Ancient Monuments

History on the Ground

This site is entirely user-supported. See how you can help.

Rothesay Castle, castle 75m north of Bute Museum

A Scheduled Monument in Isle of Bute, Argyll and Bute

We don't have any photos of this monument yet. Why don't you be the first to send us one?

Upload Photo »

Approximate Location Map
Large Map »

If Google Street View is available, the image is from the best available vantage point looking, if possible, towards the location of the monument. Where it is not available, the satellite view is shown instead.


Latitude: 55.8365 / 55°50'11"N

Longitude: -5.0551 / 5°3'18"W

OS Eastings: 208781

OS Northings: 664585

OS Grid: NS087645

Mapcode National: GBR FFW9.56Q

Mapcode Global: WH1LM.BK1J

Entry Name: Rothesay Castle, castle 75m N of Bute Museum

Scheduled Date: 5 October 2011

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM12970

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Ecclesiastical: chapel; Secular: castle

Location: Rothesay

County: Argyll and Bute

Electoral Ward: Isle of Bute

Traditional County: Buteshire


The monument comprises the remains of a castle, chapel and moat of medieval date, surviving as a series of upstanding walls and earthworks, at around 3m above sea level. It lies on gently sloping land in the centre of the town of Rothesay, just 150m from the harbour.

The medieval castle consists of a massive, roughly circular curtain wall, with four circular towers and a large projecting residential gatehouse (called le dungeon). It sits on a large flat-topped mound surrounded by a moat. The remains of the Chapel of St Michael the Archangel project inwards into the courtyard from the centre of the E wall. The castle's fabric consists of small neat sandstone ashlars and other dressed features and split whinstone rubble. The NW tower, known as the Pigeon Tower, survives to the greatest height and includes the remains of a dovecote inserted in the uppermost floor. The footprint of the main enclosure measures about 48m in external diameter, with each tower measuring about 10m in diameter. A well is located in the NW of the castle interior.

The area to be scheduled is an irregular shape on plan, to include the castle and other upstanding remains, including the moat and an area around these in which evidence for the site's construction and use may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The modern wooden shed in the SE corner of the site, between the moat and retaining wall, is specifically excluded from the scheduling, as are the above-ground elements of the ticket office and gift shop at the entrance, the above-ground elements of the modern wooden bridge across the moat (except the fixings to the gatehouse), and the above-ground elements of the flood-lights in place at time of scheduling. The retaining wall and fence are included in the scheduling.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

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

Intrinsic characteristics

The monument is an example of a medieval castle, moat and associated chapel, with upstanding remains dating from the 13th to 17th centuries, though with some elements reconstructed in the 19th century. There is visible evidence for multiple phases of construction and use over the past 800 years. There is a strong likelihood that archaeological deposits associated with the monument's earlier phases, construction, use and abandonment are preserved, despite the clearing-out and reconstruction undertaken on behalf of the Marquis of Bute in the 19th century.

The earliest visible component of the fabric is a large circular curtain wall, built around AD 1200 to defend the western frontier of the kingdom of the Scots. The lower parts of the walls are very thick and include deep recesses and narrow loops. The wall was heightened in the 16th century and in undertaking this work, the masons partly preserved the earlier, 13th-century crenellations. There are four towers projecting from the walls on the NE, NW, SE and SW quarters, which were probably added in the 13th century and provided domestic accommodation. Extra storeys were added to the NE and NW towers in the 16th century. In the 17th century, the uppermost room in the NW tower was converted to a dovecot. These towers are pierced by arrow-slits with stirrup-shaped bases. Within the castle, against the inside face of the E wall, are the remains of a chapel dating to the 15th or possibly 16th century and dedicated to St Michael the Archangel. The large rectangular gatehouse faces north and there is a western postern, now blocked on the outside. Within the gatehouse is a stair to a large first-floor room that must have functioned as the principal or great hall, with a fireplace in the W wall. The second floor and garret above the great hall are likely to have contained several smaller rooms.

The site is surrounded by a water-filled moat, which retains the potential for the survival of waterlogged remains, despite having been cleaned out in the past. We know from recent minor excavations that medieval drains also survive within the courtyard, again demonstrating the potential for survival of organic remains. The site has considerable potential to enhance our understanding of medieval castles and the daily lives of the people who occupied them, as well as medieval warfare and specific historical events. The multiple phases documented in the upstanding remains and associated historic records suggest that the site has the potential to provide information relating to a period of several hundred years.

Contextual characteristics

The monument is unique in Scotland for its probable early date and its circular plan. This plan is also rare in a western European context. Similarities have been noted with the plans of early historic or later prehistoric duns in the area and some scholars have suggested that the castle may have been built on the site of an earlier dun. Thus, there is potential for the survival of a construction sequence extending back into prehistory.

Rothesay Castle is not now in an obviously defensive position within the landscape and its strategic significance lies in its proximity to Rothesay Bay. However, as sea level in this area was higher in the medieval period, it is likely that the castle originally stood on a coastal island.

The history of Rothesay Castle is linked with that of Rothesay Mansion house/Bute Estates Office, which became the seat of the Stewarts of Rothesay in 1685 after the abandonment of the castle.

