Rivalry, Royalty and Recreation: The History of Castle Gardens
It would be wrong to write the Castle Gardens off as simply an attractive part of a quiet corner of Dunoon as it has an interesting and sometimes violent past,perhaps second to none for its brutality.
One of the first local guides to Dunoon states ‘it is believed there are a number of vaulted apartments, pretty entire, under the ruins of its Castle.’
The current trend for recycling is clearly nothing new, as a roll-mounted lintel (a type of support dating from the 1500s that was probably over the original gateway) is easily visible in the steps on the path up to the Castle.
Image of step, with lintel visible
Associated with the Castle on the other side of Tom- a-Mhoid Road were Butts where archery was practised. This included the site of the present building works where Englemere, Rosegarth and McColls Hotel were recently demolished. Additionally, two different sets of stone cists, a prehistoric type of coffin, are recorded as being found in this area.
In more recent times walled gardens associated with Castle House supplied food for the original occupants, and this continued with the later activity of Dunoon Burgh Parks Department.
In much earlier times when feuds and violence were the norm the Castle found itself under attack and suffered much damage. This almost routine activity was amply illustrated by an occasion when nearly 200 prisoners were slaughtered in the gardens- 36 of them were hanged on an ash tree near the High Kirk. All the bodies and some still living were put into a pit near the back entrance to the Gardens, which was where Black Street with small cottages existed along the present tennis courts. It is said that an iron ring in the ground there marked the spot, but that may simply have been associated with the first building in line which was a blacksmith’s workshop, or smithy.
When James Ewing built Castle House in 1822, 8 or 9 houses in Black Street were demolished. Possible reuse of the stones from these houses or indeed even earlier recovery from the Castle might be evidenced in a nearby building.
Photo of house
Over the years many items have been found. There was a mass of bones uncovered when the road behind the Gardens was being built, and also a skull, a spearhead and pottery on the site of the Castle. The skull is recorded as being on display within the Clarke Museum which was housed within Castle House.
Mary Queen of Scots visited the Castle on 27th July1563. At nearly 6ft. tall, which was truly exceptional, she had her bed brought along to ensure her comfort during her frequent travels. One can only imagine the impact of this visit.
Strong evidence exists for the existence of a tunnel within the gardens which possibly ran from near the Lodge House near the shore to the drovers inn which is now part of The Tryst near the High Kirk. This may have been associated with a cave in the rocks below the Rock Café which terminated inside the Castle Gardens near the Lodge House.
Smuggling was not unusual and in July 1787 a smuggler was shot dead on the Castle Rocks.
As late as the 1890s there were complaints from local residents concerning the noise from the cattle fanks or enclosures, where the cattle were penned awaiting transport over to the other side of the Clyde.
There were two wells in the Gardens, one under thetennis court near the Church and another below it. In early maps, this was named as ‘Font Oculus’denoting it was possibly eye shaped or perhaps something special.
An early attraction was the roller skating rink below the High Kirk. Built in 1876 and 118ft long by 50ft wide it was not insignificant. The floor was of German asphalt and reputedly one of the best in Britain.
There was a gun emplacement on top of the Castle Hill during World War Two and it might be that a now lightly covered deep void in the ground near the Tennis clubhouse related to that. This is as there were engine rooms which powered the searchlights. The gun on the hill was variously described as a 12 pounder (which may have been the one on the Crazy Golf site) or a 40mm Bofors gun. It has been contended that Highland Mary was moved during the War because of the risk of damage when these guns were fired. Not an unrealistic threat but this story remains unsubstantiated. There continues the possibility that this area near the Tennis Clubhouse might have been part of the earlier Castle.
In more recent times the range of activity and frequency of change has been immense as Dunoon became an important tourist destination catering for many thousands of visitors during the season. Amongst those featured in The Castle Gardens were bandstands, orchestras, ornamental pool and fountain (now you see it then you don’t) play areas, floral displays, fireworks, fairy lights with a range of static displays (which previously graced prominent English resorts), and al fresco Ping Pong tournaments ( yes really!), which add to a history still to be fully untangled. Over the years the layout of paths and features has been complicated and subject to frequent change.
Opening of Dunoon Castle Gardens. A zoom in shows a young boy peeking through the trees!
It will be very interesting just what might be found in the planned investigations of Castle Gardens. Will part or all of its thousand year history be revealed?