The History of Portencross Castle

This timeline is a chronological account of Portencross Castle's history from present day to as far back as the Bronze Age and beyond. Portencross is an area shrouded in stories, myths and legends.

A new life for Portencross Castle

With the support of BNFL, ownership of the castle passed to Friends of Portencross Castle on 22nd December 2005. Conservation work on the building started in February 2009.
During FOPC’s recent work to restore the castle, the entrance to a pit prison (in the form of a bottle dungeon) was discovered under the spiral stair.

Conservation Programme

Click to read the full story of the conservation of Portencross Castle.

“It is said that Portencross Castle was the last resting place of the great kings of Scotland. Legend has it that they were transported via the castle on their way to Iona, for burial. They lay in state at Portencross Castle for a short time.”

This illustration shows how Portencross Castle looks today following an extensive building conservation project.

1800's and 1900's

Repair and construction work: Victorian times and 20th century

Photographs and paintings during the last two centuries detail the many minor changes to the castle that people have made.
William Adams acquired the castle and estate in 1900. A concrete roof was constructed over the east wing of the castle in 1910. Responsibility for the building passed to Adams’ son, also William, in 1940. The South of Scotland Electricity Board (SSEB) later took possession of much of the Hunterston peninsula, including Portencross Castle. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), the successor to SSEB, inserted a timber stair and several door and window lintels. The company also repaired masonry in the 1980s as part of consolidation work.


The government purchases Portencross and Hunterston

The compulsory purchase orders used to build power stations and a coal and Hunterstone Bore terminal displaced farmers and resulted in the energy companies owning many of the houses in the village along with Portencross Castle. The field at Northbank, was earmarked to develop yet another station, Hunterston C, but this was never built. During the 1980s the government sold much of the land it had bought, including Portencross village but not the castle, giving village tenants and farmers first option to buy. In 1998 FOPC was formed in response to the news that the castle was for sale as a private home. It proved impossible to find a conservation body willing to take on the castle, so in 2005 FOPC took ownership and initiated a determined search to find funding for its repair.

Working land and sea

During the 1800s, farming and fishing were the main activities in and around Portencross, with around 40 farms in the parish by the end of the 1800s. The last local family to fish commercially from Portencross was the Shedden family: John Shedden and his sons Jack and Ronald. The boys were the last of five generations of the Shedden family to fish this part of the coast. They spent 50 years as salmon fishermen, finally retiring from the sea in 1980. Ayrshire is favoured for dairy farming and potatoes. In 1917 the winter storage of potatoes around Glasgow failed and the Portencross ‘earlies’ helped to save Glasgow from a severe food shortage.

The railway that never came

In 1899 a new railway line was proposed by the Glasgow and South Western Railway, which already served the ports and steamer services on the west coast. The line would have run from Seamill to Fairlie via Portencross and Hunterston. At the time, potatoes were one of the main crops grown at both Portencross and Hunterston, and they needed to be taken to market in Glasgow. There was also a return trade in manure from Meadowside Key in Glasgow where cattle were landed from Ireland and elsewhere. The manure was at that time freighted by rail then carted from West Kilbride station to the potato fields. Unfortunately, Portencross farmers, along with those from the surrounding area, weren’t happy with the prices proposed by the rail company. This dispute caused delay, and then the outbreak of World War I in 1914 killed off the proposal altogether. By that time, the concrete pier had been built and it still stands today, though it is not in good condition.

The local community gets organised

In 1998, a local charity, Friends of Portencross Castle (FOPC) recognised that the castle was in serious danger of collapse and began its efforts to preserve the building for future generations.



1600's and 1700's

Adjustments and abandonment: 1600s and 1700s

The Boyd family made some final alterations at this time, including to the parapet walkway. They raised the spiral staircase to reach the new upper attic rooms and walkway.


