The village of Menstrie is the most westerly of the line of "Hillfoot" villages that lie along the base of the Ochil Hills and divide Clackmannanshire's hilly northern half from its more populous southern half. Standing a little to the south of the A91 as it passes through the village is Menstrie Castle, which offers a heartening story of an important historic building that was very nearly lost altogether before being restored to use as part of the 1950s housing estate that now surrounds it.
Brown tourist signs lead the visitor from the A91 in the village to the castle, and your first impression is how incongruous it seems that the castle should be so closely surrounded by housing. You soon begin to appreciate, however, that it sits surprisingly well in its urban environment. This owes much to the fact that the castle was restored from a derelict ruin in the late 1950s as part of the project which also saw the surrounding housing built: and while nothing else nearby is on the same scale as Menstrie Castle, it all fits together very well.
As part of the restoration, much of the surviving structure of the castle was given over to flats, which gives it a literally "lived in" feel. But a range of rooms on the north end of the west wing of the castle were retained for public use, first as a library and later as a museum about the castle and its occupants. This is administered by the National Trust for Scotland and Clackmannanshire Council and is well worth a visit.
Some sources talk of a castle having stood in Menstrie since 1322, but if so it seems little or nothing remains of the original structure. The building you can see today had its origins in an L-plan crenellated mansion built in about 1560 by the Alexander family. This seems to have been extended by the addition of a north wing in the early 1600s, and by the extension eastwards of the south wing. Most sources suggest that a defensive wall was built to link the eastern ends of the north and south wings, enclosing a fairly large courtyard.
The entrance to the courtyard, a little surprisingly, was through an arch set in the west range of the castle rather than in the east wall. It may be this that has led some to suggest that the eastern side of the castle was enclosed by a range of buildings (perhaps even the principal range of buildings) rather than simply by a wall.
Menstrie Castle is best known as the birthplace in 1567 of Sir William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling. The Alexanders had lived in the area since the late 1400s, perhaps in a predecessor castle on the same site. As a very junior member of the aristocracy, the young Alexander was appointed tutor to the Earl of Argyll and spent time touring with him abroad. He subsequently became a gentleman usher to Prince Charles, the son of James VI. When the royal court moved to London in 1603 on James' accession to the English crown as James I, William Alexander moved with it, becoming Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and Master of the Household.
Increasingly known for his poetry and his rhymed tragedies, Alexander assisted the King in the preparation of "The Psalms of King David, translated by King James", and was later appointed by the King to be their sole printer. In 1614 he was knighted. In 1621 James VI/I granted Alexander vast tracts of land in North America. He christened his new lands "Nova Scotia" and set to work colonising them with Scots to whom he sold hereditary baronetcies (on behalf of the King) at £150 each, with considerable success.
In 1626, James appointed Sir William to the post of Secretary for Scotland, with the power to govern north of the border on the King's behalf. In 1628 Sir William was granted the lands and barony of Menstrie. In 1630 Sir William became Viscount of Stirling and Lord Alexander of Tullibody, and in 1633 he was further promoted through the ranks of the aristocracy to become the 1st Earl of Stirling. This may have been a consolation prize awarded to him by James VI/I, because in 1632 much of Nova Scotia had been lost to the French.
From about 1630 Sir William Alexander lived increasingly at his newly refurbished home in Stirling, Argyll's Lodging and it seems that Menstrie Castle was already abandoned by the time of his death in 1640. It was certainly empty when attacked and burned by James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose in 1645.
The castle and estate were purchased by Sir James Holbourne in 1649, and then by Alexander Abercromby of Tullibody in 1719. The Abercromby family owned the estate until 1924, although the buildings had begun to deteriorate much earlier. The most notable resident during this period was Sir Ralph Abercromby, who was born in the castle in 1734, and went on to lead the army that defeated Napoleon's troops at the Battle of Aboukir Bay in Egypt in 1801. Abercromby died of wounds received during the battle.
Visitors to Menstrie Castle in the 1880s commented: "Little is now left of this once very interesting building, and what little remains is turned to ignoble use". The castle was derelict by the 1950s, and would probably have been demolished had it not been for a campaign to restore it, which culminated in its incorporation into the housing development you now see around it.