Photographs of Elcho Castle.
Videos of Elcho Castle.
at Easter Elcho, Rhynd in Perth and Kinross, Elcho Castle was
built in the latter half of the 16th century for the Wemyss
family, whose descendents still own it, although it is now in
the care of Historic Scotland. Overlooking the River Tay, the
tower-shaped castle has many original features, including the
ruins of the courtyard, the chapel and a round tower with kiln.
has been in the ownership of the Wemyss family for five and
a half centuries, if not longer. It was part of the possessions
confirmed to Sir John Wemyss of Wemyss by James III in 1468,
and is still owned by the earls of Wemyss. The date when the
present castle began to be built is uncertain, though it was
probably in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. We know
that the lands were confirmed to Sir John Wemyss in 1552, and
this may have been a way of ensuring that his title to it was
sound before he started a major campaign of rebuilding. He was
certainly able to sign a charter at Elcho in 1558, though that
does not necessarily mean that the new house was complete, since
there must already have been a house on the site before the
one we now see. However, there is a record that in 1570 the
laird of Wemyss owed the late Thomas Bryson or Boynting the
sum of £7 for ironwork, and it is tempting to suspect
that this was for the wrought iron grilles or yetts at the windows
and main doorway, and that the main work was complete by then.
house we now see was never intended to stand in isolation, and
work on the ancillary buildings associated with it probably
continued over several generations -to meet changing requirements.
The remains of a range which ran along one side of the main
courtyard of the castle have the initials IEW on the gable,
perhaps in reference to John earl of Wemyss. The earldom was
created for him by Charles I in 1633 and he died in 1649. Around
the house and the courtyards immediately associated with it
would have been a small dependent township, of which the modem
farm and houses in the area are the successors. There was a
small boat anchorage below the castle at the junction of the
River Tay with the bum which runs down the east side of the
castle. Boats may also have been able to enter the quarry immediately
north of the castle, which used to be flooded and connected
to the river by a short cut.
is not certain when the castle ceased to be a principal residence
of the Wemyss family, though it was perhaps after the seventh
earl acquired the Gosford estate, in East Lothian, in 1781.
Elcho probably housed tenants and farm labourers after it was
no longer used by members of the family. Nevertheless, it continued
to be important to the Wemyss family since, until quite recently,
the heirs of the earls of Wemyss bore the title of Lord Elcho.
It was re-roofed in about 1830 by the eighth earl, and it was
probably around the same time that the cottage on the west side
of the courtyard was built. The eleventh earl placed the castle
in the care of the state in 1929, and it is now cared for by
Historic Scotland on behalf of the Secretary of State for Scotland.
was built at a period when domestic comfort, convenience and
privacy were coming to be regarded as increasingly desirable
by the greater landholders. Yet the times were not yet so settled
that it was wise to dispense completely with the means of defending
oneself from the attacks of rivals, while the trappings of defensibility
might also be seen as something of a status symbol associated
with land holding. What we see at Elcho, therefore, is a fascinatingly
ingenious response to these differing needs, which provided
its fortunate occupants with accommodation of a very high standard
together with a considerable degree of security. The walls are
mainly of rubble masonry, much of which may have been taken
from the quarry to the north of the house, while the dressings
to the windows, doorways and corners are of dressed ashlar.
Originally, of course, all of this would have been covered by
lime render, masking any irregularities that are now evident,
and slight traces of this render may still be seen.
the entrance courtyard on its south side, the house presented
an elongated facade with a square entrance tower at its western
angle. Although not symmetrical this facade was carefully composed
to give an appearance of measured regularity. At the wall head
the massing was enlivened by a restrained display of turrets,
dormers and conically-roofed turrets. The tower, which had the
only entrance to the house at its base, was the only part of
the house to have an open wall-walk behind a parapet, giving
it externally something of the appearance of a distinct tower-house.