Portencross Castle

The castle remained the seat of the Boyds until the restoration of Charles II (1660) after which the family moved to a mansion house in Portencross. The Boyds still had possession of the surrounding estate until 1737.
After that time, fishermen made use of the building and they may have enlarged the basement windows. During the 1700s, around 30 fishing boats worked from Portencross, employing as many as 150 men. Crews of four people caught herring, cod and oysters or collected kelp. After Portencross Castle was abandoned in the 1700s, it was used for storage of nets and other fishing equipment. The castle was probably still in use after the roof blew off in 1739 because the vaulted ceiling would have protected the great hall. Fishermen may have altered the shape of the fireplace in the great hall. After this period, sporadic work took place to repair and preserve the castle.

Around the castle at that time

In 1793, a lighthouse was built on the west side of Little Cumbrae. Before this fires were built on a tower on Lighthouse Hill to warn boats of danger. You can see the old lighthouse tower on Little Cumbrae from the roof of the castle. The current lighthouse is now automated.

The Portencross cannon

According to tradition, an iron cannon, one of a number salvaged from the Portencross Spanish Armada shipwreck, was given to the villagers for their help at the time of the location of the wreck in 1740. The cannon is of Spanish design. In 1990, specialists attempted to conserve the cannon. They removed layers of tar, but their efforts failed. A very rusty and decomposing cannon was returned to Portencross village in 2003. Another cannon from the wrecked Armada ship can be found at the McLean Museum in Greenock.
Click here to see Greenock cannon.

1400's and 1500's

The castle in the 1400s and 1500s

Robert III also signed charters at Arnele. However, royal use of the castle grew less frequent by the 1400s. The castle reverted to its role as a local Boyd stronghold.

Upper floors and attics – Late 1400s

If you look carefully, you can trace the original upper line of the house above the great hall and see where the next phase of building began. The drawing above shows each phase of the castle as seen from the south-west side. As you walk round the building, notice that the corner stones on the upper level are slightly different and must have come
from a different part of the quarry or some other source. Much of the stonework would have been taken from the immediate area around the castle. As the height of the hall house was raised, the vaulted ceiling of the great hall was constructed, possibly with a chamber above. The battlements were also raised and altered. The windows were probably enlarged, the stairs steepened and a ground floor doorway added.

More about the Boyd family

The illustration above shows Portencross castle as it might have looked at the end of the 1400s
The first written reference to Portencross Castle is in 1572 when it is named in a contract between Robert Lord Boyd of Kilmarnock and Robert Boyd of Portencross. This document refers to ‘the ten merk land of Portincroce’.
The Boyds of Portencross were well connected with local aristocratic families.
The fourth Robert Boyd of Portencross married the daughter of John Mure of Rowallan, the family of Robert II’s first queen. Later generations of Boyds married locally. In 1550 a bride was the daughter of David Fairlie of that ilk. The seventh laird married a daughter of Sir Robert Montgomerie of Skelmorlie.
The illustration above shows Portencross castle as it might have looked at the end of the 1400s


During the middle ages, the most common boat in these waters was the Birlinn, a hebridean galley. It is said to have been developed from the Norse Galley by Somerled, who led the Kingdom of the Isles in the 1100s. Birlinns were clinker-built wooden boats that could be rowed or sailed, with a single mast and square sail. These small but sturdy seagoing ships were an improvement on the Norse Longship, (Norse byrðingr – ship of burden).


Design advantages of the Birlinn

The Hebridean Galley or Birlinn was the primary means of transportation at the time.
The most important single difference is the replacement of the steering-board (a large oar) by a stern rudder. Other small variations in size and design were found along the west coast. During medieval times Birlinns were the workhorse of the west coast seas. They were used for everything from ferrying people and cargo to going to war. The design was more manouverable than that of the Norse boats andsuited to both rough seas and shallow water. The boats were light, but could be weighted with ballast to make them more stable in rougher conditions and the shallow draught made them easy to haul out of the sea. Portencross and other similar west cost castles seem to have been built in places that allowed easy access to the sea, and where it was easy to haul Birlinns out of the water.
The Hebridean Galley or Birlinn was the primary means of transportation at the time.

