Threave Castle was the stronghold of the Black Douglases and built by the 3rd Earl, Archibald the Grim. If that isn’t romantic enough for you, it stands on an island in the middle of the River Dee and, unless you think you can navigate your way safely across an ancient underwater causeway, the only way to get to it is by boat.
So you take a short walk across some meadows and beside a wood to a small landing stage, where you are invited to ring a brass bell if you want to cross the river. When we got there it was deserted and felt like another time. Or had we somehow stumbled into the Land of Legends? Would the mythical boatman Charon emerge and demand coin for bearing us to the otherworld across the River Styx? Tentatively, we tapped the bell. A distant flurry of activity told us our signal had been noticed; we watched as the oars dipped in and out of the still waters and the boat gently made its way to us. Actually, it had an outboard motor and it turned out that our ‘ferryman’ was a ‘ferrylady’ (should that be ‘ferryperson’, or even, simply, ‘ferry’?), who could not have been more helpful – apart from, possibly, offering to pay our entry fees. She sported a trendy high-vis jacket and seemed very pleased to see us – initial fears of ‘tourists kidnapped by Black Douglas heiress’ disappeared as it turned out she was just a very nice lady and we were amongst the first visitors of the season. The site is only looked after by two people – the ferrymanwomanperson and a ticketandtrinket seller- so it must be rather lonely sometimes. Our new friend – to my shame I forgot to ask her name – cheerfully informed us that when she wasn’t ferrying people back and forth across the Dee, she was a Viking. Lest this should alarm my reader, let me explain that her other job is taking part in historical re-enactments – not sailing up and down the coastline indulging in a bit of gentle pillaging.
Threave looks as grim as its builder was reputed to be. However, besiegers and time have not left a great deal of it. The massive, 5-storey keep, or tower house, is surrounded by an outer wall and the remains of a moat, fed by the river. Unfortunately, the castle was in the process of being repaired at the time, so all we could do was gaze around and use our imagination. The tower house would have contained the living quarters for the Earl and his lady and was built around 1370. The moat, surrounding wall and three ‘artillery towers’ (for the new-fangled guns) were built later, in the mid-15th century. Originally, the castle complex would have been extensive, but the only remains of this now are the lumps and bumps in the ground.
This may be an ancient site, though, and a base for the old lords of Galloway. The name ‘Threave’, or ‘Trief’, is apparently derived from the old Welsh word for ‘homestead’ – tref – harking back to times before the Scots drove out earlier Celts in the 7th century. It is possible that a settlement on the island – perhaps some form of castle – was destroyed by the Bruces, rivals of the nearby Balliols, in the early 14th century. The Black Douglases were partly rewarded for their support of the Bruces by being given the Lordship of Galloway by David II, son of Robert the Bruce, in 1372. One traditional emblem of the Black Douglases is a heart, simply drawn as lovers do. Apparently, Sir James Douglas, father of Grim Archibald, fulfilled a vow by taking Robert the Bruce’s embalmed heart on crusade, but died fighting the Moors at Teba, southern Spain. Bruce’s heart was returned to Scotland and buried at Melrose Abbey.
Archibald, known as ‘the Grim’ by his English enemies ‘because of his terrible countenance in weirfare (warfare)’, died on Christmas Eve 1400. The Black Douglases hung on at Threave, but had a massive falling-out with King James (Stewart) II, culminating in James murdering the Earl of Douglas over dinner in 1452 and the siege of the last remaining Douglas stronghold, Threave, in 1455. The defenders surrendered after two months – probably through bribery – and Threave went through a variety of hands until ending up in the care of the Maxwells of Caerlaverock in 1526. And it suffered the same fate as Caerlaverock, surrendering to the Army of the Covenant after a 13 week siege in 1640. There’s a large bank, easily seen today, that formed part of the defences at that time.
The area hereabouts is also supposedly good for wildlife. Our tame Viking told us that osprey, otters and bats were frequent visitors – and indeed we did see a bird of prey, wheeling high in the sky. Twitchers (for the benefit of my overseas reader, this is slang for ‘bird watcher’) will like to know that peregrines, harriers and various waders can (allegedly) be spotted too.
Threave Castle is a mile or two west of Castle Douglas. Follow the signs off the A75 to Kelton Mains Farm, where there is a small car park. Don’t get confused with Threave Gardens – which is a completely different place.