flanks of the courtyard in front of the house were probably
originally defined by ranges, of which part of that on the west
survives. At the south-eastern angle of the courtyard, behind
the modern house, is a round tower from which it was possible
to fire along the adjoining courtyard walls, and there may have
been similar towers at the other angles. There were probably
further courtyards to contain ancillary buildings such as stables
and farm buildings, and there would also have been gardens and
orchards. Immediately to the north of the castle, where there
is the quarry, there was no need for defensive walls. The face
of the house overlooking the quarry is much less regular than
that towards the courtyard, with three unequally spaced towers
along its length; dearly there was less effort to create impressive
architecture here, and it is on this side that most of the latrine
chutes are concentrated; nevertheless, the results are attractive
to modern eyes.
single entrance doorway at the base of the south-west tower
opened onto the spacious spiral main stair within the tower,
which rose no higher than the principal rooms on the first floor.
Members of the family and their visitors would proceed straight
up the stair to that level, because the whole of the ground
floor was occupied by the kitchen and associated larders and
storerooms. These are all covered by stone vaulting which created
a fire-proof barrier and gave greater structural strength to
the building as a whole. Piercing the walls of the ground floor
are seventeen gun-loops which would have effectively discouraged
.11 but the most persistent unwanted visitors. In the sills
of some of these loops are wooden battens with a central hole,
which would have allowed the hand-held guns to be swivelled
through the splayed mouth of the opening. Though there are windows
at this level, they are smaller than those at the upper levels
and stoutly barred. The kitchen is the first of the rooms to
open off the corridor along the courtyard side of the ground
floor. It has a large arched fireplace, within which most of
the cooking took place over an open fire, and at the back of
which is a domed bread oven. From the store-room next to the
kitchen a spiral service stair led to the upper storeys of the
house, allowing servants to carry food both to the hall and
main room on the first floor was the hall , a splendidly proportioned
space warmed by a fireplace in the south wall. The entrance
end of the hall was almost certainly partitioned off by a timber
draft screen, which would have left the fireplace centrally
positioned within the hall. Opening off the screened-off vestibule
was a small storage room and two of the three stairs which interconnected
the upper storeys of both the main block and the two towers
at the west end of the building, though one of those stairs
does not open onto both of the upper storeys in the main block.
The hall was lit by four large windows which would have had
glazing in their upper parts and wooden shutters behind; externally
these windows had massive grilles as a security measure. Originally
the walls of the hall were plastered.
off the far end of the hall was the doorway to the rooms which
probably served as the lodging of the owner. The main room was
a large square chamber, with a smaller inner chamber beyond;
within the inner chamber was a mural latrine, with a chute leading
down to a cess chamber on the rear side of the house. This lodging
was the finest in the house, and there are traces of an elaborate
plaster cornice which was added at the junction of the wall
and ceiling, probably in the early seventeenth century. When
furnished, adorned with hangings and with a fire burning in
the fireplace, it must have provided delightful accommodation
for the owner of the house.
many of the other lodgings and bedchambers on the two upper
floors of the castle must have been almost as handsome, and
one of the great delights for visitors to Elcho is to try to
understand the ways in which the planning on those levels would
have functioned. Allowance must be made for missing partitions
of timber and plaster which subdivided the two levels above
the hall, and for timber lobbies which were once devised around
some of the doorways that opened off the stairways. When this
is done, it can be seen that there were a number of individual
chambers, while other chambers also had inner chambers or closets.
The scale of these varied considerably, and in some cases floor
levels were carefully modified to achieve the best proportions.
But all of them had separate access from one of three spiral
staircases, so that their occupants could have complete privacy,
and all of them were- provided with a fireplace and a latrine.
Most of these rooms would have been for members of the Wemyss
family, their guests and important members of their household.
We must assume that, apart from body servants who slept on truckle
beds or in the inner closets, the other servants would have
been accommodated within the courtyard buildings.
ingenuity on the part of the designer of Elcho that was needed
to achieve such well-contrived planning is quite remarkable;
indeed, there are few modem houses which could afford so many
occupants so much space and so many amenities.
Text by Richard Fawcett, 1997
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