Associative characteristics

There are historical records pertaining to the site or its estate dating from the 13th century to the present day, many of them relating to highly significant events in the history of Scotland and the United Kingdom. In the early medieval period, Bute lay on the boundary between the kingdom of Scotland and the Norse kingdom of Man and the Isles. In 1158, Somerled (or Somhairle) overthrew the Manx king's authority in western Scotland and the Isles. When Somerled died in 1163, the Outer Hebrides returned to Manx control and the Inner Hebrides were divided between his sons. Around then, William the Lion, king of Scots (1165-1214), captured Bute. By about 1200, Alan, steward to William I and progenitor of the Stewart dynasty, held Bute and the castle seems to have been built about this time, to serve as the lord's fortified residence and also to assert feudal control over the area. It may initially have been constructed in earth and timber, but by 1230 had been built up in stone, possibly by Alan's son, Walter II.

The Saga of Håkon Håkonson and other accounts record a failed Norse attack on the castle in 1230 by Uspak, king of Man and the Isles, a grandson of Somerled, in which the Scots fatally wounded Uspak. The saga account also mentions that the besiegers hewed the soft stone of the castle with their axes. This raises questions about the precise dating of the visible remains as there is no evidence of substantial repair to the earliest masonry. The Norse king, Håkon Håkonson, successfully took the castle in 1263, in return for a truce. However, Alexander III, king of Scots, refused to renounce his claim to Bute and, in 1266, the Isle of Bute was formally confirmed by the Treaty of Perth as belonging to Scotland rather than Norway. King Håkon's son Magnus formally returned the kingdom of Man and the Isles to the king of Scots that year. It was probably then that the four towers and gatehouse were added, to increase the castle's security.

During the first War of Independence between Scotland and England, Rothesay Castle was taken and held for the Bruce cause by Robert Boyd of Cunningham. The Bruce and Stewart families were formally joined in marriage when Robert the Bruce married Elizabeth de Burgh, a niece of James the Stewart. When David II died, he was succeeded on the throne by his nephew, Robert II (1371-90), son of Walter Stewart and Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce. Robert II and his son, Robert III (1390-1406), are both known to have spent time at Rothesay Castle and surviving household records give an insight into life and work in the castle at this time. For instance, we know that in 1388, Hugh the Plumber was paid £6.13s.4d for works to the castle. We know from Bower's Chronicle that Robert III died at Rothesay Castle on Palm Sunday 1406 and was buried in Paisley Abbey.

In 1469, the lordship of Bute, including Rothesay Castle, was included by Act of Parliament in the patrimony of the monarch's eldest son. This arrangement remains, with Queen Elizabeth II's eldest son, HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, using the title Duke of Rothesay in Scotland. James IV (1488-1513) returned the castle to prominence as a royal residence and stronghold, due to its strategic position in relation to the Western Isles, which were still not under the full control of the monarch. John, Lord of the Isles, forfeited his claim to the Isles in 1493 and James attempted to subjugate the newly acquired islands through a series of naval expeditions. This led to frequent visits to Rothesay and it seems likely that James began the construction of the large residential gatehouse, which was added to the earlier gatehouse on the N side of the castle. These works are thought to have continued into the reign of James V (1513-42) and been completed in 1541. A hiatus in royal interest in the castle followed, with neither Mary Queen of Scots nor James VI and I apparently having visited it. Cromwellian troops were garrisoned at Rothesay Castle in 1650 and may have caused some damage on their departure in 1659.

During his rebellion against James VII, Archibald, earl of Argyll, plundered and burnt the castle in 1685 and it was then abandoned as a lordly residence, with the Keeper and his family moving to the Mansion House on Rothesay High Street. During the Napoleonic Wars, the castle's gatehouse was used as a powder magazine by the local volunteer force.

In 1816-18, the second Marquess of Bute cleared the courtyard of vegetation and rubble and repaired the entrance vault. In 1872 to 1879, the third Marquess of Bute cleared the moat and arranged for partial restoration by William Burges; in 1900 he reconstructed the great hall in the gatehouse. This reconstruction work is of interest, in that the architect and his patron were restoring Cardiff Castle and speculatively recreating Castell Coch from the 1870s onward. The remains of a medieval oak bridge were found in the moat at this time but not archaeologically recorded.

In 1951, the castle passed into the guardianship of the State. Stewart Cruden, the then Inspector of Ancient Monuments, carried out some archaeological investigations in 1965-69, but the records do not survive.

The broken medieval sculptured stone that once lay in the courtyard of Rothesay Castle has been moved to Bute Museum.

The monument retains significance for the current Royal family, notably the Duke of Rothesay, heir to the throne, and for the Crichton Stuart family, with the present Marquis of Bute holding the hereditary title of Constabulary Governorship or Keeper of the Castle. The Friends of Rothesay Castle, who recently arranged for a cloth of estate with the arms of James IV to be installed in the Great Hall, also take an active interest in the castle.

