Dundonald Castle sits high on a steep-sided hill with commanding views of the Ayrshire countryside and as far north as Ben Lomond and across the Firth of Clyde to the Isle of Arran and Kintyre.
The site of the castle has been in use as a fort and settlement since before 2000 BC. There are traces of late Bronze Age buildings and fragments of coarse pottery have been excavated here. The site continued to be occupied and was extensively rebuilt to become a hill fort around 500AD.
The name Dundonald comes from the Gaelic dun meaning fort, so Dundonald is the Fort of Donald. Quite who Donald was remains a mystery, though it is probable that he was one of the Kings of Strathclyde in the 6th or 7th Century.
The Iron Age fort was destroyed in a vicious fire that actually melted some of the stonework. The hill was then abandoned until the mid-12th Century.
King David I of Scotland brought Norman knights north from England to help manage his estates. Walter FitzAlan was one of these men and he was appointed as the first High Steward of Scotland and given extensive lands around north Strathclyde. He constructed a timber motte-and-bailey castle on the hill in 1136.
Walter FitzAlan’s descendants continued to be powerful and influential noblemen. In the mid-1200s, Alexander Stewart, 4th High Steward of Scotland replaced his great-grandfather’s simple castle with a powerful stone enclosure castle.
It was a considerable size, possibly one of the largest in Scotland at the time, with a symmetrical design and two gatehouses each flanked by D-plan towers. The eastern gatehouse held a secure water supply, the exposed well of which can still be seen today.
The second castle is thought to have been destroyed by Robert the Bruce around 1298. He often slighted castles he had captured to prevent their use by the English. The castle’s owner Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland, fought alongside Robert and ultimately married his daughter Marjorie thereby giving rise to the House of Stewart.
The slighted second castle remained a ruin for over 70 years. In the interim the Stewarts had risen to claim the throne of Scotland.
King Robert II was the first monarch of the powerful Stewart dynasty. He had a great many children both legitimate and illegitimate. His sons became powerful noblemen in their own right and his daughters were married into noble families, helping to secure Stewart control of the kingdom.
By the time he became king, Robert was 55 years old - a fairly old man by the standards of the time. Responsibility for the kingdom was gradually delegated to his sons and Robert himself went into retirement on the west coast, dividing his time between his castles at Dundonald and Rothesay.
To mark his accession to the throne in 1371 Robert commissioned a third castle at Dundonald. Although it is quite a bit smaller than the second castle, very few traces remain of the first two.
This third castle is one of the earliest and largest tower houses in Scotland. It once stood at least three stories high and possibly more, though the upper levels are in ruins and it’s hard to say exactly what they would have looked like.
The base of the castle incorporates parts of the west gatehouse of the second castle. As is typical of Scottish tower houses, the ground floor was used for storage. The timber floor that would have separated it from the first floor has rotted away and you can see right up to the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Laigh Hall.
The first floor housed the Laigh (or lower) Hall. This level probably also had the main entrance to the building. The southern end of the hall is brightly lit and this is the likely location of the king’s table.
The second floor is open to the elements and was once the Great Hall. It would have been used for royal banquets and important meetings. The room was designed to impress and traces can still be seen of the decorative stonework that would have adorned the barrel-vaulted ceiling.
At some point, probably before 1390, the castle was extended to the south. The south annexe provided additional accommodation, housed the porter’s lodge and had a pit prison in the basement.
Robert II died at Dundonald Castle in April 1390 and Dundonald passed down the royal line. It declined in importance after Robert’s death and royal visits became less frequent.
By the 15th Century the castle was being let out and it was occupied by a series of tenants. In the late 16th Century Auchans House was built nearby with some of its building materials coming from the castle.
In the early 16th Century Sir William Cochrane, 1st Earl of Dundonald bought the castle and its estates and it stayed in the Cochrane family until Thomas Cochrane, 13th Earl of Dundonald gifted the castle to the State in 1953.
Today the castle has been renovated and made safe for visitors. The fabric of the building is cared for by Historic Scotland, but a local charity, Friends of Dundonald Castle, are responsible for the day to day running of the site.
Facilities available at the site include toilets, a comfortable cafe and gift shop, car parking and, unusually, a children’s play area and bicycle racks.
Status: Visitor Attraction
Owner: Historic Scotland
Tel: +44 (0)1563 851 489
Opening Times: Daily April 1st to October 31st 10am to 5pm
Dundonald Castle Keep and entrance
The Great Hall
The walkway in the Laigh Hall