Elcho Castle is not one of Scotland's best known or most visited castles, but it is one of the most enjoyable. If you want a castle that is sufficiently well preserved to give a real feel for the way its residents lived; that is large enough to give scope for exploration; that has a superb and fascinating setting; and that is only a few miles from one of Scotland's main motorways, then Elcho Castle is the place for you.
Elcho Castle's origins are a little obscure, and it is possible that William Wallace sheltered in an earlier defensive structure on this site. Whether or not this is true, nothing remains of an earlier castle today.
Today's castle dates back to about 1570. The land had been granted by James III to the Wemyss family in 1468. The assumed date of the building of the castle comes from a bill from a local merchant for ironwork thought to be for the grilles on the windows.
The head of the family was made both Lord Elcho and Earl of Wemyss in 1633. The castle's fortunes took a turn for the worse after David, Lord Elcho, fought on the losing side at the Battle of Culloden. He survived, but fled to France. The family continued to own the castle and estate, but in 1781 they moved their main focus to the Gosford Estate in East Lothian.
For much of its life Elcho Castle was made up of the massive tower house you can see and enjoy today, plus an outer courtyard and ranges of buildings to the south. Only small remnants of the outer buildings survive.
In 1830 the Eighth Earl of Wemyss re-roofed the tower house. At the same time he pulled down most of the buildings in the outer courtyard. Some of the material was recycled to build the strikingly attractive cottage that now helps give an impression of the way the castle used to look. The Eleventh Earl of Wemyss placed the castle in the care of the State in 1929, and today it is looked after by Historic Environment Scotland.
Elcho was built at a time when castles were increasingly being designed to provide a comfortable home for an extended family plus retainers, servants and others. Yet in 1570, Scotland was still two hundred years away from being a peaceful country. Elcho Castle was therefore designed to be both comfortable and easily defensible.
The ground floor shows most clearly the defensive design of the castle. There is only one door, set into the angle between the main body of the tower and the staircase tower, and approaches to it are covered by some of the 17 gunloops designed to provide all round protection for the castle. Windows are small and heavily barred, and much of the space is taken up by a kitchen complete with a hugely imposing fireplace and ovens, plus other vaulted storerooms and service areas.
The most important area of the castle, when it was built as well as today, is its first floor. This is reached by a curved stone stair set into the entrance tower: a staircase of a scale and grandeur that would put many much larger castles to shame. Much of the space on the first floor was given over to the castle's main hall where all public entertaining would have taken place. Beyond the hall, a doorway that links with the spiral service stairway leads to the castle's main bed chamber. In the hall and the chamber, and in a number of other rooms in the castle, is it still possible to see parts of the plaster applied to the inner surfaces of the walls.
Elcho Castle has two further upper floors. Only the second floor is now complete, though a number of the original floor beams that would have supported the third floor remain in place, giving a striking impression of how the castle would have functioned in earlier days. The floors are interestingly linked together by no fewer than three spiral staircases.
At roof level, the castle reverts to the defensive role seen in the ground floor. With walkways and guard towers you really are left with the impression that uninvited guests could be seen off with relative ease. Access to the roof walkways also provides visitors with some superb views over the surrounding countryside: and a real appreciation of the importance of the castle's location on the River Tay.
Elcho Castle's grounds still contain some partial remnants of the courtyard ranges of buildings. They also allow the visitor to explore the quarry that lies immediately to the north of the castle, and which probably provided the stone for its construction. Today this is used as a garden. For much of its life it was flooded and connected to the River Tay, in effect forming a private dock for the castle.
As you make your way back along the farm and estate roads that lead to the castle, keep a lookout on your left (on your right as you approach the castle) for the dovecot. An essential part of the food supply for many castles, Elcho's enjoys a lovely setting on the side of a millstream and has recently been restored. This allows you the opportunity to see what a dovecot was like: but without the all-too-common hazard seen in other dovecots of the aftermath of occupation by modern pigeons.