The tiny coastal hamlet of Portencross stands at the end of the B7048 a little under two miles west of West Kilbride in North Ayrshire. From its junction with the A78 the road to Portencross is not quite single track in width, but it is narrow enough to induce a slight wince if anyone driving the other way seems to be progressing too enthusiastically. On arrival in Portencross visitors should park in the obvious large car park on the left, from which it is a walk of not much more than a couple of hundred yards to Portencross Castle.
Portencross Castle is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when everyone involved in a project works together to overcome problems. Back in the middle of the first decade of the current century the main problem was an all too obvious one. Portencross Castle was in severe danger of serious structural collapse. Sporadic efforts had been made to consolidate the ruin during the 1980s, but the location, easily within reach of the waves that sweep its rocky platform on a regular basis, only worsened the problems faced by all old buildings. And then there was the tree growing on the roof whose roots threatened to bring down the upper parts of the structure.
In 1998 a local charity, the Friends of Portencross Castle (FOPC), realised that if nothing was done the castle might simply cease to exist. The castle featured, unsuccessfully, in the second series of the BBC TV program Restoration in 2004. In 2005, ownership was transferred to FOPC by the previous owners, British Nuclear Fuels Limited, who had acquired it along with the nearby Hunterston Nuclear Power Stations.
In 2007, FOPC were successful in putting together a funding package of just over £1 million involving support from The Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, and the Architectural Heritage Fund, plus contributions from North Ayrshire Council and many individuals. Work to restore the castle began in March 2009, and was completed in September 2010.
During this time the exterior stonework had to be consolidated and repaired; the interiors restored as far as possible to their original state; and necessary modern additions made such as the magnificent steel and oak spiral staircase. As a scheduled ancient monument, any changes to the structure had to be agreed by a number of bodies, and it seems that in the case of Portencross Castle the threat to the future of the castle was seen as being so severe that more flexibility was given than is sometimes the case. The result is an absolute triumph.
Today's visitors enter via a door in the slight angle between the main west wing of the castle and its subsidiary east wing. You'd normally expect the wing of a tower house to form an "L" with the main block. Here, perhaps because of the tightness of the shoreside site, the east wing is built onto the end of the west wing. There are a set of straight stairs to your left, while ahead is the cellar, home to the best collection of information boards you are likely to find anywhere.
Climbing the stairs brings you to the first floor level of the castle. In the east wing at this level is the upper of the two kitchens (unusually) found in Portencross Castle: the other is immediately below it. The upper floors in the east wing are missing, affording views right up to the roof. These would originally have offered living quarters. In the west wing at first floor level is the great hall, still the most magnificent space in the castle, complete with its high vaulted ceiling.
A spiral staircase takes you, vertiginously in places, up to the roof level of the castle. Here a wonderful viewing platform has been constructed, complete with more outstanding information panels.
The origins of Portencross Castle can be seen from the viewing platform. Immediately to the east of the village is Auld Hill. On the top of the hill it is still possible to see traces of an iron age dun or hilltop fort, probably occupied during the last centuries BC and first centuries AD.
An enduring legend from the 800s to 1000s is that the bodies of Kings of Scotland, who were traditionally buried on Iona at the time, were brought overland to Portencross and then transferred to ships for the final part of their journey. In the 1100s a stone defensive fort was built on the same site as the dun on the top of Auld Hill, at a time when the Scottish Crown and Vikings were fighting for control of the western seaboard of Scotland.
In 1315, a year after the Battle of Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce gave the lands around Portencross to Sir Robert Boyd of Kilmarnock. In about 1360 the Boyds replaced the old fort on Auld Hill with a new castle on the shore. This initially comprised a stone hall-house, the lower part of the west wing you see today. There was probably also a stone wall across the promontory to the south-east of the castle, and possibly a less substantial east wing. King Robert II and his son Robert III were both frequent visitors to the castle in the late 1300s, and it seems that during this time the east wing was increased in size and height, to offer additional and more secure accommodation.
During the 1400s the castle was raised in height. In the west wing this provided space for the high vaulted great hall, with the lord's accommodation above it. In the east wing it allowed more levels of chambers to be built. The castle was topped off with battlemented wallwalks. Up until this point the only access to the castle had been at first floor level, but it seems a second door was added, at ground floor level, during the 1400s.
The Boyd family continued to occupy the castle until the restoration of Charles II in 1660, after which they moved to a nearby mansion. A surviving inventory of the castle from 1621 lists, amongst other items, six feather beds with their furniture.
When the Boyd family moved out of Portencross Castle, local fishermen and their families took up residence in a building that must have been ideal for living and for storing equipment. The Boyds sold their estates in the area in 1737, and two years later a violent winter storm blew the roof off the castle.
William Adams purchased the castle and estate in 1900, and efforts to restore the castle included the addition of a concrete roof to the east wing in 1910. Later, the South of Scotland Electricity Board took over most of the Hunterston peninsula, including the castle. Their successor, British Nuclear Fuels Limited, consolidated the exterior walls in the 1980s as part of work to conserve the castle, but as already described its future was only secured when the Friends of Portencross Castle arrived on the scene.