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Newark Castle is a fine and well-preserved building sitting on the south shore of the Firth of Clyde and enjoying wonderful views across the river. Its setting is an unexpected one. It lies close to the centre of Port Glasgow and immediately to its west is a shipyard. It's all the more surprising to find that until the 1980s another shipyard occupied the now landscaped areas to the east of Newark Castle and to the south of it: in effect completely surrounding it.
It all looked very different in 1478 when George Maxwell inherited the Barony of Finlanstone and built a castle on this highly desirable site. Parts of George Maxwell's castle remain visible in the structure you see today. The core of it was the tower house that forms the end of the east wing. The gatehouse that forms the west wing was also a part of the original castle.
In 1478 the tower house would have stood within a walled enclosure or barmkin whose entrance was through the gatehouse. Nothing remains of the outer defensive wall, though the dovecot was a later conversion of one of its original corner towers.
Within the barmkin wall there would have been a number of other buildings, including a hall that was probably demolished to make way for the later north range. Service buildings like a bakehouse and brew house would also have been built against the inner side of defensive wall, though again these are long gone.
Major changes were made to Newark Castle by the most notorious of George Maxwell's descendants, Sir Patrick Maxwell. A friend of James VI and a power in the land in his own right, Sir Patrick murdered two members of a rival family. He was also a wife beater whose long-suffering wife eventually left him, though not before producing 16 children.
This large family brought to a head the need for more accommodation. In 1597 Sir Patrick made the changes that resulted in the building you see today. The main addition was the north range. In effect a three storey Renaissance mansion linking together the older tower and gatehouse, this dramatically increased both the quality and quantity of space available to the family.
At the same time the barmkin wall was demolished, save for the north east tower, which became a dovecot. And the tower roof was converted from defensive battlements into something more suited to leisure than warfare.
By the late 1600s Glasgow authorities had long been wrestling with the problem of creating a deep water channel along the River Clyde as far as Glasgow itself. To overcome this they looked further down river and in 1668 purchased 18 acres of land around Newark Castle from the then laird, Sir George Maxwell. This was developed as a port to help service Glasgow: hence "Port Glasgow".
In 1694 the last Maxwell died and the castle was sold to the first of a series of non-resident owners, the last of whom passed Newark Castle into state care in 1909. It is now looked after by Historic Scotland.
Newark Castle had a number of uses during the interim. One of the early tenants was a ropemaker called John Orr. He also made money dealing in wild animals such as big cats and bears, which he acquired from ships visiting the Clyde. His animals were often housed in the castle cellars.
A few years later the cellars in the north range were used to store fruit grown by Charles Williamson, who rented the gardens. He ended up blocking access to the cellars from the hall above them to prevent John Gardner, the joiner who rented the hall, from stealing stored fruit.
Having emerged from its centuries totally hidden by shipyards, today's Newark Castle makes a fascinating visit. There's plenty to explore, and the experience is enhanced by the River Clyde frontage, by the views from the tower, and by the highly unusual history and surroundings.