The barnacle geese and whooper swans can see them as they fly in from the northlands: the patterns of mud, merse and channel where the fertile lands of Caerlaverock meet the waters of the Nith and the salt of the Solway. And more: the way a mark in the fields by Wardlaw shows a rectangular outline in darker soil, like a giant’s playing card tossed aside. It’s all that now survives of a Roman fort that once looked out across the estuary to the hills beyond.
On the mound of that same hill, those wildfowl newly arriving can see how trees sprout on encircling ditches and ramparts of older earthworks. This boundary place was important to the warlords of the Iron Age Britons who dug those defences, as it would be to later garrisons fighting for the territorial rights of emperors, kings and nobles.
Caerlaverock sits at the southern edge of the Britons’ Kingdom of Strathclyde, looking south to the Kingdom of Rheged. Their Cumbric speech, which would sound like a strange form of Welsh to modern ears, gave this place the name that has held down millennia of human changes. It’s the ‘Caer’ that’s the give-away, meaning ‘fort’ to both ancient Briton and contemporary Welsh speaker. The last part is trickier. Some reckon it means ‘lark’ (a pleasing image in a National Nature Reserve); others that it signifies ‘Llywarch’ (pronounced ‘KL-UWaaRK’) a king of Rheged.
Whatever the original meaning, the outline of the castle building that sits between the old forts at Wardlaw and the sea is clear enough. Seen from swan’s-eye overview, its triangular shape combines elegance of geometry with an undoubted impression of power.
When it was built for the Maxwell family in the late 1200s, no other castle in Britain had its distinctive shield shape, designed to be defended by even a modest force of soldiers. This feature was put the test soon after the castle was completed.
Long legs, short fuse
It was the summer of 1300. Edward 1 of England – known as ‘Longshanks’ for his height and notorious for his fierce temper – had brought his army north. The previous year, soldiers from Caerlaverock had attacked the English garrison at nearby Lochmaben. Now Edward was determined to re-assert his authority as feudal overlord.
His army was 3,000 strong, including 87 knights. It must have been a fearsome sight, as men, warhorses, pack animals and wagons carrying tents and provisions moved across the flatlands to take up position across the moat from the newly built castle. The king’s 16-year-old son, later to be crowned Edward II and suffer defeat by the Scots under Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, was part of the English force. He was on his first military expedition, in command of the rearguard.
Amazingly, an account of the English army’s preparations and the attack that followed survives. It’s one of the most detailed descriptions of its kind from anywhere in medieval Europe, further adding to Caerlaverock’s historic importance.
Composed around 1300 and written in French verse (but possibly by an English Franciscan friar), ‘Le Siege de Karlavreock’ tells how Edward I besieged the castle: ‘Caerlaverock was so strong a castle that it did not fear a siege,’ writes the poet-monk.
‘Therefore, the king came himself, because it would not consent to surrender. But it was always furnished for its defence, whenever it was required, with men, engines and provisions.
‘Its shape was like a shield, for it had but three sides round it, with a tower at each corner; but one of them was a double one, so high, so long and so large that under it was the gate, with a drawbridge well-made and strong.
‘…And I think you will never see a more finely situated castle,’ he adds.
But even Caerlaverock’s clever design couldn’t protect it from the missiles flung from huge wooden ‘siege engines’ over the castle walls. These damaged masonry, shattered shields and crushed the helmets of defenders. When the garrison surrendered after bombardment, the assailants realised that a mere 60 soldiers had withstood their army’s might of thousands.
That in itself is the stuff of heroic tales. But it’s the detail in the verse account that is breathtaking. Each knight is given a thumbnail word portrait, including a description of his coat of arms.
There was Roger de Montaigne, for example, ‘who bore yellow with six blue lions’ and William de Cantiloupe who ‘has at all times lived in honour’. He had a red shield with an alternating pattern on it, ‘with three fleur de lis of gold issuing from leopard’s heads.’
The list runs and runs, ending with an account of the fighting and surrender. As I look at the castle walls, on a day of bright sun, my mind’s eye fills with colours. Even at ground level, this place, and the history of the fields and mounds and hollows beyond it, is breathtaking.
Kenny Taylor is a writer, naturalist, photographer and musician and will be contributing four more blogs relating to our NNRs over the next few months.
Go and relive the battles of the past or experience the tranquility of the present yourself at Caerlaverock NNR. Find out more on the NNR website.
And to find out about visiting the castle go to the Historic Environment Scotland website.