Blackness Castle looks across the River Forth to the naval dockyards of Rosyth, and along it to the Forth rail and road bridges. The castle is first mentioned in 1449, although there had been a port at nearby Blackness serving the royal burgh of Linlithgow since the thirteenth century.
Today's visitor approaches through the little village of Blackness and along a narrow road leading to the small car park within the grounds set out to the south of the castle itself.
Blackness Castle forms one side of a grassy area surrounded by buildings. Most of these date from fairly recent times. The south range housing the Historic Environment Scotland shop was built as a barracks in the 1870s, while the more ornate west block served as the officers quarters from the same era. The castle came into royal hands in 1453 when the surrounding lands were annexed by King James II. It spent much of the next century serving as a royal prison housing the more prestigious of the King's various enemies.
Much of what you see today dates back to a major reconstruction between 1537 and 1543 under King James V. This transformed Blackness Castle into one of strongest artillery fortifications of its age. This is most obvious in the labyrinthine entrance via the west spur of the south tower, which includes a caponier designed to deal severely with those unwanted visitors who succeeded in getting through the outer gate.
This passage within the thickness of the wall provides loopholes pointing back into the courtyard between the outer and inner entrances.
But the most formidable aspect of Blackness Castle's 16th century defences are to be found in the South Tower, where the south facing walls were strengthened to produce a wall 5.5 metres thick. These are pierced in several places at ground level to allow artillery to fire to the south and south east.
These defences served the castle well until Oliver Cromwell's Scottish campaign in 1650 (see our Historical Timeline). By now artillery was more powerful and had much longer range, and Cromwell had the advantage of attacking from both land and sea. The castle eventually surrendered, though not before being badly damaged. It was repaired and further altered in 1660.
Blackness Castle's later history echoed its earlier role as a prison when it helped house the large number of French taken prisoner during the wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1870 it became the army's central ammunition depot in Scotland. It was at this time that the buildings around the grassy courtyard to the south of the castle were built, together with the pier. Meanwhile, the whole of the open area of the castle was covered with an iron and concrete roof.
1912 the army left Blackness Castle, only to return during the first world war before departing for good in 1918. The castle was designated as an ancient monument, and between 1926 and 1935 a major programme of work undid many of the changes since 1870, returning the castle to a representation of something more medieval.
Having made your way through the entrance complex, you find yourself in a remarkable courtyard, formed largely of natural rock still extremely uneven after 600 years of constant wear. Equally remarkable is the shape of the castle itself, looking like a ship pointing out into the River Forth. As a result, the South Tower is also known as the Stern Tower; while the North Tower, at the more pointy end of the castle, is also known as the Stem Tower.
This shape can be well appreciated from the North Tower as you look along the wall walks extending either side of the castle and past the Central or Prison Tower. While you are in the North Tower, spare a though for those who annoyed the prison guards enough to be cast into the pit below it: accessed via a hatch in the floor of the lower level of the tower. Its only benefit was running water: twice a day at high tide.
The best views of the River Forth and the surrounding landscape can be had from the roof of the Central Tower. This is the highest point in the castle and an excellent place to catch the sun - or the wind - as you admire the illusion of the apparently conjoined structures of the rail and road bridges.