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Buittle Castle

The fragmentary ruins of Buittle or Botel Castle are situated on the west bank of the River Urr about a mile and a half by road from Dalbeattie in the County of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright (OS map reference NX 819 616).

The site, one of considerable natural strength because of the River Urr in any case, was first fortified in very early mediaeval times. The Castle of which the present ruins are the remnants was of the courtyard type, with curtain walls enclosing a space of about 150 by 100 feet. It had massive round towers projecting at the angles. The main entrance was from the north-west, where there was a drawbridge protected on both sides by towers with walls six feet thick. The design and the fragments of stonework are consistent with a date around 1200. The most likely identification of the builder is Alan, Lord of Galloway (died 1234). His daughter and heiress Dervorguilla is the most important figure to have been closely connected with the Castle. She married John de Balliol about 1233. She was of nobler blood than her husband, being descended on her mother’s side from King David I.

A few years before John Balliol died in 1269, he founded Balliol College, Oxford. According to legend this was a penance for offending the Bishop of Durham. The exact date is not known, but the college was certainly a going concern by June 1266, and its beginnings are traditionally fixed in 1263. Balliol can claim to be the oldest surviving independent college in England on the grounds that it has existed continuously as a community of scholars on its present site longer than any other. Legal formalities and endowments, however, had not yet been arranged when John Balliol died.

The consolidation of his work was left to his widow Dervorguilla, and they are jointly honoured as Founder and Foundress. She took up the task with great vigour. She provided income-generating lands and a permanent Oxford residence close by the rented accommodation in which the College was first established; she also had Statutes drafted. The Statutes were finally approved by ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway, Lady of Balliol’ in 1282: the formula with which the document ends records that it was sealed at ‘Botel.’ The Statutes, complete with her beautiful seal, survive in a state of excellent preservation in the College Archives. On the front of the seal she stands holding her own shield showing the lion of Galloway, and a shield with the Balliol role. On the back the two devices appear combined, as in the Arms currently used by the College.

When her husband died, Dervorguilla had his heart removed and preserved in an ivory casket. In his memory and as a place for her own burial she built Sweetheart Abbey, a few miles from the castle, at the place now called New Abbey. When she herself died in 1289 she left instructions that the heart casket was to be buried with her. The story was recorded poetically by Andrew de Wyntoun:

When the Balliol that was her lord
That spousit her, as they record,
Had sent his soul to his Creator,
Ere he was laid in Sepulture
His body she gert open tite
And gert his hart to be tane out quite.
And that ilk hart, as men said,
She balmed it and gert be laid
Into a coffyn of evore,
The which she gert be made therefor,
Enamellit, parfitly dicht,
Lokkit, and bunden with silver bricht.

And always when she ga’ed to meat,
That coffyn she set by her set,
Richt as her Lord were in presens,
And to it she did reverens.

She ordanit in her testament,
And gave them bidding verament,
That his hart then should then ta’
And lay between her pappis twa,
When they suld make her sepulture;
To her lord did she this honour.

She founddit then in Galloway,
Of Cistew’s order, ane abbay,
Dulce cor she gert them all,
(That is, Sweethart) the abbay call.
And now the men of Galloway
Call that stead the New Abbay.

And in the University
Of Oxenfurde she gert be
A College founddit. That Lady
Did all thir dedis dewotely.
A better lady than she was nane
In all the ile of Mare Brittane.
She was richt plesande of Bewty;
Here was gret takynns of Bownty.

When Alexander III was killed in a riding accident in 1286, his only living legitimate descendant was his granddaughter Margaret, ‘The Fair Maid of Norway.’ She died in Orkney en route from Norway in 1290, and there was a succession struggle. Dervorguilla’s son John Balliol had the greatest claim according to modern principles, but he ruled precariously for only four years, from 1292 until his abdication in 1296. The Castle fell into the hands of the Bruces, who were distant cousins of the Balliols. Robert Bruce was crowned in 1306, but the crown reverted briefly to the Balliols once with the coronation of Edward Balliol, Dervorguilla’s grandson, in 1332. The whole period was one of unrest, civil wars, and interferences from the English, with much coming and going in Galloway. King Edward Balliol is known to have been in the vicinity many times and definitely at Buittle on at least one occasion, and the area around the Castle was probably the scene of numerous skirmishes. Signs of occupation down to the late 16th century have been found, but little is known of its later history. The tower of Buittle Place, about a hundred years to the north-west of the Castle site, was probably built with stone from its ruins about 1600. The lands of Buittle passed into the hands of Robert, fifth Lord Maxwell and Agnes Stewart his wife in 1535. The estate remained in the possession of the Maxwell family until recently; the Castle site with access to it was conveyed to the College in 1984 through the kindness of Lord Peter Maxwell, himself a Balliol man.

- John Jones

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Updated 11.viii.14
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