Saltcoats Castle is little known and difficult to see from any distance away. Yet it stands just half a mile to the south of Gullane in East Lothian, and is easily accessible from the village along Saltcoats Road and the farm track that passes to the west of Saltcoats itself. This track should not be confused with the better signposted disused railway line that remains in use as a footpath a little to the west.
If you do decide to visit, take great care. Parts of the remaining stonework are very obviously unstable, and a large block of stone (or, for that matter a small one) dropping from height could seriously spoil the day of anyone standing underneath at the time. Saltcoats is one of those sad castles that appear to have been entirely left to the encroaching vegetation. At some point in the past someone has clearly made an effort to secure the access from both the east and west sides. At some more recent time these efforts have been circumvented, and paths trampled through the nettles that now cover almost every surface suggests we were not the first to be drawn to this intriguing building. Oh, yes, the nettles: Saltcoats Castle is not a place to be visited wearing sandals and shorts.
Saltcoats Castle appears to have been built by the Livingstone (or Livingston or Livingstoun) family. An armorial panel said to be located above the door of one of the nearby ruined buildings (we couldn't find it) seems to have been relocated from above the main entrance of the castle. This carries the initials of Peter Livingstone and his wife, Margaret Fettis of Fawside. Someone has tried to alter the date on the panel to 1390, but it seems likely it originally read 1590 and can be taken to date both the wedding and the first stage of the castle. There is an attractive legend that the land here was granted to Peter Livingstone as a reward for hunting down and killing a wild boar that had been terrorising Gullane. It is also said that the name "Saltcoats" reflects the fact that this area was at the time a salt marsh.
The attempt on the armorial panel to backdate the ruins by two centuries had already happened when the castle was visited by David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, the authors of a definitive guide to castles published in 1892. The castle was a property of the Hamiltons of Pencaitland in the 1700s, and MacGibbon and Ross note that the last tenant of the building, a Mrs Carmichael, lived there until about 1800. They comment that the castle stood complete until about 1810, but over the following ten years was quarried for stone for use in farm buildings and walls in the area.
In its prime, Saltcoats Castle would have been a truly remarkable building that didn't conform to the norms of castles of the era. Though much of what remains is obscured by vegetation, the main castle comprised a square walled courtyard. There seems to have been a range of buildings along the north side of the courtyard, of which the main remnant is what is believed to have been a kitchen at the north-east corner. The remains of a lectern dovecote also stand nearby.
Much more significant was the south range. This may have been completed in its current form, with its grand western frontage, in the mid 1600s. The south range comprised a two storey plus attic block which terminated at its west end in a rather taller double tower The twin towers that flank the west front of the castle are circular at ground level, and then corbel out to a square plan at first floor level. The ground floor of the towers are home to some impressive "four leaved clover" style gun loops.
The main feature of the west front was, and remains, a very impressive high level arch which linked together the two corner towers. When MacGibbon and Ross visited, the west front extended upwards to reveal a line of gargoyles that have since been lost, together, if you compare their drawings with our photographs, with a few feet off the top of the building.
By some accounts the courtyard may have extended to the west of these buildings, though probably not as far as it has since the 1820s, when a range of cottages and other buildings (all now also derelict) were built enclosing that side of the complex. To the south of the castle, an outer courtyard enclosed by more walls apparently originally contained gardens. Today this area is home to yet more nettles if you encounter it at the right (or wrong) time of the year.