Magical Threave Castle, in Dumfries and Galloway, will delight history buffs and nature-lovers alike. By Penny Bunting
There can be few castles in the UK with a more magical setting than Threave Castle.
Perched on a river island in the heart of the stunningly beautiful Galloway hills, visiting the castle is an adventure. To begin with, there's a short hike to get to it – park the car, and follow the track through farmland and woods. Only towards the end of this walk do you get a glimpse of the castle, a formidable tower standing proudly in the midst of a glorious green landscape.
Then the fun really begins. The castle is surrounded by the wide waters of the River Dee, and can only be reached by boat. On arriving at the riverbank, there's a brass bell to ring to summon the 'custodian', who will appear to transport you across.
The boatman on duty on the day we visited was Malcolm, and during the short river crossing he took the opportunity to describe some of the wildlife that can be seen in and around the castle.
Threave Castle is situated in the centre of the Threave Nature Reserve, and wildlife abounds. Malcolm told us about the otters often seen along the riverbanks, and the peregrines nesting in the castle tower. Barn owls are also regular visitors at dusk, and, as the Nature Reserve is on the Galloway Kite Trail, red kites can also be seen. But the stars of the show during our visit were undoubtedly the ospreys – a breeding pair were raising two chicks in a nest near the castle, and we watched one of the birds soar high above the river, its piercing call catching on the breeze.
There's something really special about the atmosphere once you land on the river island. The massive tower house – roughly the same height as a ten-storey apartment block – was built as a stronghold residence in 1369 by Archibald the Grim, Lord of Galloway. Archibald was head of the Black Douglases, Scotland's foremost noble family at the time – and Threave is one of the largest and strongest towers in Scotland.
Now under the care of Historic Scotland, there's plenty to explore inside the castle, with the accommodation covering five floors. Entering over a wooden bridge, we took the steps down into the basement to find cellars, a deep well, and a pit prison. Peering into the pit, we got a bit of a shock once our eyes had adjusted to the dark. In the gloom we could just make out a shadowy figure, perhaps a forgotten French prisoner-of-war from the 1800s – although we weren't sure how he'd managed to get hold of a pair of Ray-Bans.
On the ground-floor level were the kitchens, with huge arched fireplace, and above this was the Great Hall – the castle's main living area. This spacious room would once have been hung with huge decorative tapestries, and the main toilet facilities – a stone latrine in one corner – could also be found here.
To reach the upper levels of the castle, you have to climb a spiral stone staircase, and it's at the top of this staircase tower that a pair of peregrines has chosen to build their nest – a jumble of sticks and branches.
The top level of Threave Castle is unique in Scottish towers – it was intended to house men-at-arms during a siege, with huge beams that would once have supported a wooden walkway encircling the outside of the tower. From here, any attack could be countered.
In the castle's early years the river island would have been a busy place, with a chapel and settlement housing more than 100 people beyond the walls of the tower.
Now though – even in the height of the tourist season – there are plenty of calm, quiet spaces on the island where you can enjoy a tranquil moment. Large swathes of unmown grass and wildflower meadow surround the castle and are home to bumblebees, butterflies and other invertebrates.
There are also places where you can get down to the water's edge and watch the river flow lazily by. One such spot is the original harbour. This was once the only access point to the castle, and it's here that essential supplies would have arrived, transported by boat. The River Dee was navigable by boat all the way to Kirkcudbright – and from there to the Solway Firth and the sea.
In the 1970s a rich collection of artefacts was unearthed by archaeologists, including an ash wood platter, gaming pieces made of jet and bone, and a silver locket from the 1400s. These objects can now be seen in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Once we had finished exploring the castle, we took the boat back across the river. There are marked trails through the nature reserve, and we followed a path alongside the river to a bird hide. Here we found National Trust rangers on hand, with telescopes pointing towards the ospreys nest – we got a great view of the two youngsters, eating a fish their dad had just caught in the river.
In autumn and winter, many visiting wading birds can be observed from the bird hides, including whooper swans, wigeon and large flocks of geese.
Roe deer and water voles can be seen along the waymarked trails – and Threave is also Scotland's first bat reserve, making it a great place to look out for these enigmatic creatures on an evening stroll along the riverside and woodland trails.
Green Adventures March 2019