Ancient Monuments

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Elliston Castle

A Scheduled Monument in Johnstone North, Kilbarchan, Howwood and Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire

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Latitude: 55.8052 / 55°48'18"N

Longitude: -4.5674 / 4°34'2"W

OS Eastings: 239183

OS Northings: 659861

OS Grid: NS391598

Mapcode National: GBR 3D.76RK

Mapcode Global: WH3P9.TC60

Entry Name: Elliston Castle

Scheduled Date: 11 February 2011

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM12812

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Secular: tower

Location: Lochwinnoch

County: Renfrewshire

Electoral Ward: Johnstone North, Kilbarchan, Howwood and Lochwinnoch

Traditional County: Renfrewshire


The monument comprises the remains of Elliston Castle, a late medieval tower house. It is visible as the ruins of the main tower and an adjoining rectangular barmkin, situated within the garden of Elliston House.

The tower stands on the edge of a steep-sided slope, providing excellent natural defences to west and south. Its eastern gable stands at least two storeys high and is the best-preserved part of the structure. The other walls are now greatly reduced. The structure is built of rubble, while dressed stonework had been present at the corners of the building but has been robbed out in antiquity. A grassy ramp provides access from the grounds of Elliston House and it is apparent from the difference in ground levels on the north and south that there is a basement or cellar beneath, but no access to this is visible. Within the eastern gable there are what appear to be two small windows and vestiges of a plain barrel vault. Several names carved into the right-hand side of the window may relate to a 19th-century consolidation of the ruins. To the east and south-east of the tower, a low stone garden wall defines a rectangular enclosure. Although rebuilt in modern times, the wall is known to overlie an earlier enclosure and is likely to reveal at least part of the tower's outer barmkin, a domestic enclosure containing ancillary buildings such as a bakehouse, brewhouse, stable and smithy. A 1967 plan of the castle shows this enclosure with two square structures built into its E and SE corners. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd editions of the Ordnance Survey 1:2500 map also depict internal structures abutting this perimeter wall.

The area to be scheduled is irregular on plan, to include the remains described and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The area to be scheduled specifically excludes the above ground elements of all post-and-wire and timber fences, spotlights, garden ornaments, signage and garden steps. The upper 100mm of all patios within the scheduled area are specifically excluded to allow for maintenance.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:

Intrinsic characteristics

The monument consists of a ruined late 15th-century tower house, occupied until about 1500 by the Sempill family, then among Scotland's most prominent and influential land-owning families. Elliston is the oldest surviving of their strongholds in Renfrewshire, the others being their better-known seats at Castle Semple and Castle Levan.

Although Elliston Castle is ruinous and denuded in parts, its remains offer significant archaeological potential. As the Sempill family only used Elliston for a short period of time, the castle and its barmkin offer a snapshot of a lordly dwelling in the late 15th/early 16th century. By extension, the brevity of occupation means that surviving archaeological deposits have not been disturbed by subsequent development on the site, as is often the case at sites with longer occupied histories. Furthermore as there are no records of excavation on the site and the castle's position at the edge of a steep slope means that it is unlikely to have been greatly disturbed by cultivation, there is excellent potential for high levels of archaeological preservation.

Several elements of the castle are of particular archaeological interest. The cellar or basement chamber, sealed by collapsed masonry and a build-up of soil and vegetation, offers strong potential for preservation of archaeological deposits relating to the occupation of the castle. Equally the areas around the castle, particularly the slopes on the east and south, present potential to inform our understanding of daily life within the castle through deposits of midden material. The rectangular barmkin, characteristic to Renfrewshire tower houses but a feature that rarely survives, possesses excellent potential to allow us to better understand the domestic organisation of a lordly dwelling of the late medieval period.

Contextual characteristics

Primarily built as dwellings for lordly families, tower houses fulfilled practical and symbolic roles and functions. Found across Scotland, tower houses appear in a variety of forms built between the 15th and 17th centuries. Among the earliest documented examples of tower houses is David's Tower within Edinburgh Castle (built around 1387).

Whatever their design, many tower houses operated as estate centres. These were places where taxes could be collected, records were kept and the grievances of tenants aired before the lord or his representatives. As a lordly residence, guests could be entertained within the main hall, the main public space within a tower house, while the upper private chambers offered comfortable accommodation for the lord, his family, and important guests. Often occupying strategic positions in the landscape, tower houses could and did control access to certain routes, monitoring movement along rivers and coasts and keeping watch against enemy attack.

The construction of a tower house required a license from the Crown and at times landowners whose property exceeded a certain value were expected to build tower houses. In this regard, tower houses expressed the feudal superiority of the landowner over his subjects and stood as a statement of his family's power, influence and wealth.

Associative characteristics

The Sempill family first appear on record in Renfrewshire during the 12th century. Surviving historical sources show the family rising to prominence throughout the 14th-16th centuries through steadfast support for the Scottish Crown. In return the family gained lands, honours and political influence despite pursuing a series of protracted and bloody vendettas on their enemies. Like many prominent families, the religious and political upheavals of the 1560s saw the Sempill family changing allegiances. Having initially declared for Queen Mary in 1560, they later took up the cause of James VI's party and Lord Sempill fought against Mary's forces at the Battle of Langside in 1568. Supporters of the Crown against the Scottish Covenanters and Cromwell during the 17th century, the Sempills chose the Hanoverian cause over that of the Stuart pretenders during the 18th-century Jacobite uprisings. However by this period, the family's fortunes (both political and financial) were fading, having taken a strongly hostile stance to the 1707 Union of Parliaments. By 1727, Castle Semple, the family's principal residence, was sold to a plantation owner, William McDowell and much of their land-holdings in Renfrewshire were similarly sold.

Elliston is associated with other Sempill castles and residences. These are Castle Semple, a mansion complex known as Castleton, Castle Levan and Craigievar Castle, the present-day seat of Lord Sempill.

National Importance

The monument is of national importance because it has the potential to make a significant contribution to the understanding of the past, in particular the design and construction of later medieval tower houses, as well as associated barmkins and the ancillary buildings within them. The tower's sealed ground floor chamber, the apparent lack of post-1500 development or alteration, and the survival of the outer barmkin, all add to this potential. The loss of this monument would significantly impede our ability to understand the later medieval period in this part of Scotland.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland



RCAHMS record the monument as NS35NE 1; West of Scotland Archaeological Service SMR as NS35NE 6689.


NSA (1845) The New Statistical Account of Scotland Vol.7 (Renfrew), Lochwinnoch parish, 95.

Nisbet, S 2009, Castle Semple Rediscovered, Renfrewshire Local History Forum, 1-12.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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