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The Scottish tower house

Nik Biedermann, Andrea Deplazes

Fig. 72: Neidpath Castle, Peebles (Scotland, GB), 14th century
Fig. 73: Montebello Castle, Bellinzona (CH), 14th century


The fortified house

Typical of Scottish architecture is the tower house of the Middle Ages, a combination of castle and residence in a compact, vertically organised space. Early examples of this typically Scottish form were plain, the reflection of a poor land characterised by internal unrest and regional wars between rival clans. Constant rebuilding was unavoidable. As peace gradually gained the upper hand over the countryside, the external appearance of these tower houses became more decorative, picturesque, "romantic" - reflecting the needs of their owners at that time to express their prosperity. By contrast, the need for fortifications was gradually relegated to the background, transforming the keep into a fortified manor house. The topicality of these tower houses over a period of three centuries (13th to 16th century) led to hybrid forms characterised by regional influences. However, the original form always remains clearly recognisable in these numerous variations.

The core of this work is a study of the architecture of tower houses, not their chronological development and the other facets that occurred simultaneously. The selection that follows does not claim to be exhaustive but does allow an insight into their variety, the wealth of space in these tower houses and their specific idiosyncrasies.

Tower house versus castle

The Scottish tower house is surprising in that it is conceived as a free-standing solitary edifice. The entire defensive system corresponds to the "principle of the chestnut": wooden, unprotected ancillary buildings grouped to form a courtyard like the prickly but soft shell; in the middle stands the tower house as the tough core, serving as the fortified residence and place of work of the Lord of the Manor, and the final, sole place of refuge. Depending on the topographical situation, the building was protected against enemies by simple palisade fences, walls or ditches. In certain situations suitable rocky hillsides - as at Smailholm Tower - or rocky escarpments - as at Neidpath Castle - replaced some of the elaborate defensive structures. The defensive strategy provided for

Fig. 74: Plan of whole complex

Borthwick Castle, Midlothian (Scotland, GB), 15th century

Fig. 74: Plan of whole complex

Borthwick Castle, Midlothian (Scotland, GB), 15th century retreating from the poorly fortified ancillary buildings to the tower, which could serve as living accommodation for a long period.

In contrast to the Scottish tower house, the castle complexes built during the same period on the European mainland employed the "onion principle", i.e. the keep,

Fig. 75: Plan of whole complex

Smailholm Tower, Roxburgh (Scotland, GB), 16th century

Fig. 75: Plan of whole complex

Smailholm Tower, Roxburgh (Scotland, GB), 16th century as the heart of the complex, was protected by several concentric defensive rings. Every ring was defended to the utmost because both residential and ancillary buildings extended over several rings. The keep, on the other hand, functioned purely as a (normally) unoccupied, defensive tower, from where the final defence of the complex could be organised. Compared to the Scottish tower house, designed for occupation at all times, the continental keep was, on plan, a much more compact affair. It is therefore also clear that the Scottish tower house was organised vertically and, as a result, had to evolve upwards. The defensive principle is founded on the difficulty of capturing storeys, i.e. the ease of being able to defend narrow spiral staircases.

Architectural observations

Mass and void

The Scottish tower houses, at least the early examples, stand today like eroded outcrops of rock on the hillsides. They appear to be straightforward, solid and elementary. Merely the few irregularly placed openings, which seem to follow no rules, give any hint of internal life behind the mass of stone. In fact, these immovable boulders are hollow inside and their enclosing walls are partly hollow, or even downright thin. The hidden chambers offer the occupants comfort and security against the harsh environment. To the outside world these structures appear to be highly fortified, while inside there is a surprising homeliness thanks to the numerous different spaces. The specific character of the Scottish tower houses is based on this apparent paradox - the combination of, in terms of space, most compact and most efficient form of residence and fortification.

Fig. 76: Eduardo Chillida: "Lurra" G-306, 1994

Francesco Borromini: San Carlo alle Quattrc Fontane, Rome (I), 1634-67

Francesco Borromini: San Carlo alle Quattrc Fontane, Rome (I), 1634-67

Eduardo Chillida

Like the sensation of heat can only be appreciated by first experiencing cold, architectural space can only be perceived through its physical boundaries. The mass of the building becomes, oddly enough, more compact once something lightweight is placed alongside, or is perforated by the inclusion of voids and compartment-like rooms.

This principle also characterises the work of the Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida, who calls himself an "architect of empty space". In his fine-grained clay sculptures in particular, the "Lurras", heaviness and massiveness are increased through implied or real spatial inclusions, through incisions which suggest a hollow interior. A rich dialogue between mass and space, heaviness and lightness ensues. As already intimated, the Scottish tower houses can also be interpreted in this way. They are excellent examples of how the fusing of opposites helps to reinforce the idiosyncrasies of the individual components.

