Rowallan: History of the 800-year-old Ayrshire castle 

The castle's tower house was first constructed back in 1263 in East Ayrshire.

Rowallan Castle: Ancient building steeped in history. <strong>Creative Commons</strong>
Rowallan Castle: Ancient building steeped in history. Creative Commons

Located near Kilmarnock, the ancient Rowallan Castle dates back to the 13th century and is steeped in history.

The East Ayrshire Renaissance mansion is based around a two-storey tower house which was constructed in 1263.

The historically significant building is said to be the birthplace of Elizabeth Mure, the mistress and then wife of the High Steward and Guardian of Scotland who would later become Robert II of Scotland, and was the inspiration behind Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School in Glasgow.

Legends passed on through generations also tell of the castle being visited by the devil and a fox that lived in a tree in the garden.

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It was also the location for a controversial wedding between a baron and his transsexual wife which set a legal precedent for the next 34 years.

We take a look at the origins, history and legends of the 800-year-old castle.

The original tower house was constructed as a rectangular keep with a courtyard wall abutting the west side of the tower.

The castle stands on the banks of the Carmel Water, which may at one time have run much closer to the low eminence upon which the original castle stood, justifying the old name Craig of Rowallan.

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It was extended over the following century with the addition of another storey and two drum towers.

The Rowallan Estate took its present day form in 1513, the same year that John Mure of Rowallan was killed at the Battle of Flodden.

Near to the castle stood a stately ‘marriage tree’ on the bank known as ‘Janet’s Kirn’, Scots for ‘churn.’

Under this tree Dame Jean Mure of Rowallan was married to William Fairlie of Bruntsfield, an estate near Edinburgh.

The castle was modernised and the grounds re-landscaped from 1902-1906 by the well known architect Sir Robert Lorimer after the estate had been purchased by Archibald Corbett, the property developer and Liberal politician.

The 16th and 17th century structure was retained and the castle was placed in the care of Historic Scotland by the 3rd Baron Rowallan.

It left Historic Scotland’s care in 2015.

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Nearby excavations revealed cremation burials dating to at least the Bronze Age or even earlier, suggesting that the Rowallan site could have been in use for thousands of years.

Over the years the castle has been owned by various families and historical figures including the medieval Mure family, the (Boyle) Earls of Glasgow, the (Campbell) Earls of Loudoun, the (Corbett) Barons Rowallan and most recently the property developer Niall Campbell.

The former tower of Polkelly lay near Rowallan and was also held by the Mures until it was passed by marriage to the Cunninghams of Cunninghamhead.

The Campbells of Louden lived at the castle from the late 1600s until the mid 19th century.

Rowallan Estate: Seen from a sky view. Creative Commons

Rowallan’s chief claim to fame is that the earliest known lute music in Scotland was composed there.

It was also the birth place of Elizabeth Mure (Muir), first wife of Robert, the High Steward, who later became Robert II of Scotland.

King James I of Scotland is said to have visited the site when on his way from Edinburgh to England.

Sir J. Gilchrist, the first Mure holderm was buried in the Mure Aisle at Kilmarnock.

In 1970 3rd Baron Rowallan, Arthur Cameron Corbett had his second marriage annulled on the grounds that his transsexual wife was still classed as a man under then-current UK law.

The argument was accepted and the case served as a precedent for all such cases until the Gender Recognition Act, which provided the needed legal framework for changing a person’s legal gender, was passed in 2004.

Scotia Depicta: 1804 drawing of castle by artist John Claude Nattes. Creative Commons

As with most ancient buildings the history of Rowallan Castle is surrounded by many myths and urban legends that have been passed down through the generations.

One such legend claims that a crack on the staircase which leads up to the castle’s main doors was caused by the devil himself.

A poem called the devil visits Rowallan recalls the incident when “Auld Nick came crashing through the trees” before disappearing “like a rocket through the night”.

There is also a famous tale about a fox lived in a tree in the castle’s old garden.

The fox would watch the world go by from its perch and was sufficiently savvy to leave the house keepers chickens alone.

Legend has it that one day this fox encountered the local hunt and ran to cover in the tree, to the amazement and consternation of the hunters and hounds.

Despite the housekeeper dislodging the poor animal it still managed to escape the hunt and was back in its tree the following day as if nothing had happened.


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