The castell toure and fortalice biggit be Patrik Dowglas of Kilspindie

Kilspindie Castle, Aberlady – not the most exciting ruined castle to visit, and only two definite facts are known about it. Yet it was directly involved in some of the most dramatic episodes in Scotland’s history …

The ruins of Kilspindie Castle stand in the Glebe Field, between the church and Aberlady Bay. They consist mainly of a short stretch of wall with a narrow doorway and a gunloop next to it.

IN OCTOBER 1612, King James VI’s parliament met in Edinburgh. It got through a great deal of business over the course of a few days, including shutting down the parish church at Gullane and ‘translating’ it to Dirleton because it was ‘incommodiously situated beside the seashore’ and ‘continually overblown with sand’.

One of Parliament’s actions was to ratify – that is, give the official stamp of approval to – a charter of February 1611 by which Alexander Lindsay, bishop of Dunkeld, handed possession of the lands of ‘Abirladye’ to ‘his majesty’s trusty and well-beloved councillor, Sir Alexander Hay, knight’.

The bishop’s charter specifically excluded the manse and glebe at Aberlady – the minister’s house and the land that kept his household provided with food – which were set aside for ‘the ministers serving the cure at the kirk’. 

However, it included the estate farm, ‘the mains of Aberlady’, along with ‘lands called the mansion and bakehouse croft adjacent thereto’. It included ‘the teind sheaves of the same’ – the tithe or tenth part of the produce of those lands, consisting mostly of wheat, barley and oats, which would usually be payable to the feudal owner, in this case the bishop.

It included ‘the office of bailiary … with all liberties, privileges, casualties, fees and duties belonging to the said office’, giving Sir Alexander the right to collect the teinds of all the other estates in the parish of Aberlady – those of Luffness, Ballencrieff, Gosford and Spittal – as well as the teinds of the crofts belonging to the householders living in the town itself.

And it included ‘the links of Aberlady with all their pertinents, together with the castle tower and fortalice built by Patrick Douglas of Kilspindie upon the north part of the said lands of Aberlady towards the sea’.

The troublesome Douglases

This record from 1612, telling us that the castle was built by Patrick Douglas, is actually one of only two definite known facts about the castle. The other is from many years later and tells us he built it in 1585.

However, that isn’t the start and end of the story. Quite the opposite. As soon as you start trying to figure out who Patrick Douglas was, and how he came to build his tower in Aberlady, you discover a family connection with momentous events in Scotland’s history.

Tantallon Castle, home of the Douglas Earls of Angus.

The story starts with the death of King James IV, killed at Flodden in September 1513, the last British monarch to die in battle. Essentially he was fighting on behalf of France to open up a second front against the English.

His son James was crowned king when less than a year and a half old, and the boy’s mother, Margaret Tudor – the daughter of Henry VII and sister of Henry VIII, the reigning king of England – became regent.

Margaret was pregnant at the time and her second son, Alexander, was born in April 1514. And yet by August she was married again, to Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, a young buck in his mid-twenties based at Tantallon Castle in East Lothian.

Archibald was the grandson of the 5th Earl, also Archibald, a proper broadsword-wielding tough guy, known as ‘Bell the Cat’ because of his willingness to take on dirty work that nobody else wanted to do – such as conspiring against his king and making deals with England. Too old to fight at Flodden, the 5th Earl died a month after, in October 1513, at Whithorn.

The 5th Earl had four sons. The two eldest – George, father of the 6th Earl, and William – both died at Flodden. The third was Gavin, who later became bishop of Dunkeld; and the fourth was another Archibald, later known as Sir Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie. A. D. of K. was, therefore, the uncle of Archibald the 6th Earl of Angus, who from now on we will call just Angus.

Fighting for the Crown

Margaret’s marriage to Angus begins one of those phases of Scottish history where a young king or queen becomes a token of power, like a sceptre, grabbed and held on to by those who wished to rule.

In May 1515, John Stewart, Duke of Albany, grandson of James II and next in line to the throne, arrived from his home in France to take over as regent with the support of the bulk of the Scottish nobility. Margaret fled to England, where in October 1515 her daughter with Angus, another Margaret, was born at Harbottle Castle in Northumberland. Meanwhile Angus himself was hanging out with Lady Jane Stuart of Traquair, to whom he may previously have been married.

The fortunes of the various parties fluctuated. In 1519, Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie was chosen as Lord Provost of Edinburgh, but Albany prevented him from taking up the role. In 1521, Margaret teamed up with Albany and Angus was charged with treason and packed off to France.

In 1524, Angus returned to Scotland and in 1525, he managed to win enough support from his fellow nobles that he was able to take custody of the young king and set himself up as regent.

For the next three years, the Douglases were in charge.

Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus.

