The monument is a castle dating from the 15th century, which continued in use until after the First World War, undergoing multiple adaptions. The castle is situated on a coastal promontory on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. To the south of the castle there is forecourt bounded to the south by a late 19th century barrack block and to the west by an officer's block of similar date. Immediately beyond the south wall of the forecourt, the ground rises up as part of rocky headland. On this higher ground, there are the remains of a structure identified as a chapel and doocot, both associated with the castle.
The 15th century castle survives as a curtain wall incorporating the north tower with a free standing central tower within the central courtyard. These structures survive albeit substantially remodelled and sections of their crenelated wall heads are visible within later wall heightening. The castle was modified during the reign of James V. The curtain wall was significantly thickened on the east and south sides and was pierced by large gunports at ground level. The principle entrance was also relocated to the west side, where it was protected by a caponier – a vaulted gun-gallery within a defensive ditch. Later in the 16th century this was heightened to form a defensive spur. The south front was also strengthened and heightened at this time. This tower included a hall and was used as residence for the keeper of the castle.
To the south of the castle there is an area of open ground which is now bounded to the south by a 19th century barrack block and to the west by an officers' block of similar date. These buildings are associated with the use of Blackness as the central munitions depot for Scotland from 1870 to 1912. Also built at that time is the pier on the north side of the castle. This connects directly with the courtyard of the castle via a drawbridge and a gateway cut through the west curtain wall. To the south of these 19th century buildings are the remains of a building believed to be St Ninian's Chapel and a doocot, both of which are part of the larger castle complex.
The scheduled area is irregular on plan to include the remains described above and an area around in which evidence for the monuments construction, use and abandonment is expected to survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduling specifically excludes: the former officer's quarters, barracks block, custodian's house, offices and wash house on the drying green; the above-ground elements of all modern boundary walls and modern fences; the above-ground elements of all signage and services; the modern decking of the pier, the top 300mm of all modern paths and paved areas to allow for their maintenance; all modern railings and staircases within the castle.
Statement of National Importance
The monument's cultural significance has been assessed as follows:
The monument is a 15th-century castle which was in almost continuous use as a royal and then government fortress until 1919. During this time it frequently served as a state prison, first for political and religious prisoners and then prisoners of war. From 1870 Blackness was the central munitions depot for Scotland. Due to this extensive period of use, the castle has a complex development sequence which reflects its changing functions. Much of the architectural development of Blackness during the 16th century was in response to the increasing threat of artillery. Blackness is significant because it shows how medieval fortifications were adapted in the 16th century to resist increasing powerful cannon.
The early 16th century changes were overseen by Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, who was James V's Master of Works, and who developed artillery fortifications at a number of castles. At Blackness, the 15th-century curtain walls were raised and massively thickened to withstand artillery bombardment, and were provided with large gunports to provide an active defensive capability. The caponier in the spur is an extremely rare feature.
The castle underwent further alterations in the later 16th century when the caponier was heightened to form a defensive spur. It was again strengthened and remodelled in the 1690s for heavy guns and musketry, while the northernmost tower was reduced in height to create a three gun battery overlooking the Forth. Other alterations carried out in the 17th century included fitting out of the central tower in the 1660s as a prison for Covenanters, including the addition of a stair tower, and turning the south tower into barracks accommodation.
Very little archaeological work has been carried out on the site. The grass-covered area to the south of the castle has been levelled up and seals the medieval ditch in front of the castle which in the 18th century was said to always contain water. The land to the east of the castle was reclaimed in the later 19th century and is likely to retain evidence for the military buildings erected in this area as part of the central munitions depot. The rise to the south of the former barracks buildings around the former chapel and doocot was used as an artillery battery in the 17th century and archaeological remains will survive here.
Blackness Castle was built in the 15th century by Sir George Crichton, earl of Caithness, admiral of Scotland and cousin to Sir William Crichton, King James II's chancellor. The castle was annexed by the Crown in 1453 and was granted to the Burgh of Linlithgow in 1465 which was permitted to use the stone and lime of the castle to construct a harbour. The castle was subsequently taken back into Crown control to use as a political prison.