Portencross Castle and the Spanish Armada shipwreck

An exciting aspect of the waters around Portencross Castle is that they may conceal the wreck of a Spanish Galleon. Indeed, the UK Hydrographical Office describes a wreck off Portencross as a Spanish galleon.
A description from divers from August 1740 pointed out how the ‘country folk’ gave the divers the location of the wreck. The divers made their way down ropes with lead weights holding the rope on the seabed. The wreck was covered in sand. The divers lowered large gripping tongs and, with a great deal of effort, raised 10 iron and 10 brass cannon. The brass cannon were shipped to Dublin. The brass cannon were English, but had been sold to Spain via France as part of a thriving arms trade. It may be that the wreck was initially kept secret to give the survivors a better chance to return to Spain. Alexander Boyd of Portencross, a supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, may very well have been sympathetic to the Spanish plight.
The Portencross vessel is possibly one of the following: the Santiago (but possibly sunk off Co Mayo); the San Pedro; the San Juan; the San Bartolome; the San Maria del Junca; the Barca de Danzig; or even the Santa Barbara.
In August 2007, the sea bed at Portencross was surveyed and
researchers found some magnetic anomalies. No doubt in the future,
we may be able to mount a further, more detailed search for the galleon
and its secrets. (See A Spanish Galleon at Portencross, by Alastair Glen)


Why an Armada?

Sea power was important in the 1500s. Around 1580, Spain took control of Portugal. King Philip II wanted to overcome his rival, Elizabeth I of England, so that he could dominate world trade. Nearly 130 ships sailed from Lisbon in May 1588. Its aim was to pave the way for a troop invasion of England.
Religious differences were also important at the time. Philip wanted England to be Catholic. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 may have been a factor in Philip making up his mind to invade England. The young James VI of Scotland remained neutral – he was promised a reward by Elizabeth if he did so. The Spanish also promised James a reward if he allowed a Scottish port to become a base for their ships. Religious attitudes also affected the fate of sailors wrecked from the Armada. Medina Sidonia warned all his ships to avoid landing in Ireland as this was under Protestant English control.
Spanish galleon

The Armada tries to escape

After various skirmishes between the Armada and English ships, a major battle took place off Portland Bill on the 2nd and 3rd of August 1588. The English also attacked the Armada at Calais. Poor weather forced most of the Spanish ships into the North Sea. They escaped around the north of Scotland, between Orkney and Shetland, down the Scottish and Irish coasts, then home for Spain. By the time they got to the west coast of Scotland, they had lost 20 ships or more.
They were also short of food and fresh water. In mid August, as the ships were off the coast of Lewis, they were hit by wild south-westerly winds that stopped their progress. By this time, they had lost a further 17 ships.
Late in September, another 20 were lost along the coast of Ireland. We know that two reached Scottish shores – one sailed damaged into Tobermory Bay and another beached at Fair Isle. The West of Scotland folk helped Armada survivors and repatriated many sailors home to Spain.


The period that earned the castle its national importance

In 1315, a year after Bannockburn, de Ross lost control of the lands of Arnele. Robert the Bruce gave the lands to Sir Robert Boyd of Kilmarnock as a reward for his loyal support. Auldhill Fort went out of use in the mid 1300s. Around 1360, Portencross Castle replaced it on the site where we see it in the village today. It was on part of the estate not leased to anyone else and used personally by the laird of Arnele. We call this part of an estate the ‘caput of the barony’. It was the grandson of Sir Robert Boyd who fought at Bannockburn, also called Robert Boyd, who possessed the Arnele estate when the current harbour-side castle was built.
From the harbour, boats reached many destinations from the Clyde Islands to the Western Isles (shown on the ‘Sea Routes’ map). Rothesay was an important destination, and the early Stewart Kings used Portencross en route from Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire to Rothesay Castle.

