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The Origin Myth of Portencross Castle – Being West Kilbride

The Origin Myth of Portencross Castle

With my apologies to the Friends of Portencross whose continued hard work earns my greatest admiration and respect, but I feel the truth must out.

The Myth

A favourite local history myth is that the Boyd family built Portencross Castle around 1375.

In April 2008, Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) said ”

The medieval hall-house at Portencross (NMRS NS14NE 2) is both a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a grade A Listed Building. It is believed to have been built in the mid to late fourteenth century by the Boyd family …”

The Friends of Portencross Castle website says:

“In 1315, a year after Bannockburn, de Ross lost control of the lands of Arnele. Robert the Bruce gave the lands to Sir Robert Boyd of Kilmarnock as a reward for his loyal support. Auldhill Fort went out of use in the mid 1300s. Around 1360, Portencross Castle replaced it on the site where we see it in the village today. It was on part of the estate not leased to anyone else and used personally by the laird of Arnele. We call this part of an estate the ‘caput of the barony’. It was the grandson of Sir Robert Boyd who fought at Bannockburn, also called Robert Boyd, who possessed the Arnele estate when the current harbour-side castle was built.”

This would have been impossible.

Robert Stewart, heir to the throne married Euphemia de Ross in 1355 and merged the land holdings of the two families. The de Rosses therefore had most certainly not lost favour with the throne.

Robert, 1st Lord Boyd, was elevated to his title in 1452, but even this did not give him any influence as far north as Portencross. Since the times of Somerled, King of Mann and Lord of the Isles, our strategic area from Portencross inland, was part of Arran. The Boyd family first owned Portencross when Robert’s son Thomas was treacherously elevated to Earl of Arran in 1467 (see below). The story of Portencross appears to have become confused with the story of Law Castle.

Arnele is the Normanised name for the Norse-Gaelic Ardneil. In these earliest days of the Norman invasion, the main language spoken here was Irish-Gaelic or a version that included Norse words held over from the 8th-13th Centuries. The Laird of “Arnele” was in fact the Hunter family as “Ardneil was the town of the Hunters” (Hunterston).

There was no “Barony” of this area because it came under the extremely changeable Earl of Arran in these times. The latinised “Caput” was from the Anglo Saxon method of Governing in hundreds where the “Caput Baroniae” was a construction meaning “head” and did not relate to the change from Viking to Norman in the early 14th Century. Here the Viking word “Jarl” was still used to mean “Earl”. The caput description has been mixed up with the 16th century noble families that became Laird of Auchenames and Crosbie – when the name Portincross came into being as the “Port of Crosbie” under Patrick and Jean Craufurd.


In 1337 the Parish of Kilbride was formed by a donation of lands to the Church which were to be administered by the monks at Kilwinning Abbey. The lands donated were a combined parcel of lands on the Isle of Arran and a rich fertile plain in our own area centred upon where the Barony Church sits now. This new combined Norman Parish was served by monks based in a small chapel dedicated to St Bridget and located to the north of Lamlash. The reason for the location of this small chapel was simply that it was nearest to the home of the the landowner, and consequently his household could benefit from holy mass and be buried within the consecrated area. In our area, the lands donated reached from the Drummilling Hill to the farthest point of the Glebe lands – or possibly further.

Critically the lands surrounding the donated church lands remained in the possession of the Earl of Arran – whomsoever that happened to be. These surrounding lands included the very important Portencross and wee Cumbrae – where these two strategic castles would ultimately be built.

The Earldom of Arran

In 1337 the Earl of Arran was Sir John de Menteith – grandson of the fellow of the same name that handed William Wallace to the English. That former Sir John was given Arran in perpetuity by King Edward I of England in recognition of his services. The title was later confirmed by the Bruce in recognition of his naval services during the Wars of Independence.

It was in fact none other than heir apparent, Robert II who was Earl of Arran when Portencross Castle was built. In 1348 he had married Elizabeth Mure – a family that would continue for many hundreds of years including one ancestor that opened the new Barony Church in 1876. This is the family that Caldwell Road is named after.

Then in 1355, Robert married Euphemia Ross (the landed family from whom the derive Ard-Ross-an – the headland of the de Ross family). I believe this marriage brought Robert a large section of coastal land that we now know as Boydstone (Boyd’s Town), Tarbert, and the Law.

Sometime between these marriages, the de Menteith line died out and the Earldom reverted to the Crown. Robert Stewart, heir apparent, was then given the Arran Earldom which included Portencross.

The joining of The Portencross lands and the de Ross lands has caused some confusion in the past, as a Tarbert is known to be a promontory that leads to the sea, yet local historians could not understand how two pieces of land under different ownership could be one Tarbert. The answer lies in the marriage of Robert Stewart to Euphemia Ross in 1355.

The Norman noble families had been gradually extending their influence westward as the Norse-Gaelic kingdoms weakened and retreated. The real boost for this advance had been the death of the Norwegian King Hakon IV just months after his defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263.

The King

At his accession to the throne in 1371, Robert II would have no doubt been reminded of that battle and how the Viking fleet had anchored off Cumbrae from where they had intended to raid the mainland. When a raiding party had been blown into the bay at Largs, local nobles in the South West assembled troops and marched north through Seamill and Hunterston to fall upon the beleaguered sailors. The battle of Largs was not actually militarily hugely significant, but the fact that Hakon died of natural causes very shortly thereafter was a monumental political event for the west, The Norman’s made great the advantage this Royal death brought, and of course in recent times we have taken to celebrate the battle as if the Scots were somehow the victors of a monumental battle (the Scots were in fact the west coast tribes people caught in between the advancing ambitions of the King of Norway on one side and the Norman invaders on the other).

The Town of Ayr was made a Royal Burgh (a special type of Anglo Saxon defensive town) in 1297, and this split the Gaelic leaning areas of Carrick and Cunningham. As the Norman influence gradually gained more and more control up the west coast, strategic defensive positions were gradually built.

In 1371, Robert was not only King but also Earl of Arran. This meant he was able to quickly build the two defensive keeps we now see today at Portencross and on Wee Cumbrae. Being visible to each other, these castles served as a warning to would be invaders and as an effective lookout for ships heading up the Clyde to the Burgh of Renfrew, or even on to Glasgow.

The two castles were therefore built in the early to mid 1370’s. They were constructed in the knowledge and understanding of previous Viking raids on the West Coast e.g the Battle of Renfrew (1164) and the Battle of Largs (1263). The castles became our early warning devices.

The Boyds and Law Castle

The Boyd family did not arrive as landed nobles in these parts until Robert Boyd treacherously kidnapped the infant King James and had his son Thomas elevated to Earl of Arran in 1467. Thomas then forcibly married the elder sister of the King and built Law Castle on his lands as a place to keep the Princess. At a moments notice she could be taken down the Haef Weg to board a boat to Arran.

This marriage meant that if anything tragic and fatal were to happen to King James, Thomas would have a strong claim in the throne. This was too much treachery for the other nobles who rose up and returned the King to freedom. Thomas fled into foreign exile where he ultimately died.

We know that Portencross Castle was built much earlier than Law Castle as a small number of Royal Charters were signed by Robert II at Portencross in the late 14th Century.

Therefore it was impossible for the Boyd’s to have built Portencross Castle, and it was in fact Robert Stewart, who was Earl of Arran and also became Robert II, King of the Scots (1371).

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