Castles of the Calders

Article in the Konect Directory, Calders edition, August 2010

by Helen-Jane Shearer

Strathbrock Castle

Very few details are available about Strathbrock Castle. It was built during the 12th century and the town of Strabrok - now Uphall - grew up around it. The exact location of it is unclear today, as while a small motte was recorded as still existing in the mid 19th century, even that has now disappeared. The town had a turbulent history, being burnt to the ground by English invaders in the 1330s.  The estates of the area belonged to the Douglases, and during their conflict in 1455 with King James II many of their properties were destroyed. Strathbrock Castle survived, although it passed out of their hands and was eventually left to fall derelict. One local tradition claims that during the 17th century the bodies of plague victims were thrown into the cellars of the derelict castle.

It is possible that the stone acorns now at Houston House are the only remains of Strathbrock Castle, and that they were decorative gateposts.  

Castle Greg

This one is not a medieval castle, but a small Roman fort on the edge of the Camilty Plantation near Harburn, West Calder.   Dating from the 1st Century AD,  all that remains today are the well-preserved earthworks, a small neat rectangular formation with rounded corners, of approximately one acre.  Castle Greg was most likely a staging post along a main east/west artery linking Lothian and Strathclyde.  Fragments of pottery and quite a few coins were found at this site during excavations in the 19th century.  Roman remains are relatively rare in Scotland, as we well know that the Romans met their match in the Caledonian tribes and their rule over Scotland was brief and unsuccessful.  However the Votadini tribes of this area (roughly between the Forth and Hadrian’s Wall) cooperated with the Romans, and when the Romans had to retreat to Hadrian’s Wall, the Votadini provided a friendly buffer zone between them and the other Caledonian tribes. So our ancestors in this area perhaps displayed, depending on your point of view, a lack of the braveheart spirit or shrewd business sense - it seems that they were richly rewarded for their cooperation!

Model of Castle Greg - Artist's impression by Martin McGregor

Satellite view of Castle Greg earthworks today 

With little action, life would have been pretty boring for the Roman soldiers stationed here at Castle Greg on this lonely bleak moor.  It’s still a lonely place as you drive past it today on the B7008 from Harburn to the A70. 

Pumpherston Castle

Pumpherston Castle was the stronghold around which the town of Pumpherston grew up.  Although there are no remains, it is believed to have stood in the field north east of the current Pumpherston farm house.  It probably began life as a wooden structure in the 12th century.  The Pumpherston estate was in the hands of the Douglas family from around 1499 until the death of the last Douglas of Pumpherston, James Douglas, in around 1696. The castle ceased to have a resident landlord in the 18th century, as the estate was aquired as an investment rather than as a residence by the Earl of March and later by the Earl of Houptoun.  Whilst the lands were surveyed and improved, by 1838 we learn from John Sommers that the castle ‘‘has long been in ruins and has lately been entirely removed.’’  Some of the stone dykes around Pumpherston Farm may have been built using stone from the ruined castle.

Cairns Castle

This is a small castle built around 1440, the remains of which now stand in private property on the edge of Harperrig reservoir.   

Originally an L-shape, only one tower of Cairns Castle remains today, standing about 40ft tall, lower than its original height of 60 or 70 ft. It is quite unstable.  It had a dungeon, a vaulted basement where livestock were probably kept in times of danger, and living areas on the upper floors. 

This area was very important in the Middle Ages as it was adjacent to a busy pass through the Pentlands known as the Cauldstane Slap, between East and West Cairn hills.  This was a cattle droving route from the Falkirk markets down to England, and cattle reivers were so common on the bleak heather-covered land here that it was known as the Thieves’ Road.  The builder of Cairns Castle, Sir George Crichton of Carnys, charged himself with keeping ward of this gate through the Pentlands.  The gap in the hills here also made it easy for theives to break in and steal livestock on the Cairns and Colzium estates, and numerous raids are recorded, notably one August in 1600 when a band of thieves raided land which is now under Harperrig reservoir, taking cattle and horses and killing their keepers.

Cairns Castle on the bank of Harperrig reservoir 

Illieston Castle

Illieston Castle, located on the edge of the River Almond, was built around 1663.  The Illieston estate is of ancient date; Scottish kings, in particular James II and James IV, are said to have had a hunting lodge in this area. The main house and its adjacent kitchen garden is all that remains today of the original 17th century building, and it has been renovated as a private home.  

According to ‘‘Haunted Places of Scotland’’ by Martin Coventry, ‘‘a ghostly horseman, shrouded in black and with a naked skull for a head, is said to have been seen riding from Illieston down the tracks towards the nearby waterfalls on the River Almond’’.

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