In between the tourist centers of Stirling and Edinburgh, with their monumental castles and captivating history, lays the region of Clackmannanshire, on the north shore of the Firth of Forth. Despite being so close to these tourist highlights, Clackmannanshire seems avoid most of the attention of visitors to Scotland, even though the region has its own fortifications to boast of. We decided, therefore, that it was high time we checked out this area in a bit more detail.
While researching about Clackmannanshire, we found information on the ‘Clackmannanshire Tower Trail’, and this piqued our interest. The trail comprises five different structures: Sauchie Tower, Clackmannan Tower, Alloa Tower, Menstrie Castle and Castle Campbell. Now these fortifications may have been around for hundreds of years, but it seems the regions tourist board are only now promoting this trail and have provided a very helpful guide.
With this information, as well as the information available from the National Trust for Scotland (Alloa Tower and Menstrie Castle) and Historic Environment Scotland (Clackmannan Tower and Castle Campbell) we decided to plan our afternoon around this trail.
The towers are scattered throughout the small region of Clackmannanshire, so your own transport is essential in order to see them all on one day. From arriving at the first tower to leaving the last, it took us approximately six hours by car to see all five buildings (including a stop for coffee and cake on the way, although more about that later!).
Towers were built all over Scotland during the late 14th and 15th centuries. They were thick walled, high residences for the nobility. This was a more peaceful time for Scotland, so a full castle structure was not so necessary. The prevalence of five towers, in a relatively small area of Scotland, has much to do with location – it was an ideal base for the nobility to be close to the Royal Court, initially when it was based at Stirling Castle, then latterly when in Edinburgh.
Our first stop was Sauchie Tower, which was built between 1430 and 1440 by Sir James Schaw, who was ‘Comptroller to the King’. Unfortunately, the tower fell into disuse in the 1700s following a fire, and today the tower is boarded up and closed to visitors, but it is still an interesting sight.
We then moved on to Clackmannan Tower, which is also closed. It is more impressive that Sauchie Tower, and has a good view over the Forth estuary, standing as it does on King’s Seat Hill. We parked on the High Street and took a two minute walk through farmer’s fields to get to the tower. Had we had a bit more time, Clackmannan High Street seemed quite a nice, historic, area to walk around.
King David II, son of Robert the Bruce, granted Clackmannan to his kinsman Sir Robert Bruce in 1359. The earliest part of the existing Clackmannan Tower seems to date from this period. Clackmannan remained occupied by the Bruces until the late 1700s. By the end of that century the mansion and tower were abandoned, and the mansion was demolished in the early 1800s.
A ten minute drive then took us to Alloa Tower. It is worth noting that Google Maps will try taking you to the front of the tower, but the carpark is actually down a different road. The carpark is well signposted though, and is only a two minute walk from the building.
Alloa Tower’s location was important, because it guarded one of the strategically important ferry crossings over the nearby River Forth. The tower is an impressive building, being the largest surviving keep in Scotland, and was the ancestral home of the Erskines, guardians of the Stuart royal children. Over the years, the tower has lost its attached manor house to fire, as well as what must have been impressive gardens to redevelopment. Despite this, Alloa Tower is still worth visiting for its panoramic views over the Forth valley.
Next up was a quick visit to Menstrie Castle. Don’t let the reference to castle fool you, as it is more like a small mansion house. It is also to be found surrounded by a housing estate, which is a bit off putting! There are only four small rooms (watch your head if you are tall!), with an exhibition on Nova Scotia, Canada, which was granted to Sir William Alexander. It was the Alexander family who built the house in 1560, and William was born at Menstrie Castle in 1577.
Café des Fleurs
By now, we were feeling like we could do with a coffee, so we headed to the small town of Dollar, which is the location of Castle Campbell. We checked out the options along the main thoroughfare of Bridge Street and made what turned out to be a great choice, visiting Café des Fleurs. We chose the cappuccino and the hot chocolate, and a rocky road cake. Shear bliss! We can thoroughly recommend the café for its food and drink, service and quirky surroundings.
The final stop on the trail for us was Castle Campbell, and we had certainly saved the best till last. The view from the castle is quite breathtaking, with the stronghold being sited up Dollar Glen, a step valley in the Ochil Hills. Although much of the castle was ruined, there was still plenty to see and the castle tower was still intact, and it was easy to imagine how impressive this castle would have been.
There are three options for getting to the castle. For those adventurous souls, looking for a strenuous, scenic walk up the valley, park at the small Dollar Museum, then take the trail. Alternatively, continue on and take Castle Road. Leave the car at the first carpark for a thigh burning walk up the road, or drive up to the next, smaller carpark (which can get full quickly), from where you take a ten minute walk, on a good track, through the valley.
While walking along the track, you will see some other trails branching off which go further up Dollar Glen along the Burn of Care and the Burn of Sorrow (burn is a Scottish word for a stream). We didn’t have time to do these trails, but one of them leads to what is meant to be a beautiful little waterfall. One for another time perhaps!
Originally known as Castle Glume, the stone fortress dates from the early 1400s. Around 1465, it passed through marriage to Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll. The execution of the 8th Earl in 1661 effectively ended the castle’s days as a noble residence. A magnificent old sycamore called the Maiden Tree looms over the castle entrance. The origins of the name are lost to history, but local tradition claims a princess was once banished to ‘Castle Gloom’ for falling in love below her station.
We left Castle Campbell very happy with our little adventure along the Clackmannanshire Tower Trail, and can thoroughly recommend this trip. With 2017 being our attempt to check out what is in our backyard, we were quite content to add this itinerary to our list of great Scottish days out.
Join us next time when we start a new series of blog posts on our time in Tennessee and Mississippi, USA, where we trace the career and significant locations in the life of Elvis Presley.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.