Dirleton Castle-A Noble Fortress-Residence

Did anyone try the recipe I posted last week for the Victoria Sponge? My goodness, that was a delicious cake. I was also quite impressed by how well it held up. I was afraid the filling would cause the cake to become soggy, but I stored it in the refrigerator, and three days later, it was still fine. I’m not a fancy baker, but that cake made me feel fancy.

Anyway, it’s been a while since I have written about a castle here, so today I thought it would be fun to hop in the car and head over to East Lothian, Scotland. About 20 miles to the east of Edinburgh, just off of the A198, lies the pretty little village of Dirleton. And in the heart of Dirleton sits the awesome, robust remains of Dirleton Castle.

Front of Dirleton Castle.

I have never met a castle I didn’t like, and Dirleton is no exception. Mr. C and I joke that castles in Scotland are like McDonald’s here in the States. There is one on every corner! Ok, slight exaggeration. But seriously, if you’re like me and didn’t grow up in the land of castles, then standing before a behemoth like Dirleton is enough to render you bug-eyed and slack-jawed. I swim in a torrent of emotions whenever that much history is looking back at me. Here in the US, we think Thomas Jefferson’s or George Washington’s home is old. We don’t know what old is! Mount Vernon has nothing on a structure like Dirleton Castle. Oh, if only those walls could talk.

Side view of Dirleton Castle.
A model of Dirleton Castle.

Dirleton’s beginning reaches far back to the early 13th century when in 1239, John (II) de Vaux (steward to the queen of Alexander II) began its construction. To put it into perspective of just how long ago that was, that was the era of historical figures like Marco Polo, the poet Rumi, Kublai Khan, Henry III, Robert the Bruce, and Edward I of England.

Built as a noble fortress-residence, the castle’s original construction is to be found in the section containing the massive towers. It is likely that the larger of the towers served as Lord de Vaux’s private apartment and that Lady de Vaux occupied the smaller. With the main bedchamber and privy on the first level, the three-story towers would have also contained additional chambers, latrine closets, servant’s quarters, room for storage, a kitchen, and a hall. It is difficult to imagine it as it looks today, but it wasn’t always so dark, cold, and gloomy. Fireplaces would have once warmed the rooms, tapestries would have adorned the plastered and painted walls, the aroma of wild game would have emanated from the kitchen’s ovens, and the de Vaux’s would have dined in style as food was brought up from the kitchen on the medieval equivalent of a ‘dumb waiter.’

Massive towers at Dirleton Castle.
The tower residences of Lord and Lady de Vaux.
Castle windows with stone seating.
The lord’s hall.
A stone castle ceiling.
Ceiling in the lord’s hall.
A castle fireplace.
Interior room at Dirleton Castle.

Great effort was made to protect Dirleton from invading forces. A rock curtain wall and a ditch was undoubtedly a formidable deterrent. So was the drawbridge to the main gatehouse. Other means of defense included murder holes (where hot tar, stones, etc. could be dropped from above onto invaders), a sallyport through which the castle’s defenders could exit, and narrow arrow slits built into its walls.

Outside stairway at Dirleton Castle.

Despite Dirleton’s nearly impenetrable facade, it was put to the test in 1298. During the First War of Independence with England, Edward I invaded Scotland and ordered his men to garrison and capture the castle. In an operation lasting only two days, the castle was his.

By 1314, however, the castle was back in Scottish hands, having been recaptured by Robert the Bruce. But rather than garrison it, Bruce ordered its destruction. It is not known if the de Vaux’s ever returned to the remains of their destroyed castle.

The Scottish countryside.
The view from Dirleton.

The Haliburtons were the next family to take up residence at the castle, acquiring it through marriage in 1350. Having inherited a horribly damaged structure, the Haliburton family devoted the next hundred years to its rebuilding. A fancy new gatehouse was constructed and also modern family accommodations that were sprawling and impressive. Sadly, much of this section of the castle is in a dilapidated state today. Still, historians know that this ‘Haliburton Range’ consisted of massive kitchens, storage vaults, a great hall, a tower house that served as Lord and Lady Haliburton’s private accommodations, a chapel, a prison, and a dreadful black-as-night pit where the worst criminal offenders were left to die.

A ruined castle kitchen.
Part of the kitchen.
Ruined vaults in a castle.
The vaults.
An artist's drawing of The Great Hall at Dirleton Castle.
The Great Hall as it might have been.
The ruined Great Hall at Dirleton Castle.
The Great Hall now.
Dirleton Castle ruins.
Looking at The Great Hall.
Carvings in a castle stone wall.
In the Great Hall.
A ruined castle chapel.
The chapel.

The last family to possess the Dirleton estate was the Ruthvens who acquired the castle through marriage around 1515. They extended the castle in Renaissance fashion. I like to call this section the ‘muahaha’ section – you know, because it looks like a face. And the face is talking.

Ok then, is it just me? Moving on…

Three stories high, the Ruthven lodging consisted of two storage cellars with lavish living quarters and family rooms above.

Exterior view of Dirleton Castle.
In interior view of Dirleton Castle.
Weathered stone spiral castle stairs.
The yard at Dirleton Castle.

The Ruthven family’s era came to an end sometime after 1605, after years of criminal activities left Lady Dorothea in the position of having to surrender Dirleton to James VI. At this point, Dirleton ceased to be a noble residence.

In 1650, Oliver Cromwell, whose army controlled East Lothian, ordered Dirleton to be taken. Cannon fire ravaged the castle. For a short period after, it was used as a field hospital and then finally left to ruin.

The Nisbets came along in 1663 and purchased the estate; however, they never lived at the castle. They turned part of the old garden into a bowling green for the villagers and continued maintenance of the pretty gardens.

Dirleton Castle gardens.
Dirleton Castle gardens.
Dirleton Castle gardens.
A small castle tower.

Today, Dirleton Castle stands stoically in the heart of the village and is in the loving care of Historic Scotland. Dirleton is a proud and beloved testament to a messy and fascinating bygone era.

Oh if those walls could talk.



9 thoughts on “Dirleton Castle-A Noble Fortress-Residence

  • Lots of great photos, and so much history. As you say, if only the walls could talk. I remember being taken to Dirleton Castle as a child and loving it. Even though it’s pretty ruinous, there’s enough left to give you a sense of what it must have been like in its heyday. Historic Scotland do a wonderful job of preserving these old buildings.

  • Like you, and coming from Canada, I am always in awe of these castles with so much history. There are many here in Spain as well and each has its own story to tell. Your pictures and background stories are wonderful.

  • Hello Wendy, imagination walks down along with your marvelous descriptive history of the Dirleton castle, and the stunning pics, and expression of joy speaks — amazing & wonderful, could this engineering marvel be colored on the natural canvas almost 800 years ago!! The expression *Castle* is past tense and the replaced word for the modern time is *Palace*, but castle has very close relationship with the nature, that’s why it fascinates.
    The chronologically {from 1239 to 1663,the Nisbets} written article on *Dirleton Castle* authored by you is remarkable and puts a stamp on your curiosity to know, observe, and understand the ancient architecture; moreover to disseminate the information with us.

Leave a Reply