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Aerial view of Caerlaverock Castle in the Dumfries and Galloway Council Area of Scotland, which is the subject of a study on medieval climate change. 	Source: Simon Ledingham/Caerlaverock Castle / CC BY-SA 2.0

Spectacular Caerlaverock Castle Is Under The Climate Microscope

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Climatology experts are working with archaeologists in examining the impact of medieval climate change on one of Scotland’s oldest stone castles. Caerlaverock Castle lies less than 3 miles (4.8 km) from the sea in a well-known wetland preservation zone.

If you like your 13th century castles with a degree of  spectacular, then Caerlaverock Castle is for you. This fairytale-like triangular stone castle, with a deep moat, is located 7 miles (11 km) south of Dumfries, on the edge of the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve, a short distance from the south coast of Scotland. This castle was a key stronghold of the ancient and noble Maxwell family, and it was fully functional from the 13th century right through to the 17th century, when it was finally abandoned.

While we marvel at the splendor of the present structure, an earlier castle was built at a lower elevation in 1229 AD to guard the entrance to the River Nith. Caerlaverock Castle served as a key Scottish protection fortification against the forces of England during the Wars of Independence.

According to Historic Environment Scotland (HES), around 1220 AD King Alexander II of Scotland granted the lands to Sir John Maxwell and made him Warden of the West March, and he also served as Chamberlain of Scotland from 1231–1233 AD, at which time he began work on the first square castle at Caerlaverock, which was at a lower elevation.

The remains of the "old" square castle of Caerlaverock situated about 200 meters (660 feet) to the south of the later "triangular" castle. (Mperdomo / CC BY 3.0)

The Big Question: Why Abandon A Perfectly Fine Castle?

The earlier and lower stone castle built at Caerlaverock is regarded as one of the first stone castles ever to be built in Scotland, but only the foundations of the original building remain.

The first Caerlaverock Castle was abandoned in favor of a rocky outcrop about 200 meters (660 ft) to the north. This is where Sir John Maxwell's brother, Sir Aymer Maxwell, built the second version of the castle. The second castle was the home of Herbert Maxwell, John Maxwell’s nephew.

The change in castle location and structural form meant that when King Edward I of England invaded Scotland in 1300 AD he faced a triangular stone-built defensive structure that was further inland and on higher ground, which meant it was a much better defensive fortification.

A team of environmental archaeologists have announced their plans to look closer into the reasons the first castle was abandoned. The new investigation is based on the suspicion that the original castle “fell victim to huge coastal storms,” perhaps because of medieval climate change.

Caerlaverock Castle in the Dumfries and Galloway Council Area of Scotland, which is the subject of a study on medieval climate change. (susanne2688 / Adobe Stock)

If they do indeed find evidence of this, the researchers say it might help us with predicting outcomes in our own “potentially” watery future. This archaeological and environmental project is set to launch this Saturday, and a full report is expected to be delivered to the HES late in 2022.

Can Medieval Archaeology Predict Modern Climate Change?

A recent HES article says the castle was “besieged by the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence,” and that it underwent several partial demolitions and reconstructions over the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1640 AD the castle was besieged one last time, after which it was finally abandoned for good.

The new project is being conducted by Dr Richard Tipping and Dr Eileen Tisdall, of the University of Stirling, and they are being funded by the Castle Studies Trust with the backing of the HES.

The researchers described the location of the old castle as an “uninviting wetland,” and they suspect “huge marine storms may have hit the coast repeatedly.” They think these extreme weather events caused the site to be abandoned for the current location of the castle, which is on slightly higher ground. A BBC article about the project says that when the storms ceased “the old castle might have been left up to 400m (1,300ft) from the coast which prompted the construction of the new building.” 

By examining sediment samples from the area around the old castle the researchers say they aim to “trace the environmental legacy of the medieval storms,” which they hope in turn will yield a clearer history of the castle move. Dr Richard Tipping and Dr Eileen Tisdall told the BBC that they are excited to understanding what changing climatesin the past meant for our ancestors, answers which they think might “hold key messages for people in the coming years” as modern climate change becomes increasingly obvious.

Top image: Aerial view of Caerlaverock Castle in the Dumfries and Galloway Council Area of Scotland, which is the subject of a study on medieval climate change.            Source: Simon Ledingham/Caerlaverock Castle / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ashley Cowie



For the record, the imposter I refer to is AGW.

I have not been able to save any edit to a comment on this site for months.

We have as much chance of evolving into marine creatures as there is of us seeing anthropogenic climate change a la the BBC's perpetual position.The medieval Maxwells both faced and delivered real threats. They didn't need to make them up.

However, if one wishes to further one's career an appearance on the BBC is a step forward and there is nought the Beeb love better than adding an anthropogenic climate change angle to just about any story involving actual science. It's almost as if they understand that imposters need to mingle with the real thing to really be accepted.

In that sense, today's no different to medieval times.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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