Inside and outside

The external form of the Scottish tower house generally corresponds to the form of the main internal room, the hall. This coincidence of content and expression is not compulsory, as Baroque churches demonstrate, for instance. In a building external form and internal space often obey different masters. This is understandable in an urban context, with the chance to respond to external conditions prescribed by the location and locality. However, it is interesting to note that in the tower house there is a secretive "in between", a "massive" layer in which we find the most diverse spatial inclusions - "poché spaces": vertical access routes, small, sometimes interlinked chambers, but also mere protrusions of the main room to form window alcoves.

In the early types of tower house with external walls up to four metres thick and few rooms within this thickness, it would be better to speak of "masonry armour" than a conventional external wall. Their unusual, indeed incredible, size is the direct consequence of their task - to protect the living accommodation. The gradual transfer of compartments into this masonry appears to contradict this purpose at first sight. But this forms our "in between", a layer of individual rooms adjacent to the central hall, without weakening the masonry critically. Owing to the lack of openings the extent of this hollowing or thinning out cannot be seen from outside. The extra space gained in this way enables all secondary living functions to be transferred into the walls themselves. The central, main room is relieved and the size of this room can grow accordingly without having to increase the overall volume of the tower house. This achieves a clear separation between main room and ancillary rooms or - in the language of Louis I. Kahn - "servant" and "served" rooms. This division becomes clear when the resulting interior layout is considered without the enclosing walls (like a "negative"). All the interior spaces, starting from the central, main room, appear to spread out or branch off like vectorised tentacles working to an inherent code.

Spatial inclusions

These ancillary rooms are actually the result of the main room "boring" into the surrounding walls and can be distinguished according to their specific functions. Looking at the alcoves of the main room raises the question of whether these should be regarded as part of the main room or as autonomous spaces. It is clear that all alcoves (for secluded seating, window seats or access to loopholes), with the exception of fireplaces, face outwards, i.e., face the light. Alcoves on the same level as the main room would seem to support the view that they are extensions of the main room. In contrast to these, alcoves reached via steps, and in some cases with fixed furnishings, could be classified as autonomous compartments. More obviously separate are the rooms concealed

Fig. 78: "Positive" and "negative"

Comlongan Castle, Dumfries (Scotland, GB), 15th century

Fig. 78: "Positive" and "negative"

Comlongan Castle, Dumfries (Scotland, GB), 15th century

Fig. 79: Separate alcove with seating comlongan Cast le, Dumfrie s (Scotland, GB) , 15th century

Fig. 79: Separate alcove with seating comlongan Cast le, Dumfrie s (Scotland, GB) , 15th century

Fig. 80: Comlongan Castle
Fig. 81: Cessford Castle
Fig. 82: Borthwick Castle
Fig. 84: Claypott Castle

small openings leading off the main room or, indeed, only via alcoves. These rooms adhere to the principle of compartmentation because the direct connection with the main room is clearly interrupted by the intervening walls.


Admitting light into the central hall enclosed on all sides imposes different conditions on the design and form of the light-admitting alcoves. Basically, we distinguish between two types of opening:

Openings with splayed reveals Through reflection the narrow, deep openings with their splayed reveals distribute an even, diffuse light throughout the interior. They are not confined to a certain horizon and can therefore respond better to functional conditions. Ingenious location of these windows in the corners or end walls of the hall can promote strong sidelighting of the longitudinal wall, which thus becomes a bright "light wall" - as at Borthwick Castle. The orientation of the main room is thus underpinned not only by its geometry but also by the play of light and dark wall surfaces. With just a few, precisely located openings the lower part of the enclosed main room is illuminated surprisingly effectively, while the upper part forms a dark ceiling.


The daylighting effects are totally different in the deep seating alcoves. These alcoves tend to adhere primarily to the right-angled geometry of the plan disposition but prevent optimum scattering of the incoming daylight. They create high-contrast, exciting "inner" hall facades with light and shade, but above all with visual relationships with the surroundings so that the hall - contrary to the gloomy external expression - appears extraordinarily expansive, bright and homely. That is the real surprise that we never expected before studying the plans!

Vertical penetration and organisation It is remarkable that the storey-by-storey plan concept is organised without corridors, apart from a few exceptions. The numerous spiral stairs can be regarded as a vertical corridor system (as Hermann Muthesius describes in his book DasEnglische Haus), which, as a rule, are positioned in the corners of the external wall or at the junctions with later extensions. The characteristic aspect of this "corridor system" is that no staircase links all storeys. Generally, spiral stairs connect rooms over several storeys only in the case of unavoidable, functional requirements. The result is a complex three-dimensional labyrinth.

