THE LOCH-LEVEN of Scottish history is a beautiful inland sheet of water, in the immediate neighbourhood of the borough of Kinross, and in the south-east quarter of the small shire of that name. Its circumference is about twelve miles; and its bosom is studded with several little islands, which break the uniformity of its surface and increase its beauty. The general character of the scenery which surrounds it is soft and gentle, and not altogether deficient in variety. The vale of Kinross environs it on the west and north-west, with all its variety of plantations, arable and pasture-fields, pleasure-grounds, and other materials of rural beauty. On this side, also, close to the margin of the lake, are seen the ancient town of Kinross, and Kinross-house, with its adjacent garden and grounds. The plain of Orwell bounds the lake on the north; the western termination of the Lomond-hills on the north-east; and the abrupt hill of Bennarty on the south-east side. The chief islands in the lake are the island opposite Kinross, on which the ruins of the castle forming the subject of the present illustration stand, and the Inch of Loch-Leven, or St. Serf’s isle, near the east end, on which are the remains of a religious house originally erected here upwards of a thousand years ago. A few sheep and cattle, which feed upon its grassy surface, are now the only inhabitants of St. Serf’s isle; but something has been done of late to improve the appearance of these islets, by transporting soil to them, and planting a few trees on them.
Loch-Leven derives its chief historical interest from the fact of its castle having been the prison of Queen Mary, after her surrender to the confederated Lords at Carberryhill. In the reign of Robert III., a branch of the family of Douglas had obtained a grant of the castle of Loch-Leven, with lands on the shore of the lake. Sir Robert Douglas of Loch-Leven, the near kinsman of the famous James Earl of Morton, and step-father to the equally well-known James Earl of Murray, natural brother to the Queen, was, in consequence of his connection with the leaders of her disaffected subjects, selected as the jailer of the unfortunate Mary, who was imprisoned here on the 16th June, 1567. Here, on the 4th July following, she was visited by Lord Ruthven, Lord Lindsay of the Byres, and Sir Robert Melville, in name of the confederated lords, by whom she was forced to sign an instrument, resigning the crown to her infant son, who, a few days thereafter, was inaugurated at Stirling under the title of James VI. The scene which then occurred, as well as the subsequent escape of the Queen, have been made leading incidents, by Sir Walter Scott, in his novel of ‘The Abbot;’ and few descriptions in fictitious narrative can be compared, for graphic delineation and intense pathos, with his account of the unhappy lady’s resignation of the crown of her fathers. The leading features of his picture are, no doubt, historically true; but the filling up is entirely the work of his own creative fancy. Who that has read this narrative, and looks upon the ruins of the castle of Loch-Leven, can fail to recollect this admirable piece of historical painting, – for so we are entitled to call it, – the tears of the defenceless Queen, the determination of Ruthven, and the stern rudeness of old Lindsay of the Byres? On the 2d of May, 1568, after an imprisonment of about eleven months, Mary effected her escape from the castle, by the aid of a young relation of the family. A previous attempt, made on the 25th of April preceding, had been discovered, and George Douglas, the younger son of Sir Robert, was expelled the castle for being concerned in it. Nothing daunted, however, she still meditated her escape; and George Douglas, continuing to hover in the neighbourhood, was enabled to keep up a correspondence with her, and with others in the castle. “There was in the castle,” says Sir Walter Scott in a note to ‘The Abbot,’ “a lad, named William Douglas, some relation probably of the baron, and about eighteen years old. This youth proved as accessible to Queen Mary’s prayers and promises as the brother of his patron George Douglas.” This young man stole the keys of the castle from the table where they lay, while his lord was at supper. “He let the Queen and a waiting-woman out of the apartment where they were secured, and out of the door itself, embarked with them in a small skiff, and rowed them to the shore. To prevent instant pursuit, he, for precaution’s sake, locked the iron grated door of the tower, and threw the keys into the lake. They found George Douglas and the Queen’s servant, Beaton, waiting for them, and Lord Seyton and James Hamilton or Orbieston in attendance, at the head of a party of faithful followers, with whom they fled to Niddrie castle, and from thence to Hamilton.” Tradition still points out the spot on the south side of the lake where Queen Mary landed: it is at some distance from Kinross, in which town her opponents were quartered. Her subsequent defeat at Langside, and her immediate flight into England, were, within a few days, the unfortunate result of her long-meditated, and well-executed escape from Loch-Leven.
The castle of Loch-Leven with its court-yard occupied a considerable portion of the island: the remaining portion was chiefly occupied by the garden. It is now a mere waste, but it still exhibits a few fruit trees in a wild and decayed state. The court-yard, formerly rank with nettles and hemlock, was cleared out in the summer of 1840, and the accumulated soil removed from different parts of the buildings. The great tower, or keep, of the castle, stood in the north-west corner of the court-yard, on the side of the island next Kinross. It is of a square form, four stories in height, the walls being upwards of six feet thick. The entrance is in the second story, and must have been ascended to by an outside stair, having probably a drawbridge at top; but all vestiges of this stair have now disappeared. The door opened at once into the great hall of the castle, which occupied the whole of the second flat of the building. Immediately within the door-way, and at the entrance to the hall, is a square opening into the vaults below, which must have been covered with wood. The intention of this seems obviously to have been an additional means of defence; because, though after all the outworks had been gained by the enemy, and the defences to the door of the keep forced, the garrison, occupying the hall, could have thrown down this opening any of the assailants who might attempt to cross it. The two upper stories of the keep appear to have been occupied as bedchambers. The court-yard, which was of considerable extent, and surrounded by high walls flanked at the corners by towers, contained a variety of buildings for the accommodation of the family and the garrison. Among these, not the least important was the chapel, which stood west of the great tower, and on the west side of the court-yard. At the south-east corner is a round tower which flanks and must have defended the south and east walls, in which it is said Queen Mary was confined. Of course, there is only the authority of tradition for this; but if it was the case, the poor lady had but small accommodation during her imprisonment. The entrance to the court-yard was by an arched door-way in the north wall, immediately adjoining the great tower, by which it was consequently entirely commanded. The island on which the castle stands, is at no great distance from the western shore of the lake; and between it and the point of a promontory on that side, a causeway of large stones runs beneath the water. How such a work was executed, or for what purpose, it is not easy to discover. A bunch of large keys, supposed to be those thrown into the lake by young Douglas, were discovered in the month of October, 1806, on the sandy shore of the lake, near Kinross-house. Another bunch of eight ancient keys was found, a few years ago, in the bed of the lake, between the old churchyard of Kinross, and a small island about half-a-mile from the castle. – Queen Mary was not the only prisoner of eminence who had been confined in this castle. The Earl of Northumberland, after his rebellion in England, having been seized in Scotland, was confined in it for three years, from 1569 to 1572, when he was basely given up to Elizabeth, by whom he was executed.
The trout produced in Loch-Leven are of acknowledged excellence. The fishing is alleged to have been considerably injured by a partial draining of the loch, which has recently been effected at an enormous expense, but with a disproportionate beneficial result – the value of the land reclaimed amounting to little more than the cost of the works. The height of the loch being considerably reduced, it was feared at one time that the small island containing the castle, would become joined to the main land by the subsiding of the water, and would lose its classic associations by becoming a suburb of Kinross. The appearance of the island, by being raised higher out of the loch than before, is, however, much improved, while the dark and massy ruins of the castle still frown over the silvery waters of the lake as in days of yore.