From 1525 to 1528, while his nephew was effectively running the country, Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie became Lord High Treasurer of Scotland and, perhaps more importantly, a guardian of the young James V. The king was said to have ‘loved [him] singularly well for the ability of his body’ and gave him the nickname ‘Grey Steel’ after a character from a ballad.

However, the rule of the Douglases was not to last. In May 1528, Kilspindie had excused himself from the presence of the young king at Falkland Palace – according to rumour, so he could visit his mistress at Dundee – when James escaped to the castle at Stirling where his mother, recently divorced from Angus, was staying.

Fall of the Douglases

A colourful account of James’s escape from captivity is told by Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, writing in the 1570s. He describes how James first set up a decoy by arranging a hunt for the morning, then late at night, ‘when the watch was set and all things at quietness’, swapped clothes with ‘a yeoman of the stable’ and escaped on horseback that night, reaching Stirling ‘by the breaking of day’.

The 16-year-old king took up the reins of power; the Douglases – specifically, Angus, his brother George and their uncle Archibald – forfeited their lands and were exiled to England, although not before a massive siege in October 1528 had failed to bring about the surrender of Tantallon Castle.

There’s a lovely story told by David Hume of Godscroft, historian of the Douglases, writing in the 1620s. After several years of exile in England, Archibald D. of K. found that ‘he could not well comport with the humour of that nation, which he thought to be too proud’, so he snuck back to Scotland and approached the king in the park at Stirling to beg forgiveness.

The king would not listen, but rode back up to the castle gate, where Archibald followed. Later the king heard that Archibald had asked for a drink of water, but the castle servants had refused; the king rebuked them for their discourtesy and said that ‘if he had not taken an oath, that no Douglas should ever serve him, he would have received him into his service, for he had seen him sometime a man of great abilitie’. None the less, the king ordered Archibald to go to France, where he died not long after.

After his dispossession in 1528, Archibald was referred to in parliamentary records as ‘sometime of Kilspindie’; and then in 1538, as ‘the late Archibald, sometime of Kilspindie’.

Douglas of Kilspindie

Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out where Kilspindie is. It is a small place in Perthshire, north of the Tay, roughly six miles from Perth and twelve from Dundee, beside a stretch of excellent farmland known as the Carse of Gowrie. It, too, had a castle, presumably the home of the Douglases of Kilspindie, but this castle has long since disappeared and only a few carved stones from it remain.

Kilspindie, Perthshire.

When and how Archibald Douglas came into possession of Kilspindie is not recorded, but a reasonable guess would be that he was given the lands when a young man by his father, the 5th Earl, to set him up in life.

Since the feudal superior of the land at Kilspindie was the archbishop of St Andrews, it would have needed a friendly archbishop. A possible candidate is Alexander Stewart, archbishop from 1504 to 1513, who was the illegitimate son of King James IV. His mother was a niece of the 5th Earl of Angus.

There is, alternatively, a story from David Hume of Godscroft in which the 5th Earl of Angus is publicly insulted at court by a gentleman named Spense of Kilspindie. A short while after, the pair happen to run into each other beside a stream at Fala and the earl takes the opportunity to express his hurt feelings by hacking ‘Spense’s thigh-bone asunder, so that he fell to the ground and died soon after’. Some commentators have suggested this act of violence somehow meant the lands of Kilspindie were transferred to the earl, but this is fanciful.

Kilspindie in Aberlady

It seems likely – again, because the feudal owner was the bishop of Dunkeld – that Douglas of Kilspindie first got his hands on Aberlady when there was a friendly bishop in post; and in fact we need look no further than Archibald’s older brother, Gavin Douglas.

Gavin was an internationally renowned literary figure, famous for translating Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots, with a successful career in the church. The boost to his family’s fortunes during Margaret’s regency brought him the abbacy of Arbroath in 1514, but his appointment to St Andrews that same year was blocked by political rivals. After a period of imprisonment early in Albany’s regency, he became bishop of Dunkeld from 1516; but he was forced out in 1521 and died in 1522 in London, of the plague.

There is also evidence that the Douglases did not have a connection with Aberlady before 1517, in the form of a set of accounts from Dunkeld covering the period from 1505 to 1517.

It is not at all clear why the bishopric of Dunkeld had possessions south of the Forth, but as well as Aberlady, it owned Abercorn and Cramond west of Edinburgh, and Bonkle (or Bonkyl, or Bunkle) and Preston on the south side of the Lammermuirs. These parishes were grouped together as the barony of Aberlady. In common with the other lands of the bishopric, their role was to provide income for the bishop in the form of both money and farm produce, and accounts were kept of their contributions.

