The Scottish castle with a pit prison

If you like your history gruesome, follow in the footsteps of the murderers and vagabonds of the pit prison at Cardoness Castle.

Cardoness Castle near Kirkcudbright. Picture: Geograph
Cardoness Castle near Kirkcudbright. Picture: Geograph

Cardoness Castle, once surrounded by sea, sits on a strong defensive rocky point in the Fleet Bay near Kirkcudbright, Dumfries. It is a castle with a gruesome history and tales of murder abound.

Cardoness Castle was built by the McCulloch family in the 1470s. Even the castle's beginnings are shrouded in mystery. The legend goes that a son of the McCulloch's married a daughter of the previous landowner. She was the sole survivor of a tragic accident in which her eight older sisters, her father and her new-born brother downed in a frozen lake during a celebration of her new brother's birth.

Pit prison

The castle is known for its pit prison in the bowels of the castle. There's a murder hole over the main door which was designed to deter unwanted visitors. There's an upper level of the prison which might have been considered cosy with a latrine and small window, compared to the horrible pit prison below, where enemies of the McCullochs were thrown to rot.

A pit prison is just what the McCulloch family needed because it seems they were always embroiled in disputes with their neighbours. James McCulloch was involved in land disputes five times and upset his neighbours when he married his daughter off to a “natural idiot” in a land-grabbing plot. Alexander McCulloch was convicted for violence against his neighbours. And Ninian McCulloch was tried for theft of property from his widowed mother.

Pirates and murderers

In fact Cardoness Castle never had friendly inhabitants. It was a haven for hostile pirates and murderers. Another Alexander McCulloch, known as “Cutlar McCulloch,” led a raid on the Isle of Man in 1530. He was fuelled by revenge because the Manx had attacked Galloway. He plundered the Isle of man several times, enriching himself.

However, the McCulloch's finances drained in the 1600s and they lost the castle to the nearby Gordon family, their long-standing enemies. In 1668 Alexander McCulloch dragged John Gordon's ailing widow out of the castle and tossed her onto a dung heap. Then in 1690, Sir Godfrey McCulloch shot dead William Gordon. The McCulloch murderer did a runner to France but years later he was spotted in Edinburgh and beheaded on the Maiden.

Today the castle is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland and there are plans to restore some of the extra floors of the castle that have been lost. There's a visitor centre in a converted cottage at the roadside where there's a model of how the castle would have looked originally. The pit prison is in tact and it is one of the best surviving in a Scottish tower house castle, but the floor that would have separated the two prisons is no longer there.