National Importance

The monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to contribute to our understanding of the past, in particular the construction techniques, defences and domestic life of a medieval castle. The survival of associated extant remains, most notably the moat, enhances this potential. The monument may also shed light on the history of the Lords of the Isles, the Stewart dynasty and the various Wars of Independence with which it is associated. Together with Inverlochy and Dunstaffnage, Rothesay is crucial to our understanding of the strategic control of frontier zones in the west of Scotland during the reign of King Alexander III. The site's relatively good preservation and the survival of extensive historical records relating directly and indirectly to the monument's occupation enhance this potential. Its loss would seriously impede our ability to understand the medieval architecture of Argyll and Bute, the history of the Lords of the Isles, the Stewart dynasty and the nature of medieval warfare.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland



RCAHMS records the monument as NS06SE3. The West of Scotland Archaeology Service (WoSAS) Sites and Monuments Record records the castle as 4977 and the cross slab from the castle, now on display in Bute Museum, as 61779.

Rothesay Castle is A-listed (HB Number 44887). The State entered into a guardianship agreement with the Keeper of the Castle in 1951 and the castle is maintained on behalf of Scottish Ministers by Historic Scotland. Laurence Parkerson and Mairi Davies visited the castle on 16 June 2010 to review its scheduling and listing status and introduced themselves to the HS steward on arrival.


Romilly Allen, J and Anderson, J 1903, The early Christian monuments of Scotland: a classified illustrated descriptive list of the monuments with an analysis of their symbolism and ornamentation, Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Cameron, R, Rennie, C and Sneddon D 2009, 'Rothesay Water Mains Rehabilitation, Argyll and Bute (Rothesay parish), watching brief', Discovery Excav Scot 10, 48.

Childe, V G and Simpson, W D 1961, Illustrated guide to ancient monuments in the ownership or guardianship of The Ministry of Works: vi: Scotland, Edinburgh.

Cruden, S 1960, The Scottish Castle, Edinburgh: Nelson.

Dunn, A 2000, 'Rothesay Castle, Argyll and Bute (Rothesay parish), medieval castle', Discovery Excav Scot 1, 18.

Ewart, G and Stewart, D 1997, 'St Mary's Chapel & High Street Well, Rothesay (Rothesay parish): Excavation', Discovery Excav Scot 1997, 23.

Ewart, G, Franklin, J and Stewart, D 2002, 'Rothesay Castle, Argyll and Bute (Rothesay parish), watching brief; evaluation, standing building recording', Discovery Excav Scot 3, 23-24.

Ewart, G 2003, 'Rothesay Castle (Rothesay parish), evaluation and recording', Discovery Excav Scot 4, 40.

Fenwick, H 1976, Scotland's Castles, London: Robert Hale.

Fisher, I 2001, Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands, RCAHMS/Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph Series 1.

King Hewison, J 1893, The Isle of Bute in the Olden Time, Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons.

MacGibbon, D and Ross, T 1887, The castellated and domestic architecture of Scotland from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries, vol. 1 Edinburgh: David Douglas.

MacKay MacKenzie, W 1927, The Mediaeval Castle in Scotland (Rhind Lectures in Archaeology, 1925-26), London: Methuen and Co Ltd.

Mackinlay, J M 1816, An account of Rothesay Castle, William Scott: Greenock.

Pringle, D 1998, 'Rothesay Castle and the Stewarts', J Brit Archaeol Assoc 151, 149-69.

Pringle, D 2002, Rothesay Castle and St Mary's Church: the official souvenir guide, Historic Scotland: Edinburgh.

Reid, J E 1864, History of the County of Bute, and families connected therewith, Glasgow: Thomas Murray and Son.

Ritchie, G and Harman, M 1996, Argyll and the Western Isles, Exploring Scotland's Heritage series, Edinburgh: HMSO.

Simpson, W D 1939, 'The architectural history of Rothesay Castle', Trans Glasgow Archaeol Soc 9:3, 152-183.

Simpson, W D 1941, 'A further note on Rothesay Castle', Trans Glasgow Archaeol Soc 10, 1-2.

Smith, D E, Cullingford, R A, Mighall, T M, Jordan, J Tand Fretwell, P T 2007, Holocene Relative Sea Level Changes in a Glacio-isostatic area: New data from south-west Scotland, United Kingdom, Marine Geology 242, 5-26.

Stewart, D 2005, 'Rothesay Castle (Rothesay parish): Evaluation', Discovery Excav Scot 6, 38.

Tabraham, C 2005, Scotland's Castles, London: BT Batsford and Historic Scotland.

Talbot, E 1975, 'Early Scottish castles of earth and timber - recent field-work and excavation', Scott Archaeol Forum 6, 48-57.

Tranter, N 1970, The Fortified House in Scotland ' Volume Five: North and West Scotland and Miscellaneous, Edinburgh: W & R Chambers Ltd.

Walker, F A 2000, The Buildings of Scotland: Argyll and Bute, London: Penguin.
Historic Environment Scotland Properties
Rothesay Castle
Find out more

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Other nearby scheduled monuments is an independent online resource and is not associated with any government department. All government data published here is used under licence. Please do not contact for any queries related to any individual ancient or schedued monument, planning permission related to scheduled monuments or the scheduling process itself. is a Good Stuff website.