22 March, 2013
Craignethan Castle was the last private castle of high defensive capability built from new in Scotland. As such, it is a monument of national importance. Last week took me there to check for the presence of protected animals before works were undertaken.
The castle was built by Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, an illegitimate son of the powerful 1st Earl of Arran. Closely related to royalty, he worked his way into the inner circle of King James V, ultimately becoming his Master of Works – or chief architect. He had a hand in building James’s Renaissance palaces at Stirling and Linlithgow, and re-fortified Blackness Castle on the Firth of Forth. Craignethan was his own home, built to his own specifications in the 1530s, when he was at the peak of his success. His glory was not to last. A year later, he was implicated in an assassination plot against the king. After a brisk show trial, he was executed.
The castle exploits superb natural defences, surrounded on three sides by the steep limestone crags of the Nethan Gorge. The site’s vulnerable side is to the west, where it is overlooked by hilly ground. Finnart countered this with a thick, high wall to the west of his castle, behind which he installed a deep, wide ditch and a caponier – a shooting gallery from which to ambush intruders.
Nethan Gorge is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It’s an outstanding example of semi-natural deciduous gorge woodland, which supports many notable invertebrates. The gorge is dominated by elm, ash and oak; wildflower meadows and deciduous scrub also form an integral part of the SSSI. The level ground at the bottom of the gorge supports alderwoods, an unusual woodland type in South Lanarkshire.The rich invertebrate fauna includes a number of uncommon beetles which are associated with leaf litter, underground fungi and dead and decaying wood.
Many birds live in the gorge, among them dippers, warblers, tits, wrens and birds of prey like kestrel and the magnificent peregrine falcon. Hawks were much prized in medieval times for their hunting prowess. The peregrine was the bird of choice of the nobility and the kestrel was the bird of the knave. It was believed that to prevent young birds becoming lazy and ‘weakened by pleasures’, adult birds would ‘flog’ them with their wings as soon as they could fly, driving them from the nest to fend for themselves.
The fissured cliffs and rotten trees provide roosts for at least four species of bats including pipistrelle and brown long-eared bats. There are also many bat roosts in the castle. Its corridors and vaults are to bats just like caves or rock fissures.
In the middle ages it was believed that bats were birds – but they were unusual in several ways. The mother bat was said to carry its children in its arms as it flew. Also unlike other birds, the bat gave birth to live young instead of laying eggs. And it had teeth.
It was not, however, considered to be a noble bird – indeed, it seen as a malignant creature. The bat’s habits and appearance and its capacity to fly even in total darkness fed popular fantasies. Bats have long been associated with fear of the dark, of night and of death. The Devil has long been represented with the wings of a bat, and angels with the white wings of birds.
Bats are, however, extremely important for wildlife and for us in particular. Midges are the curse of Scottish outdoor life, yet it is estimated that one tiny pipistrelle bat can devour 3,000 of the little blighters in one night. Craignethan castle, near Lanark, is open April to November, there is a footpath through the Nethan Gorge Nature Reserve, managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which joins the Clyde River Walkway.