Blackness Castle was built in the mid-15th century. Throughout its history, it was used continuously, and in numerous ways, by the Crown.
The barony of Blackness was held in the mid-15th century by Sir George Crichton, Lord High Admiral of Scotland, Sheriff of Linlithgow, and later Earl of Caithness. The Crichtons were one of the most politically powerful Scottish families at the time, and were close to James II; Sir George was governor of Stirling Castle when the King murdered the 8th Earl of Douglas there in 1452, and George’s cousin, William, was Chancellor of Scotland from 1439 to 1453. The castle was probably built in the mid-1440s, during a time of feuding between the Crichtons and the “Black” Douglases, which had resulted in the destruction of Sir George’s tower at Barnton in Edinburgh in 1444.
Blackness Castle is first mentioned in 1449, and was already serving as a state prison as well as Sir George’s residence. The original building comprised a curtain wall and the north tower, with the central tower isolated in the central courtyard. A hall range may have stood to the south, while the whole was defended by a rock-cut ditch and accessed by a gate in the east wall.
Sir George Crichton handed over the Crichton lands, including Blackness Castle, to James II in 1453. His dispossessed heir, James Crichton, captured the castle and held it briefly against the King, who besieged and recaptured it the same year. Blackness became a royal fortress, as well as continuing to serve as a prison, and was put into the care of a keeper, who was often the Sheriff of Linlithgow. In the 17th century, this office became hereditary in the Livingstone family.
A Royal Castle
For most of its history Blackness Castle was a royal castle. It was given to James II in 1453, just a few years after it was built, and has been Crown propery ever since. In the mid-16th century it was considerably altered and strengthened making it one of the most formidable strongholds in Scotland. Much of what you see today dates from this time.
A ‘Comfortable’ Prison
For over 250 years it was a state prison. From 1453 until 1707 the Castle held prisoners mainly from the high or middle ranks of society. This was a time when prison conditions reflected status. For those from the higher levels of society, imprisonment meant a loss of freedom rather than any loss of comfort.
Over the centuries the Castle has had a continuity of use. It continued as a state prison until the Treaty of Union in 1707 , when it was occupied by a small garrison. The was a quieter time in the castle’s history, the garrison’s task being the manning and maintaining of the guns.
Besieged by Cromwell
The castle was besieged by Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1660, suffered land and sea bombardment, and was left in ruins following it’s surrender by the defending garrison.
Blackness Castle saw more activity during the French Wars (1759-1815) when it was used as a transit camp for prisoners of war. After the French Wars the size of the garrison at Blackness was reduced.
The Largest Powder House in Scotland
In 1870 it began the final phase of its military life, as the central ammunition depot for Scotland. Substantial alterations were made, including the building of new barracks and the roofing of the castle courtyard. The pier was also built so that stores, such as barrels of gunpowder and other armaments, could be delivered by sea.
Back to being a Medieval Castle
By then it was in the care of the Office of Works as an ancient monument. They carried out a major programme of conservation and repair to return Blackness to something nearer a medieval castle. These consolidation works removed most of the Victorian building work carrie out when the castle served as an ammunition depot.