House, Tower, Castle. It’s like a weird hand of Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples but these special types of castles are common in Scotland and Ireland. The 13th century concentric castles of Edward I, a.k.a. Longshanks, a.k.a. Hammer of the Scots, are some of the most well-known surviving medieval structures. His castles are marked by numerous towers and elaborate walls encircling large baileys, while the tower-houses are far simpler: a single defensible tower containing a residence. Most of Edward’s famous features were built in Wales, however Scotland and Ireland contain the highest concentration of these special types of modest fortified residences.
It’s generally accepted by British and Irish historians that castles were brought across the English Channel with the Normans in the 11th century (along with their African sparrows and coconuts). It took a few hundred years for the castle trend to catch on outside of England, but eventually these feudal power displays started popping up in the Celtic territories. Norman lords in Ireland started building rough motte-and-bailey structures in the 12th century and quickly progressed to stone keeps and walls. In Scotland, motte-and-bailey constructions are concentrated around the Clyde River and Solway Firth with a smattering in central Scotland and around the Moray Firth. These 12th century constructions correspond to the Scottish kings’ attempt to reassert the position of the monarchy, borrowing some techniques from their Norman cousins to the south.
In Ireland, the Normans began moving military units into Ireland in 1169 and by 1250, the Normans controlled 75% of the island. Only a few territories in western Ireland were still ruled by Irish lords by the end of the 13th century. Iron Age ringforts, commonly located on hilltops and elevated sites, were naturally adapted for castle construction. While the Normans were quick to construct their broad square keeps and curtain walls, in reality their power was relatively weak for several centuries. Many Irish castles more closely resemble England’s grand fortifications with multiple buildings and a keep with a large footprint, however even prominent Norman families built tower-houses in the Emerald Isle. Over 2,000 survive, including Clonmines in Co. Wexford, Narrow Water Castle in Co. Down, and Dunsoghly Castle in Co. Dublin.
Scottish lords started building them in the 13th centuries and their design continued to evolve for the next 300 years. While they sometimes accompanied a moderate enclosed bailey, many of the towers stood on their own. Each floor served a different purpose, with the lower levels used by military and household support staff and the upper floors hosting the Hall and the noble residences. Most of the tower-houses were 3-4 stories tall, with the top floor almost always containing the residential quarters. According to an Act of Parliament in 1455, each tower-house along the border had to have an iron basket on the roof for signal fires to warn of an invasion or raid. A flurry of construction around 1430 was in response to English invasions, and this subsequent act was another sign of tense relations across the English-Scottish border. Tower-houses hosting signal fires are also known as peel or pele towers. Surviving tower-houses in Scotland include sections of Muchalls Castle in Aberdeenshire, Newmilns Tower in Ayrshire, and Craigcaffie Tower in Wigtonshire.
These narrow structures gave way to the 16th century noble household of the Elizabethan era, with minor fortifications and major opportunities for royal parties (you can read more about why the tower-house went out of vogue in Ireland here). Social pressures led to an increased footprint to allow for larger halls, kitchens, and sleeping quarters. Economic changes meant that the high ground wasn’t necessarily the best location anymore. Castles transitioned into either palaces, country houses, or forts. Many existing buildings were renovated (see Warkworth Castle for an example) and new construction was marked by large windows and a relatively high number of individual bedchambers. An interesting example of a tower-house overshadowed by a palace is at Dunnottar Castle near Aberdeen in Scotland- what started as a highly defensible military site gradually became a spot for the landlord to strut his stuff in the enormous 17th century mansion built in the bailey.
Want to rent a cozy tower-house? Here’s an option in Kilkenny, Ireland for only (ahem) $887 per night! If your budget is a little more modest, here’s a great video with potentially life-changing narration on the castles of Scotland…
Danielle Trynoski is the West Coast correspondent for Medievalists.net and is the co-editor of The Medieval Magazine.