Rothesay and Castle, pp.137-140.



I stood in saint Bryde’s dismantled aile,
And I look’d below on an ancient pile:-
It had felt the sun of a royal day,
And had glow’d to the dance and the minstrel’s lay;
But its walls are now unroof’d and bare,
And clad with a garland of ivy green,
Yet it proudly towers over Rothesay fair,
And frowns on the dwellings of modern men.


THIS ancient royal burgh is situated at the northern end of the island of Bute, opposite the coast of Cowal: it is about eighteen miles distant from Greenock, and forty from Glasgow. There can be little doubt that it owes its origin to the existence of its ancient castle, under the protection of which it gradually arose, and found shelter from foreign violence during many a turbulent century. The origin of its name is very doubtful, though many attempts have been made to explain it; but none that we have seen are free from objection.

The situation of Rothesay is particularly delightful. It stands at the head of a beautiful and well sheltered bay, and at the opening of a fine glen which stretches away behind it towards the interior of the island. On entering the bay the prospect is highly interesting. Hills which are covered with wood, or green to the top rise on either side; in the centre, at the extremity of the bay a lively and bustling town with an ancient castle towering in ruined grandeur; neat and well built houses encircling the shore like a crescent, and beyond all in the extreme distance the lofty mountains of Arran lifting their bare and craggy summits to the sky: these altogether, when lighted by a summer sun, form a scene of peculiar beauty, and awake feelings of delight in the breast of every stranger, even although he may have visited the fairest scenes of more southern lands. Rothesay is now much frequented as a watering place, and for this it is well fitted, not only from its affording every convenience and luxury which may be required; but from the great salubrity of its climate, and the beauty and interesting nature of the surrounding country. Even during winter it is visited by the valetudinarian, who frequently finds relief to his ailments from its soft and healthy air. The summer and autumn are here dry, and the heavy rains which visit the shores of the Clyde, unknown: the winter is mild and open, little snow falls, and the frosts moderate. Indeed it would not be easy to say too much either of the situation or climate of Rothesay. Its bay has been often likened for natural beauty to the bay of Naples, and the salubrity of its air has acquired for it the appellation of the Montpellier of Scotland.

Rothesay, although a royal burgh, is not of great extent, but since the introduction of steam navigation, it has been very much enlarged, and is still increasing. There are several well built streets, and many haberdashery, grocery, and other shops of respectable appearance. A commodious and convenient harbour has been made in front of the town, by the erection of piers which extent into the bay, and form wet docks and quays, sufficient for the reception of vessels of considerable burden. The trade of Rothesay is chiefly in herring, but this is by no means so extensive as it at one time was. The only foreign imports are wood and grain; coastwise, wines, spirits, sugar, and other groceries; silk, haberdashery goods, salt and staves. The exports coastwise, besides herrings, are cotton yarn, cotton cloth, and tanned leather. In October, 1824, the amount of registered shipping belonging to the port of Rothesay was eighty-four vessels, amounting to 3977 tons, and employing 430 men.

The principal manufacture of Rothesay is the spinning of cotton yarn, Indeed the first cotton yarn spun by machinery in Scotland was here. The machinery was set agoing in an old lint mill by an English company, who brought workmen with them from England. This was in the year 1778. In 1779 they erected a mill for the purpose, and fitted it up with machinery. These works have since passed through several proprietors, and been greatly enlarged. The want of a sufficient quantity of water during summer droughts, caused the first company to erect a steam engine to supply this deficiency; but from the ingenious contrivances carried into effect by Robert Thom, Esq. One of the proprietors of the mills, for increasing and economising the supply of water, they have been enabled entirely to dispense with steam power, and the mills for some years have been wholly driven by water. The Rothesay mills contain about 22,000 mule spindles; and employ 500 persons including young and old. The same proprietors also possess grain mills, which consist of a flour mill, a meal mill, and a barley mill. These are also driven by water. The power necessary for the cotton and grain mills is equal to a Bolton and Watt steam engine of sixty horse power.

Rothesay also possesses a weaving factory driven by steam, which contains 78 looms, and employs 63 persons. It was at Rothesay that the fly shuttle was first introduced into Scotland. This was by a Thomas Rogerson one of the English servants in the employment of the original spinning company. He was not only acquainted with its use, but could make it, and was able to instruct workmen in the making of the loom, and all its appurtenances. He was afterwards sent to Glasgow for the instruction of the workmen there. Hand weaving is carried on at Rothesay to some extent. There are two tan works; and a distillery in the immediate neighbourhood of the town. Besides this, net making, buss, and boat building is carried on.

