Scotlands History

Life in a Scottish castle

Today most of Scotland’s castles are dramatic ruins. It can be hard to imagine their bare stone rooms full of life, colour and sound but these castles were once home to thriving communities. Every castle has stories to tell.

Through the medieval age Scotland’s castles evolved from defensive timber towers with wooden palisades to massive stone fortresses and tower houses. Eventually the Scots built more comfortable and lavish castles, importing ideas from French chateaux.

Castle kitchens bustled as cooks and servants prepared food for the lord’s or lady’s table. Boar and venison were roasted on spits in massive open fireplaces. Dough was kneaded and bread was baked in huge ovens. Boys brought wood from the stores to keep the cooking fires lit. Food was seasoned with herbs and spices, and sweetened with honey. Sometimes wine was imported from France but usually everyone drank ale.

Grooms tended the horses while stable lads mucked out the stables, laid fresh hay and fetched and carried water and feed. Huntsmen brought back deer, hares, rabbits and birds for the table. The ladies of the castle were served by ladies-in-waiting. Popular pastimes included hunting and hawking, and embroidery and weaving. Medieval musicians and singers entertained the household. Colourful tapestries hung from the walls and candles lit the castle at night.

Life in a castle was better than life as a peasant but it was often very smelly. Dogs wandered about the castle halls eating scraps from the table, and the toilets - called ‘garderobes’ - were open holes that led to cesspits or emptied outside the castle walls.

  • picture of Caerlaverock Castle from the air
  • photograph of windows inside Doune castle
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La Seste Estampie Real is an anonymous piece from the 13th century French manuscript Chansonnier du Roi. It is played here on the harp, tenor recorder and daf (frame drum). The repeated musical sections may have corresponded to the recurrent movements needed for dancing.