Dunure Castle is a ruined 16th century castle of the Kennedys, perched on a precarious cliff top.
The earliest written reference to the lands of Dunure appears in a charter from 1256, and it is likely that a castle had been built here prior to this time. Who built it is unclear, but there are a couple of traditions relating to the original builders. One suggests that it was built by the Danes, while another states that the Mackinnons held it for Alexander III having been granted it as a reward for their bravery at the Battle of Largs.
It may indeed have been the the Kennedys of Carrick who built Dunure and owned it since the 13th century, their ancestors having lived in the area since at least the mid-12th century. The first of the family to be mentioned in a charter being a Duncan de Carrick. The Kennedys of Dunure were the progenitors of the Earls of Cassillis. Some histories however state that it wasn’t until 1357 that the Kennedys were granted the lands of Dunure, with John de Kennedy taking possession.
Dunure is said to mean “fort of the yew tree”, and it may be that the site’s natural defences, being a rocky outcrop protruding from the coast, were exploited early on. Although subsequent buildings have destroyed or incorporated earlier work on the site, the earliest that can be identified is a section of masonry stretching across the south, landward, side of the outcrop which pre-dates the probably 13th century wall which is built upon it.
Whether the masonry represents a wall cutting off access to the outcrop or once encircled it completely is unknown, however what is known is that in the 13th century a substantial wall was built surrounding the perimeter of the outcrop of rock, measuring around 20m north-west to south-east by around 10m east to west. What was within the walls at this time is unclear, but the next phase of building work seems to have been the creation of a hall house inside the enclosure.
Built in the early 14th century, the hall house is thought to have been a two or three storey building, and measured around 14.m by around 9.3m running approximately east to west at the south end of the enclosure. Probably around the same time an open defensive tower containing a staircase was added to the outside of the east side of the enclosure’s south wall, abutting the outcrop, which gave access to an entrance made here into the enclosure.
The tower’s entrance was on its east wall with a substantial roll-moulded surround around the doorway, part of which stills exists. Just within the entrance, on the south side of the tower, a well was built within the thickness of the wall, fed by a stone channel. The staircase, which may possibly have been timber, was opposite the entrance, running along the south wall before turning north along the west wall to the entrance in the enclosure’s south wall.
In the cliffs below the castle is a cave known as Browney’s Cave, which may have contained a sally port or escape route from the castle. Legend has it that another tunnel connected Dunure to Greenan Castle, however since that is a distance of almost 7 kilometres this seems unlikely.
Dunure Castle was the location of a meeting between James Campbell, representing James I, and John Mor MacDonald, representing Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. MacDonald was killed during the meeting, which led to an escalation in the war between the King and the Lord of the Isles.
During the 15th century the hall house was vaulted throughout, and the ground floor was divided into three chambers – one running approximately north to south at the east end, and two side by side running approximately east to west at the west end, with a corridor running north to south between them. The vaulted chambers on some of the upper floors can still be seen, although they have now largely filled up with rubble, mud and sand, and the ground floor vaults are buried completely.
At the same time, the hall house was extended considerably to the north creating a tall six storey keep on a massive scale which occupied the entire 13th century enclosure. The remains of the north wall of this keep still stand to nearly their full height.
At the bottom of this keep is what appears to be a postern giving access to the seaward side.
The timber staircase in the external tower was replaced with a stone one of three flights, which led up to a small drawbridge around 2m long bridging a gap between the 13th century enclosure’s south wall, and the south wall of the keep. The drop below the drawbridge is around 4.5m.
A new three storey wing was added to the west side of this tower, and the combined tower and wing were surmounted by machicolated parapets supported by corbels. It is thought that a substantial outer enclosure may also have been constructed at this time, part of which can be seen in a drawing made by Francis Grose in 1789.
It may have been at this time that a beehive doocot was built to the east of the castle, although it has also been suggested that it is 16th century in date.
During the 16th century the Kennedys were great supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots, the 3rd Earl of Cassillis having been present at Mary’s wedding to François, the Dauphin of France, at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris in 1558. The Earl died in mysterious circumstances before returning to Scotland, and was succeeded by his son, also Gilbert, as the 4th Earl of Cassillis.
The 4th Earl was appointed to the Privy Council in 1562, and in 1563 Mary stayed at Dunure for the nights of the 4th, 5th and 6th of August. Lady Jane Kennedy, the daughter of the 4th Earl, was one of Mary’s Ladies of the Bedchamber and one of only two of her retinue present at her execution in 1587.
In 1570 the 4th Earl had a dispute with Allan Stewart, the Commendator of Crossraguel Abbey, regarding the ownership of the abbey’s lands. The Earl and his brother, Thomas Kennedy of Culzean, kidnapped Stewart and imprisoned him in Dunure, hoping that he would agree to sign over the lands to him.
However the Commendator resisted, and so he was tortured in what was known as the Black Voute (vault), probably a dungeon in the basement of the keep. He was coated with oil and his feet and body were burned over a fire until he agreed to sign over the lands to the Earl.
The badly injured Commendator was kept prisoner at Dunure, supposedly so that his wounds could heal before he was released. Thomas Kennedy of Bargany, another branch of the Kennedys, sent a small force with government assent to rescue the Commendator. They hid overnight in a chapel which once stood just outside the castle, and when the castle’s gates were opened in the morning they stormed the castle and took it.
In turn Thomas Kennedy of Culzean laid siege to his brother’s castle in a bid to eject the invaders. Kennedy of Bargany himself then arrived with a larger force to defeat the Kennedys of Cassillis. The Commendator was rescued, and the Earl was fined around £2000.
Following the siege damage to the castle was repaired, and it was extended further to the south, with the addition of a new wing containing a pair of kitchens on the ground floor, and new chambers above, possibly built on the site of the chapel.
The castle is thought to have been abandoned by the mid-17th century, and it has been speculated that this might have been in part due to it possibly seeing some action during Cromwell’s incursions into Scotland. Local tradition apparently states that the castle was burnt down or blown up, although this may have become confused over time with the siege of 1570.
A substantial section of the south-east corner of the keep has fallen to the east of the castle, which may have been the result of an explosion. There is also the possibility that the already ruined castle was robbed for materials during the building of Cromwell’s fort in Ayr. Excavation during the 1990s showed that there seems to have been a systematic dismantling of parts of the castle, with those carrying out the work living within another part of the castle.
By 1694 the castle was described as “wholly ruined”, and some time at the end of the 17th century both Dunure Castle and Dalquharran Castle were bought by Thomas Kennedy of Kirkhill, and it remained in his family for over a century.
The castle suffered periodic robbing of its sandstone dressings, presumably for use in other buildings in the local area. The 16th century kitchen range seems to have been occupied, at times by fishermen, until around 1860.
Over the next century the castle continued to deteriorate, and seems at some point to have come into the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland.
The Strathclyde Building Preservation Trust (SBPT) bought the castle from the Trust and during 1996 and 1997 undertook consolidation work of the ruins. At that time the castle was in serious danger of falling over the cliffs onto the beach below, so the project involved stabilising both the cliffs and the castle’s walls. The work was carried out in two phases at a cost of some £370,000.
The SBPT also rebuilt the dovecot, and carried out an archaeological excavation of the castle’s kitchens. During the dig a significant quantity of medieval glass was found, doubling the amount of glass from this period in Scotland. The archaeologists also discovered some four hundred carved architectural stones during the course of their work.
Once the structure had been stabilised metal walkways were installed and interpretation boards put up. The SBPT later sold Dunure back to the National Trust for Scotland.