup of Early Grey. Her first dig was at Bennachie, in Aberdeenshire, and since then she's never gone digging without her signature flowery wellies.

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