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The Faces of Blackness Castle

Located on a rocky promontory at the mouth of the Firth of Forth on its south shore, Blackness Castle is a few miles west of Edinburgh, Scotland. Nicknamed the ‘Ship which never sailed’, it was built at a natural harbor, which served Linlithgow Palace, around 1440 by Sir George Crichton. The Crichtons were one of the most powerful families of Scotland. It was handed over to King James II in 1453.

Blackness Castle has served as a royal residence, prison for Covenanters, ordnance depot, military barracks, and youth hostel. Not used as a residence for long, it was mostly a garrison fortress or prison. The castle had three towers, with the central tower rising to four stories. The south tower was residential and the rectangular North Tower the prison and pit.

Blackness Castle was reinforced by Sir James Hamilton of Finnart between 1537 and 1543 to become one of the strongest artillery fortifications in Scotland. The castle became a formidable stronghold with thickened walls and defensive guns, surrounded on three sides by water. This was when the curtain wall took the shape of a battleship with the bow pointing out to the river and the stern facing inland. The three towers stood at different places within the ship.

The castle was besieged and damaged in 1650 by Cromwell’s army and after restoration it was used to hold the Covenanters. Blackness was used as a high-security prison until 1707, its most famous prisoner being Cardinal David Beaton.

After the 1707 Treaty of Union, Blackness became a minor garrison but was used to hold French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars between 1759 and 1815. It was converted to an ammunition depot in1870. Separate barracks were built for the officers and men and a new seaward entrance with a long pier extending out into the river was added.

Blackness Castle, which was acquired by the Ministry of Works in 1912, was used briefly as a military installation during the First World War. In the 1920s, it was conserved as an ancient monument and is now in the care of Historic Scotland. It regained the appearance of a mediaeval castle when the modern buildings were demolished.