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Whatever happened to the Scottish Hall House?


The great Scottish castles of the 13th century, such as Bothwell, are easy to identify as are the towers of the 14th, such as Threave. But what can be overlooked is a form of dwelling known as the Hall Castle or, more aptly, Hall House. They appear to date from the late 13th century but are difficult to identify as they are invariably embedded in later fabric.

rait basement
Rait Castle, Nairn. From basement looking towards the dais on the first floor

A hall house is a long, rectangular building of two storeys usually consisting of a basement plus an upper floor with an open parapet within which was a pitched roof. The hall was not designed as a serious defence but it would have stood within a ditched enclosure of earth banks topped by wooden palisades.

aros upperhall
Aros Castle, Mull. Upper hall distinguished by its massive walls

The unvaulted ground floor provided storage and the upper served as the common hall accessed by an outside staircase leading to a door and screens passage before entering the hall itself.

coeffin entrance
Coeffin Castle, Lismore. From dais to entrance with steps mounting to a parapet on right

There was a dais (a raised platform) at the far end for the lord’s table behind which was his ‘solar’ or private rooms and garderobe. The hall could be warmed by a central open fire. Domestic buildings such as kitchens, stables etc. would be situated elsewhere within the enclosure.

craigie battlement
Craigie Castle, Ayr. White lines added to delineate battlemented top of hall house later topped by a castle

Why did the hall house go out of use? One can speculate that fashions change but the sudden termination of Scotland’s ‘Golden Age’ following the death of King Alexander III could have played its part. The vacuum in kingship led to Edward I of England declaring himself King of Scotland and invading in 1296. This was to be the start of a conflict which was to endure for 300 years. Hall houses were simply no longer a safe place in which to live – what was required was a strong tower and this was easy to realise by ‘flipping’ the hall house from the horizontal to the vertical i.e. basement, hall, solar and parapet one on top of the other instead of arranged side by side.

carrick lochranza
LEFT: Carrick Castle, Loch Goil: Embedded is perhaps earliest hall house in Scotland.
RIGHT: Lochranza Castle, Arran. Visitors looking for the hall? It's all around you!

This is not the place to analyse individual sites but what is offered are examples of the genre where the gentle reader might enjoy some peaceful detective work? Let us know your theories…

rait tulliallan
LEFT: Rait Castle, Nairn. High quality window in solar.
RIGHT: Tulliallan Castle, Fife. Fine groin vaulted basement of hall house
tulliallan drawbridge
Tulliallan Castle, Fife. Hall house engulfed within later castle. Note drawbridge in projection far left

Article by SCA member Brian McGarrigle.


Date posted: 05 Mar 2017Last updated: 05 Mar 2017


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