The A71 from Edinburgh to Kilmarnock and beyond passes through the small South Lanarkshire town of Strathaven. En route it passes beneath the north wall of Strathaven Castle, sometimes known as Avondale Castle, which stands proudly on a rocky outcrop that drops even more steeply on its other three sides to the Powmillon Burn, a tributary of the nearby Avon Water.
In recent years the trees that once obscured the castle from the road, and from the rest of Strathaven, have been cut down, and as a result the structure feels much more a part of the town than it used to do. Access is by means of a sloping path that leads you up to the north east corner of the castle.
From here you can either stroll along the front of the north wall, or go round the back to explore the rest of the structure. Assuming you do the latter, you soon discover that once you look beyond the still impressive facade facing the town, there is surprisingly little left of the castle other than some low walls and a finger-like stump of masonry pointing skywards.
The design of Strathaven Castle was unusual. It comprised a fairly narrow rectangular structure, with towers at the north west and south east corners. As we've already noted, the north wall and north west tower are still sufficiently well preserved to give an idea of how the castle looked from this side. The stump at the rear of the castle is the most significant remaining part of the south wall; and nothing remains of the south east tower beyond low lines of walls at just above ground level. It is likely that the south east tower was rectangular rather than circular in plan.
Further walls surrounded a larger area which provided space for various domestic and service buildings, but nothing of the wall remains; and of the ancillary buildings, only the corn mill to the east of the castle is still standing.
Strathaven Castle occupies a site whose defensive potential is obvious. The first stone castle on the site seems to have been built here in about 1350 by the Baird family, possibly replacing an earlier wooden defensive structure. It later became a property of the Earls of Douglas. In 1455 King James II responded to fears this branch of the family, the Black Douglases, were becoming too powerful, and took steps to suppress them. Their lands were confiscated, their castles were attacked, and as part of this, Strathaven Castle was reduced to rubble.
The estates in the area were passed to Sir Andrew Stewart, 1st Lord of Avondale, and it was he who built the castle whose remains you see today, in the years from 1458. The castle was strengthened in the 1530s, and in 1611 the castle and estates were sold to the 2nd Marquis of Hamilton. The family's primary home was at Hamilton Palace, but for a century they did spend time in Strathaven. The last of the family to do so was Anne Hamilton, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton, who died in 1716. The castle was abandoned as a home some years later. Nature didn't help. In 1736 the castle was badly damaged by lightning, and in January 1737 what was left of the roof blew off in a storm. In 1740 the Hamiltons removed the main gates for reuse in the family tomb, and the townspeople seem to have taken this as their cue to use what was left as a quarry for building projects in Strathaven.
In 1826 the main east-west road through Strathaven was moved to its current line, immediately in front of the castle. In 1912 what was left of the castle was "consolidated" by the expedient of lining the rear of the surviving north wall in concrete, giving the impression of a defensive structure of the 1940s rather than the 1450s.
But despite all the indignities (and concrete) poured upon it, Strathaven Castle still has a certain atmosphere and you can readily imagine this as the starting point of the various secret passages to different parts of the town that are reputed to exist, or the place where the wife of one lord was entombed within the wall and left to die.
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Grid Ref: NS 704 444