Confusion and error is the key to the vital defence of the tower house once an enemy has gained access. Narrow spiral stairs can be readily defended by switching the position of and direction of rotation of the flights, the "eye of the needle" effect of narrow entrances and exits. Different connections between the floors at different places aggravate this loss of orientation. No additional measures are needed to create this confusion; it is integral to the access concept of the tower house. And the concealed escape routes should not be underestimated, allowing the unexpected and sudden retreat of the defenders in many ways.


Access to the early tower houses was not at ground level like the later examples but rather via an external wooden stair or bridge at the side, which led directly onto the first floor. The typical vertical arrangement with one main room per floor meant that the ground floor contained the storage rooms and prison (= dungeon, later donjon), the first floor the main, prestigious hall for daily activities, the second floor the private rooms of the Lord, the third floor the rooms for the family and their servants, and above that the battlements.

Plan layout

The unique plan arrangements (rectangular, L-, C-, H-or Z-types) are essentially based on the progress in means of defence together with the growing needs for additional living areas on the individual floors. Starting with a basic form (a simple rectangle), tower houses were always extended according to the same pattern: the existing enclosing walls were extended so that a new, smaller "main room" with similar features was enclosed. It was usually the most important ancillary rooms that were transferred from the confines of the walls into this new space. However, the majority of tower houses did not obtain their plan layouts through changes to existing buildings; most were demolished and rebuilt over existing fragments according to the latest findings of contemporary ideas on defence and the current living and prestige needs of the owners.


As the defensive nature of the tower house diminished and the demands for a prestigious appearance grew, so the hitherto concealed alcoves and chambers within the outer walls started to become protrusions on the facade (as though they had become, so to speak, solid bodies trying to burst through the outermost skin and thus forcing this outwards). The originally massive, tranquil appearance of the fortified house became a sculpted body with projections. On the facade and in cross-section it can be seen that these projections preferably begin above the topmost floor with, in each case, coincident main rooms. A number of corner turrets and rooftop structures distinguish the silhouette of the building, which has become a three-dimensional crown. From now on the picturesque, romantic architecture of the later tower houses primarily followed

Craigievar Castle Floor Plan

Fig. 85: From top to bottom: facade, section, 4th floor plan, 1st floor plan

Craigievar Castle, Aberdeen (Scotland, GB), 17th century

Fig. 85: From top to bottom: facade, section, 4th floor plan, 1st floor plan

Craigievar Castle, Aberdeen (Scotland, GB), 17th century the most diverse, fashion-oriented currents of each age and omitted any superfluous defensive measures.

Likewise, the internal organisation, as at Craigievar Castle, changed to a cluster-type conglomerate of spaces. The main rooms were now no longer directly one above the other but instead faced in different directions on the upper floors and were further subdivided and oriented according to specific needs. Larger ancillary rooms can be recognised on the facades as additional divisions of the L-shaped body of the tower. This vertical succession of spaces can be reached from the main rooms or may connect these directly. The multi-layer access and interconnection principle of the interior layout, still organised storey by storey, continues via various stairs and their horizontal and vertical branching throughout the building. The originally distinct hierarchy of main and ancillary rooms had become compressed into a complex "room conglomerate".

Morphological deductions

Thick walls enclose an elongated, rectangular space. The thickness of the walls and their geometry are not really identifiable, neither internally nor externally. However, the interior space is defined with geometric precision by the four corners.

It is only the openings in the walls that create a spatial reference with the outside world. At the same time, the enclosing walls are divided into individual L-shaped fragments. Their thickness becomes apparent through the depth of the reveals to the openings. As soon as the openings are positioned in the enclosing surfaces, the original geometry of the space becomes clearly recognisable.

However, if the openings are positioned at the internal corners and more or less match the height of the storey, so that some enclosing surfaces are extended by the reveals, the interior space begins to "drain away" and lose its distinct geometry. The fragments of wall will tend to become linear bodies; they lose their capacity to "enclose" the space.

If, in addition, the fragments of wall contain chambers, this has, on the one hand, little influence on the spatial properties of the main room; but on the other hand, from an economic viewpoint, this is a clear gain in floor area, which depends on the maximum possible reduction in the wall mass and hence the loadbearing structure. However, the true content of the apparently solid walls can be seen only by looking directly into these chambers. If the geometry and extent of these chambers varies (to suit functional requirements, for example), their influence on the interior and exterior spaces remains small. Only when the thinning of the walls containing rooms becomes quite extensive and these spaces start to "protrude" outwards do the various chambers become readily visible. In doing so,

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