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Lanark lies high on the east bank of the River Clyde, close to its confluence with the Mouse Water. Its strategic location guarding the Clyde Valley was first recognised by the Romans, who built a fortification on what is now known as Castle Hill, an outcrop south west of the centre of the town which drops steeply into the valley.
Craignethan is a fascinating castle built in 1532 on a bluff falling steeply on two sides to the River Nethan and on a third to the Craignethan Burn. The only approach is from the higher ground to the west, and on this side the castle was protected by defences designed to withstand the strongest artillery of the day.
This is a castle full of surprises, with far more to see and explore than you expect, and it makes an excellent half day out. Craignethan Castle lies a little to the west of the A72 near Crossford, a few miles north west of Lanark. Follow the brown tourist signs from the A72 as they take you on a magical mystery tour along some very steep and narrow roads through beautiful countryside.
Craignethan Castle was built by Sir James Hamilton in 1532. He was a man with powerful enemies: a claim in 1540 that he had been involved in a plot against his friend James V many years earlier, though probably untrue, led to his execution for treason. Craignethan passed to the Crown, before being acquired in 1542 by another James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, half brother of the original builder, and Regent of Scotland.
Hamilton pursued his personal ambitions with mixed success before and during the personal reign of Mary Queen of Scots. After her abdication, Hamilton and his family led the forces supporting Mary's claim to the Scottish Crown. In January 1570, this led to their arranging the shooting of the Earl of Moray, acting as Regent for the infant James VI. The Earl of Moray had briefly captured Craignethan Castle in 1568 after Mary's defeat at the Battle of Langside, but lost it to the Hamiltons again later the same year.
In July 1570 and again in 1571 the Hamiltons launched abortive military coups from their bases at Craignethan Castle and Hamilton Castle. During the second of these the new Regent for James VI, Earl Lennox, was also killed (see our Historical Timeline).
Hostilities paused in 1573, but in March 1578 James VI took personal control of the government at the age of 12. In May 1579 he moved against the Hamiltons and they were finally brought to account for their part in the deaths of James' two Regents in 1570 and 1571.
What is now known as Cadzow Castle fell quickly. Hamilton Castle was besieged for four days, and Craignethan Castle was expected to put up even stiffer resistance. But it was abandoned without a fight, and in the 1580s the main defences were demolished. Craignethan ceased to function as a castle after an active life of just 50 years. The tower house remained in use as a family residence, but was replaced in 1665 with a more modest and modern house in the south west corner of the outer courtyard by the castle's then owner, Andrew Hay.
Craignethan Castle assumed new significance in the 1800s when it was associated in popular imagination with Tillietudlem Castle, from Sir Walter Scott's novel "Old Mortality". Despite his denial of the link, a nearby branch line railway station, built later in the 1800s, was named Tillietudlem Station. This interest led to repairs starting on the castle at the end of the 1800s, and in 1949 Craignethan Castle was placed in the care of the State. Today it is looked after by Historic Scotland.
You approach Craignethan Castle on foot from the car park on the hillside to the west. As you see it laid out in front of you, your first impression is of the domestic buildings around the outer courtyard, and the tower house standing aloof beyond the defensive ditch. It comes as a surprise to find that there is a range of further buildings to the west of the tower house, and the tower house itself is unexpectedly complete and complex. The defensive ditch is also impressive, complete with a caponier in its bottom designed to allow defenders to shoot anyone getting that far.
Your surprise at the apparent completeness of the castle can be misleading. A glance at the guide book or information boards shows that in its heyday the most striking feature of the castle would have been the massive west rampart, rising sheer from the ditch and thick enough and high enough to protect the tower house and everything beyond it from the best artillery available in 1532. This rampart was demolished in the 1580s, with much of the spoil filling the ditch. The caponier was therefore a huge surprise when it was unearthed during excavation of the ditch in 1964, still containing animal bones believed to be the remains of the last meal of the defenders who deserted it without firing a shot in 1579.