Mary Queen of Scots

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Ardstinchar Castle - The Marian Connection

Andrew Spratt / Ronald Morrison


The village of Ballantrae with Ailsa Craig behind
the remains of Ardstinchar on the right

Throughout the earlier years of her reign Mary embarked on a quite a number of 'progresses' covering large areas of the country. The purpose of these progresses was to see and be seen and generally to assert royal authority. over the areas through which she travelled. Perhaps and rather cynically a secondary reason was to allow the cleansing of the royal palaces during the Court's absence and also perhaps a financial one as those she visited were expected to meet the whole costs of the visit, not only of the immediate retinue but for the whole party, perhaps up to 1000 retainers.

Mary embarked on her progress to the west and south west of Scotland in the summer of 1563 travelling via Glasgow to Inveraray thence southwards to Toward where she crossed  the Clyde estuary and continued southwards through Ayrshire moving on via Dunure Castle to Ardmillan and then Ardstinchar where she spent the night of 8th August. She subsequently continued via Glenluce, Whithorn, Dumfries and back to Edinburgh.

Unlike her progress to the north east of Scotland the previous year which was at the head of a military force her progress to the south west has been likened in some ways to a pilgrimage and she certainly visited a number of religious shrines following in the footsteps of her grandparents, James IV and Margaret Tudor. The south west had managed to escape most of the ravages of the “Rough Wooing” and in parts the Catholic faith still lingered. It was certainly an opportunity for Mary to meet and influence and, to an extent at least, she seems to have been able to do so with some success.

Hugh Kennedy, the builder of Ardstinchar Castle, was the third of six sons born to Sir Gilbert Kennedy of Dunure and Dame Agnes Maxwell. This "Friar Hew" as he was known was a fully-ordained Dominican priest who left his monastery in Ayr to serve with the Scots army in France at a crucial time in the Hundred Years War. He was Joan of Arc's Scottish Captain at the Siege of Orleans and beyond. Hugh garrisoned Lagny-sur-Marne from 1429 to 32, and it was there that Joan went in the spring of 1430 when King Charles let her down.

In his role as French Ambassador to Scotland in 1435 to fetch the young Princess Margaret, daughter of James I of Scotland to marry the dauphin, the future Louis X1 of France, Hugh took the French Embassy on pilgrimage to Whithorn and then to Ardstinchar before heading north to meet with James.

After a precarious voyage to France with the princess, he returned to the church with the help of two kings petitioning Pope Eugene IV on his behalf. Absolved of excommunication, Hugh became an Augustinian Canon in France before returning to Scotland where King James provided him to the provostship of the Chapel Royal in St Andrews. He rose to become Archdeacon of St Andrews under his famous nephew Bishop James Kennedy.

Ardstinchar was Hugh's by inheritance, probably from his elder brother Alexander who died without lawful issue. Hugh owned Ardstinchar by 1429 when he and another brother Thomas combined their lands to create the Barony of Ardstinchar, although Hugh would retain the liferent of his own lands until his death in 1454.

The name of Ardstinchar became overhshadowed by that of Bargany, Thomas' designation, yet Ardstinchar Castle would remain the principal residence of the Bargany Kennedys for another century and more. It was the great-great-grandson and namesake of Thomas Kennedy of Bargany and Ardstinchar who played host to Mary.

A deadly feud between the Cassillis and Bargany factions of the Kennedy Clan had its roots in Hugh's era, and in 1601 it culminated in the slaying of the last great baron of Bargany and Ardstinchar.

Gilbert Kennedy lay in a lead coffin at Ayr while his wife Jonet Stewart built a fabulous tomb for him near the castle in Ballantrae – the Bargany Aisle, also known as the Kennedy Mausoleum. When Jonet herself died around four years later, her body was brought to Ayr and laid beside her husband's while preparations for a spectacular funeral procession were made.

Come the big belated day, one thousand gentlemen on horseback, earls and lords and lairds, accompanied the coffins to Ballantrae to be laid in the tomb. Gilbert's honours and a Banner of Revenge were borne by his family and friends. This banner displayed his portrait with all his wounds, and his young son sitting at his knees. Written between the child's hands were the words from the first English version of the psalms by Thomas Sternhol 'Judge and Rewendge my Caus, O Lord!' Interestingly this is virtually the same wording to that of the banners borne by the Confederate Lords at Carberry which showed a green tree with the corpse of Darnely beneath it.

The fortunes of the Bargany and Ardstinchar Kennedys soon fell into ruin, and the estate was purchased by Sir John Hamilton of Letterick, son of the 1st. Marquis of Hamilton. The Castle was quarried in the 1770s to build a three-arched bridge over the River Stinchar, plus the Ballantrae Inn (now the King's Arms Hotel) and some village houses.

Today at the mouth of the river Stinchar a fragmented keep along with some grassy rubble mounds astride a rocky hill are all that remain of Hugh Kennedy's 15th. century wedge plan castle of Ardstinchar. It originally had three square plan towers at irregular points with a gatehouse on the north side and on the south east side an oblong plan keep with later extra raised corbel parapet with half turrets beside a long hall house. On two sides were ditches with the rocky hill itself falling down to the river it was guarding on the third side. Although the castle had four walls in plan, the west one was so narrow that it took on a triangular appearance rather than square being dictated by the shape of the rock mass and availability to cut the encircling ditch.

Andrew Spratt has recently effected a reconstruction of the property as it would have been in Mary's time and this is seen - below right. On the left is a photograph of the remains with pencilled illustrations of the original structures


Photograph of the remains of the Castle
with illustration of the original structure


Reconstruction of 16th century castle

Mary would in all probability have spent the night in the long hall house rather than the small barrel rooms within the raised keep. What is interesting to note is that Mary would have stood on the half turret walkway still visible today as she view the Kennedy lands and river below. Even such a tiny fragment of a tower can still tell a story of its construction and its Royal visitor.

Jean Brittain (author of much of the above text) has written a biography of the castle's builder entitled – "Hugh Kennedy of Ardstinchar: Joan of Arc's Scottish Captain" This is available from Amazon Kindle and iTunes.