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6 May 2021

Culzean Castle before Robert Adam

Written by Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeology
An aerial view of Culzean Castle, taken from over the sea. The castle and surrounding buildings have been labelled with letters. Black arrows have also been superimposed, showing the direction of the sketches referred to in the story.
Culzean Castle from the north, showing the approximate viewpoints of the three historical sketches
Culzean Castle is best known as Robert Adam’s cliff-top, romantic masterpiece, but a recent study has reviewed the evidence for its medieval predecessor.

The core of the Kennedy family estate of Culzean, comprising 228 hectares, was given to the National Trust for Scotland in 1945. The castle still forms the focal point for the entire country park and it’s easy to see why: Robert Adam’s late-18th-century picturesque creation has certainly made the most of the dramatic setting. However, it was precisely this landscape that made it an excellent defensive site and ideal for the construction of a medieval castle. The headland is defended by cliffs on the north-west and around its north-eastern end, while the south-eastern side was protected by a natural hollow. This hollow was originally deeper than it appears today; it was infilled in the 17th century to create a walled garden and then raised again in the 19th century to form the Fountain Court. Perhaps the easiest approach to the site may have been from the south-west.

Both the interior and exterior of the house were so heavily altered during Adam’s renovation works in the 1770–90s, that the only part of the medieval tower that remains clearly evident is the thick wall between the armoury and the drawing room on the ground floor. Thankfully, there are three sketches dating from before Robert Adam’s work that show the tower house from a variety of angles, which help with understanding the mid-18th-century (and presumably earlier) layout of the castle. These sketches are found in the collections of the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, in the National Galleries of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy, the latter two in Edinburgh. These sketches are drawn from the south-west, the east and the north-east, respectively.

An old pencil sketch of Culzean Castle, showing its clifftop location. A sailing boat can be seen on the water in the foreground. The letters A-K have been superimposed on the sketch, labelling various parts of the castle.
Culzean Castle from south-west, probably by Robert Adam, 1776 (Reproduced with the kind permission of Sir John Soane Museum, London)

This article focuses on the drawing from the south-west, which is thought to have been drawn by Robert Adam himself and is part of the collection of his papers held in the Sir John Soane’s Museum. It shows a pathway leading up from the shore and follows the line of the overgrown path (A) known as Laundry Maid’s walk. This path leads to a doorway (B), a postern or sea-gate in a straight section of curtain wall. This wall appears to have a slightly crenellated wallhead. There is a possible angled bastion (C), with a small, roofed structure (D), outside with a single window in its gable. There is a smaller lean-to building (E) at the foot and against the south-east side of the exterior of the angled bastion, which has an opening, possibly a door, in its south-west gable. Beyond this is a structure, perhaps the end view of a tower (F) with at least two levels, divided by a possible string course, and topped with a crow-stepped gable. At the inside edge (on the north-west side) of this building there appears to be a chimney stack.

Inside the barmkin enclosure the main tower block (G) is aligned south-west to north-east, and has three rows of windows on the south-east side. There are two windows on the south-west gable, which probably lit the attic space, and a small window on the floor below. As the ground floor is hidden below the line of the barmkin wall, it appears that the main tower consisted of a ground floor, with three floors and an attic above. The roof of the tower slopes to the eaves and there is no indication of battlements. There is a chimney at each gable and possibly a third in the middle of the north-east-facing wall. There is a square jamb (H) attached to the north-east side of the main tower at its northern end. The pitched roof runs at right angles to that of the main tower and is possibly slightly higher. It has two chimneys, one at the north-west gable and another at the junction with the main tower. There is a small dormer window in the roof. The south-west façade of the jamb has a horizontal line above the third floor, which might suggest that the roof was heightened by an inserted floor. A structure marked on the wall face below this line, and which descends two storeys, could be a corbelled-out stair turret. What appears to be a square, flat-roofed, stair tower (I) occupies the re-entrant angle between the main tower and the jamb. From a distance, this square tower within the re-entrant angle is reminiscent of that at, for example, neighbouring Killochan Castle near Girvan.

A digital map showing the location of Culzean Castle and the surrounding buildings. It is colour-coded and has been labelled with letters A-Y.
Plan showing pre-Robert Adam buildings (based on an OS digital map reproduced with permission of HM Stationery Office, Crown Copyright NTS licence no. 100023880. All other data copyright, NTS)

On the south-east side of the tower there appear to be trees between it and the barmkin wall, which might be some of the fruit trees that were planted as part of the terraced garden that lay downslope. Above these trees, the gentle pitch of the pedimented roof (J) of the gatehouse into the farm court can be seen. This building would later be topped with a castellated parapet by Robert Adam to form the clock-tower, but the line of the old pediment can still be seen on its north-eastern façade.

On the opposite north-western side of the tower, a gable can clearly be seen of a building (K), which appears to butt up against the jamb. It is at least two storeys high, has a large single window in its south-western gable and has at least three chimneys. This is likely to have been the kitchen block.

The final building (L) visible in this view from the south-west is much clearer and seems to stand alone on the cliff edge and at a slight angle to the rest of the main buildings. It is of two storeys, has a pitched roof with four evenly spaced chimneys along its length and has two rows of seven sea-facing windows on its north-western side. There may be another chimney at the opposite end of the building on the north-western, cliff-edge flank.

Taking the information presented in this sketch and combining it with the views from the opposite side of the castle gives a more complete understanding of the layout of Culzean Castle before the changes wrought by Adam. Due to COVID-19, the Castle Studies Group Conference planned for Ayrshire in 2020 had to be cancelled. However, some of the proposed site visits (including to Culzean Castle) were converted into academic papers.

Read the Castle Studies Group report in full.

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