THE grand antiquity, and chief architectural object of Rothesay, the thriving capital of the isle of Bute, is its castle. The tall ruin of this structure stands close upon the town; and has the historical associations mingledly of a royal palace and a military fortalice. The building consists of a circular court, about 140 feet in diameter, formed by high and thick walls; four round towers upon the flanks; and an erection which is ascribed to King Robert II., and which projects, on the north-east side, between two of the towers. Round the outside is a wide and deep ditch; and between this and the wall is a terraced walk. The walls are very richly overgrown with ivy; and have been noted for their similarity to some “rifted rocks” among the romantic cascade scenes of the Highlands, in producing remarkable trees. “Here,” says Miss Sinclair in her gossipping tour-book, “an ash tree recently contrived to grow on the summit of a stone arch, till the trunk attained to a circumference of nine feet, when it fell to the ground; and, after so long setting an example of frugality in living without nourishment, it became a means of overfeeding others, having been cut into a dining-table for George the Fourth. Within the castle, we admired a fine old thorn, six feet in circumference, and forty-five feet high, which fell prostrate on the ground last November, but still [in 1840] puts out a mass of leaves, as if the roots yet had nourishment from the ground, instead of empty air in which they are upraised, preserving its foliage ‘green and fresh without, but worn and bare within.'” Several years ago, the Marquis of Bute, at considerable expense, caused to be cleared away, from within and around the castle, the accumulated rubbish of ages, – consisting, to a large amount, of beef and mutton bones! and, in consequence, the presumed royal apartments, the reputed additional palace of Robert II., the towers, the terraces, the chapel, and the dungeon, are now all easily accessible by even the feeblest and most fastidious. Yet the building, with all the accompaniments proper to itself, and whatever additional aids it may derive from the fanciful embellishments of a cicerone, will grievously disappoint every visitor who expects to see wither beauty or picturesqueness in its ruin, or indications of military strength in its structure or position. In spite of the very fine and imposing embellishment of some tall ash trees, which still rise up among the ruins, the edifice strikes the eye as only a ponderous, lumpish, dull mass of masonry, quite doleful in the dingy red colour of its stones, and destitute to sheer nakedness of every attribute which the fancy associates with the ideas of either castle or palace. “As a piece of fortification, even on the ancient principles,” says a contemporary, “it is wretchedly deficient, and argues very little in favour of the military knowledge that erected it. Even the gate is neither flanked nor machicolated; and it might have been mined or assaulted at almost any point.” Yet it figures in history quite as conspicuously as many a place of great strength, and possesses a very fair proportion of antiquarian interest.
The original structure – for the aggregate building is evidently of various dates – was probably one of the fortalices erected in 1098, by Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, to secure his conquest of the western islands of Scotland. It may have been raised, however, in greatly more obscure circumstances; and it is said to have belonged, before the time of Alexander III., to a family of the name of McRoderick. It first comes into historical notice in 1228; when it was attacked by Olave, King of Man, and Husbac, a Norwegian chieftain, with eighty ships, and, after a siege, was taken by a sap and assault, with the loss of 390 men. After the battle of Largs, it was retaken by the Scots. During the inglorious reign of John Baliol, it was occupied by the English; but, in 1311, it submitted to Robert Bruce. In 1334, it was again seized in the unpatriotic cause of a dependent crown, and was fortified by Edward Baliol; but, not long afterwards, it was captured by Bruce the Steward of Scotland. Robert II. visited the castle in 1376, and again in 1381; Robert III. died in it from grief on account of his son, afterwards James I., having been captured. Oliver Cromwell’s troops burst rudely against it, like the surges of a desolating flood; and, in 1685, the brother of the Earl of Argyle seized it, set fire to it, and irretrievably converted it into an utter ruin. – The castle of Rothesay gave title to the first dukedom which existed in the Scottish peerage, and continues the title to the king’s eldest son as a collateral for Scotland to that of Prince of Wales for England. The dukedom of Rothesay was created in a solemn council held at Scone in 1398, and conferred on David, Earl of Carrick, Prince and Steward of Scotland, and eldest son of Robert III.; and when David, in 1402, fell a victim to the ambition of his uncle, the Duke of Albany, it was transferred to his brother James, afterwards James I. of Scotland. An act of Parliament, passed in 1409, declared “that the lordship of Bute, with the castle of Rothesay, the lordship of Cowal, with the castle of Dunoon, the earldom of Carrick, the lands of Dundonald, with the castle of the same, the barony of Renfrew, with the lands and tenandries of the same, the lordship of Stewarton, the lordship of Kilmarnock, with the castle of the same, the lordship of Dalry; the lands of Nodisdale, Kilbryde, Narristoun, and Cairtoun; also the lands of Frarynzan, Drumcall, Trebrauch, with the fortalice of the same, ‘principibus primogenitis Regum Scotiæ successorum nostrorum, perpetuis futuris temporibus, uniantur, incorporentur, et annexantur.'” Since that period, the dukedom of Rothesay, in common with the principality and stewartry of Scotland, the earldom of Carrick, the lordship of the Isles, and the barony of Renfrew, has been vested in the eldest son and heir-apparent of the sovereign.