A tale of two castles

Newark Castle

I’ve mentioned before that many Historic Scotland properties have been closed for some time for “high level masonry inspections”. In June we actually managed to visit two that were open!

Newark Castle

Newark Castle sits on the Firth of Clyde at Port Glasgow, hidden for many years among shipyards, of which only one, Ferguson’s, now remains. The original castle was built by George Maxwell in the 15th century – in the image above, the gatehouse on the left and the tower on the right date from that period. In between those sections are the North Range and the East Wing, constructed during Patrick Maxwell’s remodelling in the 1590s. The initials of Patrick and his wife, Lady Margaret Crawford, are entwined above the doorway along with the words The blissings (sic) of God be herein.

Wherever I go, I ask myself the question What about the women? Newark gives us plenty of information about Margaret Crawford and does not gloss over the more unpleasant side of her story. Despite the entwined initials, 44 years of marriage, and 16 children, her life with Patrick Maxwell was not a happy one. He was a violent man and a known murderer. In 1595 his own mother, Marion, complained to the Privy Council about his behaviour but was ignored, probably because he was so powerful.

In 1636 Margaret herself appealed to the Privy Council for protection, detailing years of domestic abuse. For example, in the Great Hall, above, he was said to have upbraided his wife and run after her with a sword threatening to kill her. His guests restrained him, and Margaret escaped to the relative safety of her room. In 1632, Patrick injured her so badly that she had to be carried to her bedchamber where he locked her in for 6 months. In 1636 she escaped to Dumbarton, where she lived the rest of her life in poverty, but Patrick died before justice could be done. See the panels below for the whole sad story, plus a story of some other, four-legged, captives.

Because it was a lovely day, we took a stroll along the river before heading home.

Blackness Castle

Blackness Castle

Newark Castle is on the west coast, on the Firth of Clyde. Blackness Castle is on the other side of the country, on the Firth of Forth. You can see all three Forth crossings (rather hazily in the gallery below) from the roof. It was built, probably on the site of an earlier fort, by Sir George Crichton in the 1440s, but passed to James II in 1453. In the 1530s it was strengthened by Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, the King’s Master of Works, and became one of the most advanced artillery fortifications of its time in Scotland. It has also served as a state prison, and as an ammunition depot in the later 19th century. The Victorian pier and barracks were added at this time – the Officers’ Block was later used as a Youth Hostel and then as council housing.

We have visited Blackness many times before and have always enjoyed it. On this occasion, we were there to see a specific exhibition. Unforgettable: the untold stories of people who shaped Scotland reveals the lives and achievements of those who might otherwise “fall through the cracks” of historical record. A dozen stories considered those marginalised on the grounds of, for example, race, class, gender, or sexuality, each tale told by someone from a similar community. As usual, I looked for the women, who made up almost half the stories (5 of 12), and have chosen one of them, Agnes McDonald, to give a flavour of what the exhibition was like.

Agnes McDonald was executed in 1714, the last Scottish Gypsy/Traveller hanged under anti-Gypsy legislation in Scotland. This did not end the persecution of her people: over the next century, Gypsy/Travellers were shipped to the Caribbean as slaves, children were forcibly removed from their families, and many were made to give up their nomadic way of life. Little is known of the life of Agnes herself, but she is celebrated in the exhibition to mark the contributions she and other Gypsy/Traveller women, still a marginalised community, have made to Scottish society.

Unforgettable: Agnes McDonald

Scottish readers who would like to see the exhibition should know that it is no longer at Blackness, but can be seen at Fort George from 24th September 2022 to 15th January 2023. Details here.

Before visiting the castle, we had lunch in Linlithgow where we saw this little procession. We weren’t clear at the time what was going on but, checking online now, I suspect it was an announcement about the Linlithgow Marches which took place a few days later.

Linlithgow parade

So two fabulous castles, sunshine both days, and a good helping of women’s history. The perfect days out for me! And *drumroll* since my last post we have both tested negative and are now covid-free. It’s great to be back to normal life.


  1. Fascinating tales about these 2 castles Anabel (and another Maxwell, but a vile one by all accounts). The stories behind the castles are extraordinary. Poor Margaret what an awful life she must have had and young Agnes too 😦


  2. Newark Castle is beautiful- what a little gem that was hidden amongst the shipyards. In Newcastle there’s a Roman fort that was only fully excavated and open to the public when the Swan Hunter yard closed. A blow for the area when the industry is lost, but interesting what comes next! Poor Margaret Crawford though- I suspect it was bold of her to ask for help. Sad that her ending wasn’t a happier one.

    I went to Blackness Castle when we were posted in Edinburgh, it’s featured on Outlander and Outlaw King, a film about Robert the Bruce. Outlaw King has a really chilling scene where his wife is hung on the castle walls in a cage, exposed to the elements, as a spectacle and a punishment. It wasn’t far from what actually happened- these were not good times to be a woman!


  3. It does make you wonder why we complain so? Life back in these times was horrific! I almost fainted away at the thought of 16 children. That’s a classroom full! I presume a Doocot is a dovecote, Anabel?


  4. I wonder if whoever commissioned the carving above the doorway confused bless with married bliss. On the other hand, it may just have been that English spelling wasn’t yet standardized.

    I’m sorry to hear about the fate of Agnes McDonald. I’m the opposite when it comes to you two being Covid-free.


  5. Congrats on testing negative!! That’s sort of like a “get out of jail free” card, isn’t it? And thanks for the background on the castles. The history of women is often sad, with abuse at the hands of their husbands and even fathers….makes me glad to know this sort of thing is addressed better now, in most countries.


  6. Wonderful post Anabel. Poor Margaret, 16 children! What a life and such a monster of a husband. At least there is a history about her. It’s great you are focusing on these forgotten women. I’d love to hear more of their stories


  7. Newark castle certainly looks lovely from the outside. I walked past it earlier in the year and it did look quite out of place in it’s surrounding, but lovely it’s survived. Sadly it was closed then I can’t remember if for the masonry inspections or because it was a Sunday and maybe not open then. I certainly agree with you about a number of properties being closed. I also wanted to visit Castle Sween (near Kilmory) which was also closed for masonary inspection. I suppose it needs to be done but I presume there must have been some sort of incident that caused them to close many properties at once for inspections.


    • Probably it was closed for inspection because it’s opening hours are Friday-Monday. Or if it was before April it might not have opened yet for the season. I’m not sure there was an actual incident – I think it was more they found a number of places crumbling and thought they’d better inspect everywhere. Safety first I suppose!


  8. Hi Anabel – so pleased you’re healthier now … makes life easier. Those two castles are fascinating … great to know about them and their female incumbents. Extraordinary history … thanks for showing us – cheers Hilary


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