Set in the small village of Direlton beside the village green, this is a lovely spot to visit. A stone wall with dove cote at one corner surrounds the site. Through a gateway into the ticket office, the first sight is not the castle but the the glorious herbaceous border. This is in the Guinness book of Records as being the longest herbaceous border in the world. It loops round an immaculately kept lawn and in late June was a mass of colour with bearded iris, peonies, cat nip, aquilegia, scabious, Stachys, Allium, poppies, sea holly, campanulas, geraniums, yellow loosestrife…
To the left of the herbaceous borders behind a yew hedge are more formal style Victorian gardens with flower beds planted out with pelargoniums and begonias. Well trimmed yews and conifers (apart from the tops which have grown too tall to be trimmed) add height and interest. Nearby is a putting green surrounded by yew avenues.
Well made paths lead up to the castle which is built on an outcrop of rock. Garderobe shafts can be seen high above on the walls.
The original approach was from the south by a bridge and drawbridge over a dry moat. These lead to the main gate set in a tall archway high above th moat with guard rooms on either side. In the 16thC steps were built to access the Ruthven building.
The castle has had a chequered history and has changed hands several times. It isn’t the easiest of sites to understand as it was built in three main phases by three different families.
The original castle with huge keep and curtain wall was built by John de Vaux in the late 1200s. The castle was slighted by Robert the Bruce after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 to prevent further use by the English. In the mid 1300s the castle passed by marriage from the de Vaux to the Halyburton family. They rebuilt the castle and strengthened the gatehouse. They added a new residential tower and great hall along the east side of the courtyard. As well as family rooms this included cavernous storage vaults, family chapel and a pit-prison. Large parts of the castle can be traced back to this period, including the extremely strong gatehouse, which would have provided the main entrance to the castle.
In 1515, the castle again passed by marriage to the Ruthven family. They built new accommodation in front of the de Vaux keep. They laid out gardens to the west of the castle and built the dove cote.
The castle was used by moss troopers who attacked the supply lines of Oliver Cromwell’s Army during his invasion of Scotland. In 1651, General Monk stormed the castle and badly damaged it with his cannons. It was never lived in again. The ownership passed to the Nisbet family who lived at Archerfield and regarded Dirleton as picturesque ruins. Stone was looted to build houses and walls in the surrounding area. One good thing to come out of this are the gardens which were designed by the head gardener at Archerfield in 1858.
We followed the original entry to the castle over the modern bridge and through the gatehouse. The inside of the courtyard is small and feels congested with little space.
The de Vaux keep, accessed through the Ruthven building and a small irregular courtyard, is still largely intact. On the ground floor were the vaulted cellars and storage areas. There is a well and the kitchens may have been here. A spiral staircase leads up to the great hall on the first floor. This was lit by four large windows set in the thick walls with window seats. With a fireplace it would have stayed warm in the winter months. Off it are the smaller private rooms and a garderobe. The private rooms have no fire places and it is thought they may have been lit by braziers in cold weather. A spiral staircase leads up to the roof.
Steps to the right of the gateway lead down into the basement of the Halyburton range along the east wall of the castle. The bakery had two wall ovens and access to the well. Beyond are the cellars with vaulted ceilings which were walled off to form separate chambers. Each had a doorway to the courtyard which was protected by a draw bar to deter thieves. The original postern entrance to the castle which provided a side entrance in the 1300s was blocked during building of the Halyburton range. For a while it was used as a fireplace. In the far corner of the cellar, a spiral staircase leads to the great hall. At the end of the range is the chapel with the priest’s chamber off it. By the entrance and now screened off were the steps leading to the prison and pit.
The great hall was above the cellars and is now reached by a modern wood staircase. The accommodation for the Lord and his family would have been off the north end of the great hall. All that is left are the foundations. The hall would have had a timber roof and minstrels gallery at the south end. On one wall is an elaborate stone buffet with decorative carving and pinnacles above. In the outer wall near the buffet is the pantry with a serving hatch and spiral staircase to the cellars. Behind the buffet is a corridor with a large serving hatch into the kitchen. Steps off this corridor give a good view of the guard room above the main entrance and the murder hole.
The kitchen had two huge fireplaces with a circular hole in the roof to remove smells and smoke. There are wooden hatches in the floor to the bakery below and another to the well which served both kitchen and bakehouse. Food should still have been warm when served.
The Ruthven lodgings were originally three storeys high and are immediately recognisable by the string course (horizontal mouldings) running along the walls and over the windows. The lower floors were storage. Above was the great hall and family rooms. The large windows would have been glazed at the top with wooden shutters below. The floor is now concrete but was originally covered with green glazed tiles and it may also have had a painted wood ceiling. Heated by two fireplaces, the great hall also had a wall cupboard which would have ben shelved.
You have to work at understanding this castle, but having done so, it is very rewarding to explore. The delightful gardens are an additional bonus.