Rothesay was erected into a royal burgh by charter from Robert III., dated 12th January 1400; this king at that time held his court in the castle. It was confirmed by James VI. by a charter of Novodamus, of date 19th February 1584. The municipal government of the burgh is vested in a provost, baillies, treasurer, and council. The town house is but small; it contains a hall in which the courts of law are held. There are also apartments for the town and sheriff clerks; and some rooms used as a prison. The magistrates and sheriff of Bute hold regular courts for the discussion of such civil questions as occur within their appropriate jurisdictions. A post office was first opened in Rothesay in 1766; letters were then only transmitted twice a week. There is now a daily post, the bags with the letters being carried by steam packets, hired by government for the purpose. Besides the parish church which was erected in 1795, there is a chapel of ease connected with the church of Scotland, and a chapel in connection with the United Associate Synod. The parish school is airy and commodious, and has an able and industrious teacher. There are besides five other schools in the town; and three for young ladies. There are also a subscription library, a news-room, agencies for the Greenock and Renfrewshire banks, a provident bank, several benefit societies, and a good Inn in the town. In 1801 the population of the town and parish of Rothesay was 5231; in 1811 it was 5233; and in 1821 it had increased to 5947. Since that time, however, it has still farther increased, and is supposed now to be about 7000.

The castle is situated in the centre of the town. The most ancient portion consists of a circular court, 138 feet in diameter, surrounded by a wall eight feet thick, and seventeen feet high, with battlements The wall was flanked by four round towers at nearly equal distances; and the whole was surrounded by a wet ditch of considerable breadth, and fifteen feet deep. It was enlarged by king Robert II., who built an oblong keep three stories in height, in front of the ancient gateway, and projecting into the ditch. The entrance to this building was in the north front, and the royal arms cut out in stone are still to be seen surmounting the gate. It appears to have been approached by a drawbridge. On passing the gate we enter a vaulted vestibule, in which are a small apartment for the porter, a cellar, and the trap door opening to the dungeon below.

At the extremity of the vestibule is a second gateway leading into the court-yard. Here we observe the groove in which the portcullis formerly moved. Within the court-yard is the remains of a stair-case which led to the state apartments in the second story of the great tower. The situation of the hall can still be pointed out, though much of the building has fallen down. The closet in which Robert III. died is pointed out in the south-east corner: it is only twenty-four feet by six.

In the court-yard stands the chapel, which is in the pointed style. The font and bason for the holy water are still to be seen. Investigations made in 1816 under the direction of the marquis of Bute, have displayed the traces of various other buildings in the court-yard. A range of buildings 74 feet by 33, extended along the south side of the court; and on the west there was another range 59 feet by 25½ over the walls. The south end of this building seems to have contained the armourer’s workshop, as in clearing the rubbish, the remains of a furnace, and a quantity of iron dross were found. A well was also discovered which has been cleared to the depth of fifteen feet.

There are no accounts of when the original portion of the castle was built; but it could not be earlier than the beginning of the 12th century. It is first mentioned in history in 1228, when it was besieged by Husbac or Uspac whom Haco king of Norway had made king of the Hebrides. The castle was taken by the Norwegians in their expedition against Scotland under Haco in 1263, immediately before the battle of Largs; but in consequence of it, the Scots speedily recovered all the western isles. It appears to have been in possession of the English during the reign of John Baliol; but in 1311 when Robert Bruce took Perth, the terror of the example he there made, caused this as well as several other castles to surrender.

Edward Baliol in 1334, took possession of the castle, and strengthened its fortifications; and he made Allan de Lile, governor, who was previously by him appointed sheriff of Bute. The inhabitants of Bute, however, hearing of the success of the young Steward in taking Dunoon castle, rose upon the English garrison, and killed the governor de Lile, whose head they presented to the Steward. John Gilbert, who was deputy governor, being taken prisoner, changed sides, and caused the castle to surrender. Robert II. appears to have held his court here and resided for some time, in 1376 and 1381. With Robert III. Rothesay appears to have been a favourite place of residence; and there it was known he died in 1406. It was visited by Robert Duke of Albany, brother of Robert III. in 1408; and by James V. in 1536 and 1540.

In 1489, Hugh Lord Montgomery was appointed constable of the castle; but in 1498, the head of the family of Bute was constituted hereditary keeper, an office which still continues in the family, and is held by the present noble marquis. The castle was inhabited up to 1685, and was often the residence of the ancestors of the marquis of Bute. In that year, however, during the ineffectual descent on England by the duke of Monmouth, and on Scotland under the earl of Argyll, it was taken possession of by the latter. After spending considerable time in Bute to little purpose, he plundered the town of Rothesay and the Castle, and destroyed its doors and windows. It was afterwards burned by his brother, and has since remained a ruin.