The castle's beginnings lie in the Reformation of 1560 (see our Historical Timeline). This led to the abandonment of the Convent of Greyfriars which had stood on the site now occupied by the castle since 1449.
In 1569 the land and buildings were acquired by Sir Thomas MacLellan of Bombie, Provost of Kirkcudbright. He demolished the convent, leaving only the chancel of its church to serve as the burial vault for the family. This remains as the Greyfriars Episcopal Church on the opposite side of St Cuthbert Street.
Sir Thomas used the stone from the convent plus stone from the ruins of the old royal castle in Kirkcudbright to build what on its completion in 1582 was one of the grandest houses in Scotland. Although in the form of earlier tower house castles, MacLellan's Castle was always more for show than for defence. Sir Thomas clearly saw himself as a power in this part of the land: and his castle was designed to demonstrate this to anyone who cared to look.
Though holding a position in the Royal Household from 1580, Sir Thomas was not above bending the law to further his interests. He overstepped the mark in detaining the Jonnet, a cargo ship, in Kirkcudbright harbour in 1575, and two years later he was caught purchasing wine from a known pirate.
Sir Thomas's son Robert was made the first Lord Kirkcudbright in the 1630s despite in his younger days being imprisoned in Blackness Castle for an affray on Kirkcudbright High Street; and in Edinburgh Castle for shooting a relative of the Church Minister in Kirkcudbright, with whom he had a long standing dispute.
Robert MacLellan was successful in gaining land grants in Ireland during the Plantation of Ulster but the family fortune started to drain away paying for the upkeep of troops protecting the Irish estates. The second Lord Kirkcudbright continued to spend more than he made, largely in support of the Convenanters' cause in the years after 1640. And in 1649 a regiment raised by the third Lord Kirkcudbright was on the losing side at the Battle of Lisnagarvey in Ireland: the family was ruined.
By 1741 the then Lord Kirkcudbright was working as a glover in Edinburgh and in 1742 the branch of the family controlling the castle removed the furniture and the roof. It passed into State care in 1912 and is now looked after by Historic Scotland.
A visit to MacLellan's Castle shows a building which is unusual in a number of ways. Unlike most Scottish Castles, it shows no signs of either hostile action or successive generations of remodelling and rebuilding. The shell of the building stands largely complete. The ground floor retains its vaulted ceilings. This gives a good idea of the service areas of the castle, something helped by the recreation of the kitchens.
At first floor level the stone floors are intact, but above it only the walls remain. When we visited, access was not possible above first floor level, a shame given the potential of MacLellan's Castle as a viewpoint over the town of Kirkcudbright.