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It takes a little effort to get to Caerlaverock Castle. It lies just off the B725 some seven miles south of Dumfries, close to where the River Nith flows into the Solway Firth. But this is a trip well worth making: Caerlaverock is one of the most attractive and interesting castles in Scotland.
There are a number of things that help set Caerlaverock apart. The most striking is the way it is lapped by the waters of its broad moat. Coupled with its shape, an equilateral triangle with its apex at the huge northern gatehouse, the result is intriguing and instantly pleasing to the eye.
You should start your tour with a walk around the outside of the moat. The south east tower and most of the south curtain wall were destroyed in 1640. This produces the effect of a life-size cutaway of the castle with most of the interior visible from the far side of the moat. Tackling it this way means that when you do enter the castle itself, you already have an excellent idea of its layout.
Also adding to the interest of a visit to Caerlaverock Castle are a number of extra attractions. One castle not enough for you? Here you find the foundations of another, earlier, castle visible at the end of a nature trail through the woods to the south. You will also find reconstructions of medieval siege engines as well as a castle-themed children's playpark. And in the visitor centre are a well stocked shop, a café and an exhibition about the castle. Plus enthusiastic and knowledgable custodians keen to help you make the most of your visit.
The story of Caerlaverock begins with the granting of lands in the area to Sir John De Maccuswell in 1220. He set to work building a castle 200 metres south of the one you see today. Maybe this was simply too close to the Solway Firth to keep its occupants dry and comfortable, because by 1270 Sir John's nephew had started building the replacement castle that forms the core of what still stands.
The second castle was largely complete by 1300 when Edward I of England invaded Galloway and successfully besieged Caerlaverock with 87 knights and 3000 men. The siege was supported by a collection of siege engines transported to the site from all over southern Scotland and northern England.
The English kept the castle until 1312, though questions about the Maxwells' loyalty to the Scottish crown led to Caerlaverock being besieged by Scottish forces in 1356. Most of the remains of the castle on view today date back to the rebuilding that took place through the remainder of the 1300s and most of the 1400s. The west and (largely destroyed) south ranges date back to this time, as does the formidable gatehouse.
The castle saw more action in the 1500s, being captured by the English in 1544 and again attacked by them in 1570. However the union of the crowns in 1603 finally offered the promise of peace between England and Scotland after 400 years of sporadic warfare. In 1634 Robert Maxwell, the First Earl of Nithsdale, converted the castle into something more befitting the family's standing and the more peaceful times. He built the magnificent Nithsdale Lodging, the east range whose ornamental stonework still dominates the interior of the castle.
But the promise of peace was illusory, and wars between England and Scotland were swiftly replaced by wars of religion, doctrine and kingship. In 1640, just six years after the building of the Nithsdale Lodging, Caerlaverock was held by the Maxwells for King Charles I against a besieging army of Covenanters for thirteen weeks before surrendering (see our Historical Timeline). Damage wrought by the Covenanters during and after the siege was never repaired and what you see today is pretty much what was left in the Summer of 1640. Caerlaverock Castle was placed in State care in 1946 and is now looked after by Historic Scotland.
Read about Thomas D. Murphy's visit to Caerlaverock Castle in his 1908 book, British Highways and Byways From a Motor Car.