Most of Dunkeld’s records vanished after the Reformation when the church lost its estates, but the accounts for 1505 to 1517 survive and these were translated from Latin and published under the title Rentale Dunkeldense by the Scottish History Society in 1915. There’s some fascinating stuff in there: but for now the important thing is that there is no mention of the Douglases. The role of ‘bailie of the barony of Abbirlathy’ is held by John Broun of Colstoun (south of Haddington).

In all, it seems more than likely that ownership of Aberlady passed to Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie between 1517 and 1521, while Gavin Douglas was bishop of Dunkeld.

King James V – unforgiving of the Douglases.

Kilspindie revival

In 1540, King James granted a ‘general remission’ forgiving his ‘lords, barons and all his lieges’ for their ‘offences and crimes of treason and otherwise’. Yet his grudge against the Douglases persisted and he specifically excluded the 6th Earl of Angus, his brother George, and even their late uncle, Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie.

However, the pendulum swings. James V died in 1542 and was succeeded by his daughter, Mary, then just six days old, with James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, acting as regent.

As early as March 1543, the Douglas forfeiture was ‘rescinded, made void and annulled’ by parliament. Archibald had been survived by a son, another Archibald, and as if by magic, he now became the second Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie, his father’s lands restored to him.

The restoration of his father’s valuable estates inevitably helped Archibald II’s career and he became Provost of Edinburgh from 1553 to 1557, and again from 1559 to 1565. He had a son, also Archibald; who had a son, Patrick; who built the castle at Aberlady.

The Aberlady connection

It is not easy to trace evidence for the Douglases of Kilspindie owning the land at Aberlady before Patrick built his castle there, but there is a little.

In 1561, Queen Mary did a deal to restore the ‘churchmen and prelates … to their livings, rents, possessions and jurisdictions’, which had been taken away from them in the Reformation. In return, the churchmen agreed to provide Mary with a quarter of their income for one year.

Mary, Queen of Scots about 1560.

This led to the accounts of all church estates being collected in the ‘Books of Assumptions’ in 1562, listing income from both tithes (‘teind’) and rent (‘ferme’). An extract covering Dunkeld has survived.

These accounts say that payments for Aberlady are owed by (‘rest be’) Archibald Douglas and that Aberlady ‘teind and ferme wes set of old to Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie’.

Intriguingly, there is also mention of a dispute between Archibald Douglas and Robert Crichton, then Bishop of Dunkeld, in which the bishop claimed that payments for Aberlady should be higher than Archibald thought fair. The matter was decided in favour of Archibald Douglas.

Funnily enough, there is further evidence of bad blood between the bishop and Archibald Douglas II of Kilspindie, dating from six years before, in November 1556, when Robert Crichton and two others were warned ‘to underly the law for convocation of the lieges’, having gathered a force of ‘280 persons armed in warlike manner’ and sent them ‘searching for Archibald Dowglas of Kilspindy, for his Slaughter, at the Town of Abirlady’.

Nowhere is it recorded what this dispute was about.

After Mary

Mary’s confused and chaotic reign came to an end on June 15, 1567, at Carberry Hill, near Musselburgh, when forces led by the queen and her new husband, the Earl of Bothwell, were faced by troops raised by her opponents among the Scottish nobles. She gave up without a fight. In July, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son and in May 1568, she escaped from imprisonment and fled to England.

But Mary still had her supporters. Among them was Robert Crichton, who became one of the ‘castilians’ who held Edinburgh Castle in the queen’s name from 1570 to 1573, defying the forces of the young king until a massive siege in April and May 1573, supported by troops and artillery from England.

The only reference to ‘Archibald Dowglas younger of Kilspindie’, the third Archibald, is from the time of this siege, when he is sent with three other gentlemen’s sons from Holyrood to Berwick-upon-Tweed to be held by the English ‘as pledges for the army and artillery that is to come to Scotland, for the assieging of the castle’.

In May 1584, James VI’s parliament clarified that Robert Crichton would be given back the ‘lands, rents, possessions, rooms, houses, benefices, offices, liferents, honours, privileges and dignities’ that he forfeited in 1571 after he joined the queen’s supporters inside the castle. However, the king’s generous offer specifically states that ‘the same extend not in hurt and prejudice’ of the rights of Patrick Douglas of Kilspindie to the lands and income of both Aberlady and Cramond.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Patrick built his castle the year after this royal judgment.

Kilspindie Castle shown as ‘Aberlady Place’ on a map by John Adair, 1685-7.

The castell tour and fortalice

In 1793, Aberlady’s minister, the Rev. Neil Roy, wrote a ‘Topographical Description of the Parish’ for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He gets a little confused about the different Douglases, but he states:

‘This Patrick … built the castle of Kilspindy 1585, as appears by the initials of his name, and his arms over the principal door.’

Evidently in Roy’s time the castle still stood at least to first floor height and he could read the carved initials over the door.