Blackness is one of a number of Scottish castles that were adapted in the early 16th century in response to the increasing threat from artillery. Dunbar Castle (scheduled monument reference SM766), Tantallon Castle (scheduled monument reference SM13326), St Andrews Castle (scheduled monument reference SM90259) and Craignethan Castle (scheduled monument reference SM90083), along with Blackness, all demonstrate similar approaches to artillery defence. These adaptions include wall thickening, large gunports and purpose built structures to accommodate artillery (caponiers, block houses, traverse walls and gun towers).
The caponier is a rare feature; only one other example dating to the 16th century is known of in the British Isles, and that was built by Hamilton of Finnart at his own castle of Craignethan. It therefore appears likely Hamilton introduced the caponier to Scotland potentially having seen continental examples. However, more generally his approach to artillery defence is likely to have been influenced by the work at Dunbar Castle carried out on behalf of Governor Albany, who brought various French craftsmen to work in Scotland in the early 16th century, and in whose entourage Hamilton served.
The castle served as a military base in the 18th and 19th centuries during which time it had several functions: prison, transit camp for French prisoners of war, barracks, and storage depot. The internal layout and configuration of Blackness was altered through its continuing use and adaption to serve military purposes. This transformed the castle from a lordly residence to a state fortress and prison, and then a military base. Blackness is a rare example of a medieval high status building which continued in use into the 20th century. Other examples include Edinburgh castle, Stirling Castle and Dumbarton Castle.
Blackness is located at sea level on a prominent outcrop on the south shore of the Firth of Forth. It is located to utilise the topography as an additional defence. It is visible also as a landmark in its own right from the opposite bank and has good views both upstream and downstream. The location of castle on the shore of the Forth and its form led the castle to be likened to a ship. This appears to have been recognised relatively early as a plan by Theodore Dury produced around 1690 refers to the central tower as the 'main mast' and the northern most tower as the 'stem tower'. The L-shape range at the south end of the castle containing the great hall became known as the 'stern tower'.
Blackness Castle has associations with a number of important historical figures, including Cardinal Beaton and Andrew Melville. The former was incarcerated in the castle whilst Melville was ordered to be held there prior to his flight out of Scotland in 1582. It was used to imprison Covenanters in the 1660s and opponents of William and Mary in the 1690s. The castle is also closely associated with Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, who as Master of Works of James V oversaw the adaption of the castle into an artillery fortification. Hamilton is was involved in building works for James V at a number of castles and palaces, including Stirling, Linlithgow and Tantallon, as well as building castles at Craignethan and Cadzow (scheduled monument reference SM90342) for his own use.
In the 1560s the castle was garrisoned by both the Earl of Arran and Sir Claud Hamilton in support of Mary Queen of Scots both of whom used the castle to launch raids into Linlithgowshire and the towns on the north bank of the Forth. Almost a century later during the Cromwellian invasion of Scotland, Blackness was besieged. The English artillery was placed on the rise to the south, destroying the chapel in the process.
The importance of Blackness in the defence of Scotland is further highlighted by the fact that it was one of only four castles whose maintenance was guaranteed by the Act of Union in 1707.
Statement of National Importance
The monument is of national importance because it has played a key role in Scotland's history both as a royal castle and also as the foremost state prison for two centuries. As such Blackness played a central role in the politics of the nation. The monument has an inherent potential to make a significant contribution to our understanding of medieval and later fortified dwellings, their chronology and development sequences as well as the cultural and social influences that may have informed their development and architecture. The castle was one of the first major artillery fortifications in Scotland after its transformation under Sir James Hamilton of Finnart. Blackness offers the opportunity for further research about the development of fortifications, prisons and military architecture. The loss of the monument would greatly diminish also our ability to understand the character, chronology and development of artillery fortification in Scotland.