The legend of the kings of Scotland

An old tradition is that between the 800s and 1000s, the bodies of the ancient Kings of Scotland, were taken from mainland Scotland to their last resting place on the holy island of Iona via Portencross, but historians can’t confirm this. Looking at the map, can you work out the route they might have taken? The harbour just north of Portencross castle is still in use today.
Robert Stewart, later to become Robert II, the first of the Stewart kings, grew up in the Stewart lands in Renfrew, and Ayrshire and Bute. As a young man he was part of the struggle in the mid 1300s to overthrow the repeated
occupations of Scotland by Balliol and Edward III of England. The Boyds and the Stewarts were allies in this cause. When the Scots overcame the threat of occupation, Arnele and its castle became the convenient port of access from the Stewart base in Dundonald Castle to the Clyde and the castle at Rothesay.
The importance of Portencross castle increased when Robert Stewart became king. The 15 Acts or Charters of Robert II dated at Arnele between 1371 and 1390, were probably signed at Portencross Castle. The prominent place of Portencross and Arnele estate is shown by how frequently these royal charters were signed there during the reign of Robert II. One of the Charters secured the inheritance of much of the northwest of Scotland and the Western Isles to descendants of the first Lord of the Isles who had links to the Stewarts through marriage.

Hall-house to tower house – Mid to late 1300s

The first phase of building was the construction of the hall-house – the lower part of the building. There may also have been a ‘barmkin’ or defensive wall, outside the castle. Were the east and west wings built at the same time? Look at the details on each of the castle wings, especially the details round the windows. The similar details might point to these features having been being built at the same time. But notice how the east wing is less weathered than the west wing. Is this due to an age difference between the wings, or is it because of the prevailing south-westerly winds scouring the stone of the west wing? The accepted view is that the east and west wings were not built at the same time, although there was probably a lower east wing which would have been for defence. This would make it one of only two castles like this in Scotland (the other being Whittinghame in East Lothian). So Portencross Castle was built as a traditional ‘hall house’ (phase 1) and was converted over time into a tower house.

Early History

Auldhill Dun

The dun at Auldhame (Auldhill) occupies high ground to the east of Portencross. It dates from the iron age, the period from around 800BC to 100BC.
Illustration showing the possible arrangement of Auldhill Fort circa 1200s.
The site is strategic. It dominates the sea approaches to the upper Clyde and has been important for centuries because of this. Materials from earlier buildings were reused to build a medieval castle on Auldhill in the 1100s and 1200s. This castle had a protective ditch, an enclosure and a secure house on a mound. Such structures were called ‘motte and bailey’ castles. This medieval castle overlooked the surrounding land and the islands to the west that were held by the Vikings until their defeat in a battle near Largs in 1263.
After this time, the castle at Auldhill and the surrounding lands of Arnele were in possession of the de Ross family, who were probably of Norman descent.
The western seaboard of Scotland has long been a busy and sometimes dangerous place, with a complex history and shifting borders. Between 400 and 800AD The Kingdom of Dalriada, spanning from Northern Ireland to Skye,
traded across the Irish Sea and with France, Spain and the Mediterranean. From the 800s to 1200s AD, Norwegian Vikings raided and invaded settlements and islands bringing a strong Norse influence. During the middle ages the Clyde Islands formed the border between what was known as the ‘Kingdom of the Isles’ and the rest of Scotland.

563 AD

St Columba lands on Iona and brings Christianity to the Picts and the rest of
Scotland. Iona becomes a holy isle and a place of burial of kings.

100 BC

The Romans occupy Southern Scotland and build the Antonine wall. The remains of a Roman harbour can be found 2km north of the castle.

1000BC to 500BC

The early Iron age spreads across Western Europe, replacing the Bronze age. An Iron Age people build a Dun, a fortified dwelling, on Auldhill.

12000 BC

Scotland is emerging from a glacial period and ice, in places kilometres deep, covers the landscape of Portencross.