Scalloway Castle was built in 1600 by Earl Patrick Stewart to tighten his grip on Shetland. Its site in Shetland's then capital, Scalloway, was surrounded by the sea on three sides. And it was strategically placed to control the main access to Tingwall, the site since Norse times of the Parliament for Orkney and Shetland.
The Stewart family, as Earls of Orkney and Shetland, had a dramatic impact on both groups of islands. Robert Stewart was the illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland and one of his mistresses, Euphemia Elphinstone. He was born in 1533, and in 1564 he was given the Earldom of Orkney and Shetland and the position of the Sheriff of Orkney.Robert's interest lay mainly in the richer farmlands of Orkney and though he did build the Old House of Sumburgh, he left much of the day to day running of Shetland to his half brother Laurence Bruce, who was appointed Sheriff of Shetland.
Robert Stewart died in 1593 in the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall, largely unmourned by a population he had systematically oppressed. He was succeeded by his son, Earl Patrick, who took a much more direct interest in Shetland. Patrick also carried on the family traditions of corruption and brutality that had characterised his father's dealings on Orkney and those of Laurence Bruce on Shetland.Patrick's interest in Shetland caused Laurence Bruce to fear for his position, and he built Muness Castle on Unst in 1598 as a bolt-hole. His fears were to prove well founded. Two years later, in 1600, Earl Patrick confirmed his interest in Shetland by building Scalloway Castle.
Scalloway Castle was built under the direction of Andrew Crawford, the Earl's master of works, who had also built Muness Castle for Laurence Bruce. And given the similarities in style and sophistication, he also seems to have been the hand behind the later and grander Earl's Palace built in Kirkwall by Earl Patrick in 1607.
Patrick's growing collection of enemies eventually became just too numerous and too powerful. He was in prison in Edinburgh when his son Robert rose in revolt in 1614 and seized Kirkwall. It took a royal army under the Earl of Caithness and a siege (during which Kirkwall Castle was destroyed and St Magnus Cathedral was threatened) to displace him, and both Patrick and his son Robert were later executed. It is an oft-quoted comment on Patrick's ignorance that his execution had to be delayed to give him time to learn the Lord's Prayer.
After Patrick's demise, Scalloway Castle remained the administrative centre for Shetland and it was still in good shape when used as a barracks for Cromwell's troops in the 1650s. By 1700 there were reports that the roof was leaking, and the shift of Shetland's capital to Lerwick a few years later confirmed Scalloway Castle's decline.
The last straw was the removal in 1754 of much of the stone from the lesser buildings that originally surrounded the tower house to build a nearby mansion. In 1908 the castle was placed in the care of the State, and it is now looked after by Historic Scotland.
Scalloway Castle today is in some ways a little sad. The tower house itself has been extensively restored over the past century, but nothing visible remains of the surrounding walls and buildings. And the latter half of the 1900s saw the point on which the tower house house stands gradually surrounded by reclaimed land and harbour developments. The result is a little reminiscent of a beached whale: striking, impressive, but stranded in an alien environment.
What is really lovely, however, is the feeling of exclusivity you get when retrieving the key to the castle (usually from the Shetland Woollen Company shop just up the hill, see details on the right). Before entering, make sure you take note of the spectacular corbelling at every corner of the tower house, a trademark of Andrew Crawford.
Once inside your own castle you rapidly lose the sense of the boisterous new neighbours and start to appreciate the wonders of the building. Internally the ground floor reveals the vaulted store, used as an exhibition area, and kitchen, complete with one of the handiest wells you are likely to find anywhere. Plus a porter's Lodge that could double as a prison.
Most visitors to the castle during its active life would have headed directly up the main staircase on entering the tower. This is a grand affair of wide steps and square landings and leads directly up to the hall on the first floor. Today the hall is open to the elements. There were originally two more floors above it, providing secure accommodation for the castle's most important residents.
Spiral stairs from opposing corners of the main hall originally led up to these higher floors. One is long gone. The other still provides access to rooms in the south wing of the castle, one of which is open to visitors. This gives a higher level view of the great hall, and a sense of just how grand a place this would have been in its all too brief heyday.