Tower Houses in Scotland

Discover what a Tower House is, and why Ardgrain is especially unique in sharing both Tower House and Country House features

A Scottish Tower House is a stone structure built for both living and defensive purposes. The design of a Tower House evolved from earlier castle types such as Celtic Fortresses and Motte and Bailey Castles.

Dunnottar CastleDunnottar Castle

Tower Houses were constructed in the remoter parts of Great Britain, particularly in Scotland and throughout Ireland. Tower Houses first appeared in the High Middle Ages and continuing at least up to the 17th century, when the easy availability of large guns made Tower Houses obsolete.

Celtic Fortresses

The earliest types of Castles in Scotland were the pre-medieval Celtic Fortresses. These were sited strategically, often on elevated sites, and built defensively. Celtic Fortresses  originally started as perhaps nothing more than a perimeter wall or single building, but grew in size to include further buildings and higher defences as the importance of the site increased. Excellent examples of Celtic Fortresses include Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle, both of which grew to encompass the hilltops on which they were sited.

Motte and Bailey Castles

Leading on from the Celtic Fortress came the Feudal Motte and Bailey Castles. First appearing in the 12th century, this style of castle was rapidly adopted by Feudal lairds, especially in Galloway, in the South-West of Scotland. Simply constructed, the Motte and Bailey Castle consisted of an earthwork mound, or Motte, on which a wooden fortification, or Bailey, was built. The Motte and Bailey Castle could be defended by a few men, but the wooden structure often proved vulnerable to prolonged attacks.

Enceinte Castles

Emerging in the 14th century, the large and imposing Enceinte Castle was structurally far superior to the simple Motte and Bailey predecessor. The thick stone walls on the Enceinte Castle made it almost impossible for outsiders to force their way inside. Classic examples of Enceinte Castles include Castle Urquhart, Bothwell Castle and Caerlaverock Castle. Occasionally these heavy stone structures were constructed on the earlier earthen Motte. If this happened there was always a risk that the extra weight of the stone walls would became too much for the underlying earth to support - as happened at Duffus Castle, when a corner subsided and broke off.

The formidable size of the Enceinte Castles contributed to their downfall, since a garrison of men was required at all times to protect and defend the castle. Stationed inside, a garrison could be brought to its knees by a long siege. With the bulk of the fighting men within the strong Enceinte Castle walls it was relatively easy for an opposing army to lay siege to the castle, and capture the men once the supplies inside ran dry. Once this was realised, the Enceinte Castles soon fell out of favour and were often abandoned and left. Changing times meant that those reamining in use became more dwelling houses than proper military buildings.

Tower Houses

Built with the same strong walls as their lager counterparts, Tower Houses were introduced to meet the new needs of local Lairds. The Tower House was easily defendable, but its primary aim was never to be purely defensive. Instead, it offered adequate protection to those inside, without the burden and upkeep of a large castle. Being smaller, a Tower House was also less of a status symbol, so it attracted less attention from adversaries intent on making an example of the local aristocracy.

Never the less, Tower Houses are often called castles, and despite their characteristic compact footprint size there is no clear distinction between a traditional castle and a tower house.

Castle FraserCastle Fraser


Ardgrain, constructed in 1629, was built at a time when Lairds were slowly moving away from Tower Houses. Lairds had begun to realise in the early part of the 17th century that living in less fortified structures came with significant benefits. Fortification required expensive thick walls and vaulted stone roofs, and windows were traditionally small and easily secured.


In contrast, thinner walls allowed larger internal rooms, and wooden roof joists simplified the construction process. Windows could be bigger too, so letting more light in.

Ardgrain WindowsArdgrain Windows

Defensively, the house need only be strong enough to repel a light attack, for example a light raid on a single night. The availability of heavy guns meant that any stronger attack was going to gain access to the building anyway. Scotland was becoming less violent, making the chance of a significant attack less likely.

The evolution from the Tower House had begun, and towards the end of the 1600's buildings began appearing which we would now call Country Houses. These were built without any form of defence in mind, having large windows to maximise light, much thinner walls, and huge rooms. Large houses had moved from being purely defensive and functional, to something far more ornate, hugely spacious and well architectured.

Many Tower Houses were abandoned once people realised they could live a more enjoyable life in a spacious Country House, and Scotland is still littered with crumbling and long-forgotten Tower Houses. Some less fortunate Tower Houses were raised to the ground and the building materials salvaged to build a replacement, in Country House form.

Old Slains CastleOld Slains Castle

Ardgrain was built in this very brief window where houses were no longer required to be fortified, but the design of a Country House was not yet matured. John Edward Bean made extensive alterations to Ardgrain from 1740 onwards, but stopped short of building a full replacement to Ardgrain in the new Country House style.

Ardgrain could be best described today as a Tower House with lesser fortifications. Windows on Ardgrain are slightly larger than those on Tower Houses, and the internal ceilings are wooden, not vaulted stone. Yet the external walls are still hugely thick, often a metre (40 inches) or more through, and the huge doors were heavily reinforced internally.

Ardgrain stands today as a snapshot of 17th Century Scotland, capturing a very brief moment in history when changing views of a society moved away from fear and defence, to a more modern way of living.

Popular Ardgrain history articles:

Judicial Proceedings (1493)

Judicial proceedings: acts of the lords auditors of causes and complaints

22 June 1493  Read more » 

John Forbes Ratification (1669)

Ratification in favours of Sir Johne Forbes of Watertoun

Our soverane lord, with advice and consent of his majesties' estates of parliament, hes ratified and approven and, be thir presents, ratifies and approves ane charter and infeftment, granted be his majestie under the great seale, of the date the fourt day of August 1669 yeers, to Sir Johne Forbes of Watertoun, his airs maill and assignays whatsomever, heretablie and irredeimably, off all and haill the lands of Ardgrein and Broomefeild, with multers, sequells, houses, bigings, yeards, tofts, crofts, outsets, tennents, te  Read more » 

Historic Scotland and the Scottish listing process

The protection and listing of historic buildings in Scotland, and the listing awarded to Nether Ardgrain


Historic Scotland

Certain buildings are protected in Scotland because they represent a key part of Scotland’s heritage. As well as providing a link to Scotland's past, historic buildings help to generate tourism and promote Scotland's culture and identity.  Read more »