Tower houses in Britain and Ireland

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Distribution of tower houses in the British Isles Tower House Distribution.png
Distribution of tower houses in the British Isles

Tower houses (Irish : caisleán) appeared on the Islands of Ireland and Great Britain starting from the High Middle Ages. They were constructed in the wilder parts of Great Britain and Ireland, particularly in Scotland, and throughout Ireland, until at least up to the 17th century. The remains of such structures are dotted around the Irish and Scottish countryside, with a particular concentration in the Scottish Borders where they include peel towers and bastle houses. Some are still intact and even inhabited today, while others stand as ruined shells.


Scottish tower houses

Smailholm Tower in Roxburghshire, Scotland Smailholm Tower - - 625921.jpg
Smailholm Tower in Roxburghshire, Scotland

Tower houses are often called castles, and despite their characteristic compact footprint size, they are formidable habitations and there is no clear distinction between a castle and a tower house. In Scotland a classification system has been widely accepted based on ground plan, such as the L-plan castle style, one example being the original layout (prior to enlargement) of Muchalls Castle in Scotland. [1] [2]

The few surviving round Scottish Iron Age towers known as brochs are often compared to tower houses, having mural passages and a basebatter, (a thickening of the wall that slopes obliquely, intended to prevent the use of a battering ram) although the entrances to Brochs are far less ostentatious.

Irish tower houses

Aughnanure Castle, a tower house and bawn in County Galway, Ireland Aughnanure Castle - Flickr - KHoffmanDC (10).jpg
Aughnanure Castle, a tower house and bawn in County Galway, Ireland
A reconstruction cut-away drawing of Ross Castle in County Kerry. It shows life inside the tower house, with men and women present; servants and the social elite; cooking and dancing; and children playing. Ross-castle-drawing.jpg
A reconstruction cut-away drawing of Ross Castle in County Kerry. It shows life inside the tower house, with men and women present; servants and the social elite; cooking and dancing; and children playing.

Irish archaeologist Tom Finan has stated that while the precise origins of the Irish tower house is "shady", he makes the case that "the Irish hall house is in fact the parent of the Irish tower house". [3] Tadhg O'Keefe has stressed that there remain issues over the use of terms halls, 'hall-houses', and 'tower-houses' have become needlessly entangled and argues for a clearer understanding of the terms, and where they apply. [4] [5] While archaeologist Thomas Johnson Westropp preferred the term 'peel houses' for these type of fortified residences, the term 'tower house' became more widely used from the early 20th century, with the work and publications of architect and antiquarian Harold Graham Leask. [6]

Whether an evolution of an earlier form or otherwise, many tower houses were built in Ireland between the early 15th and 17th centuries, with over two thousand tower houses remaining extant. [6] After 1500, many lords built fortified houses, although the introduction of cannons slowly rendered such defenses increasingly obsolete. It is possible many were built after King Henry VI of England introduced a building subsidy of £10 in 1429 to every man in the Pale who wished to build a castle within 10 years(Statute Rolls of the Parliament of Ireland, Reign of Henry VI, pp 33–5). However recent studies have undermined the significance of this grant, demonstrating that there were many similar grants at different times and in different areas, and because many were built in areas outside English control.

They were built by both the Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Irish, with some constructed by English and Scottish immigrants during successive conquests of Ireland between the 1570s and 1690s. Many were positioned within sight of each other and a system of visual communication is said to have been established between them, based on line of sight from the uppermost levels, although this may simply be a result of their high density. County Kilkenny has several examples of this arrangement such as Ballyshawnmore and Neigham. County Clare is known to have had approximately two hundred and thirty tower houses in the 17th century, some of which were later surveyed by the Irish antiquarian Thomas Johnson Westropp in the 1890s. [6]

The Irish tower house was used for both defensive and residential reasons, with many lordly dynasties building them on their demesne lands in order to assert status and provide a residence for the senior lineage of the family. Many had a defensive wall around the building, known as a bawn (Irish : bábhún).

See also

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Broch Type of Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure

A broch is an Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure found in Scotland. Brochs belong to the classification "complex Atlantic roundhouse" devised by Scottish archaeologists in the 1980s. Their origin is a matter of some controversy.

Peel tower Small medieval fortified keep or tower house

Peel towers are small fortified keeps or tower houses, built along the English and Scottish borders in the Scottish Marches and North of England, mainly between the mid-14th century and about 1600. They were free-standing with defence being a prime consideration of their design with "confirmation of status and prestige" also playing a role. They also functioned as watch towers where signal fires could be lit by the garrison to warn of approaching danger.

Scottish castles Type of fortified structure in Scotland

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Keep Type of fortified tower built within castles during the Middle Ages by European nobility

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Narrow Water Castle

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Great hall Largest room in a medieval manor

A great hall is the main room of a royal palace, castle or a large manor house or hall house in the Middle Ages, and continued to be built in the country houses of the 16th and early 17th centuries, although by then the family used the great chamber for eating and relaxing. At that time the word "great" simply meant big and had not acquired its modern connotations of excellence. In the medieval period, the room would simply have been referred to as the "hall" unless the building also had a secondary hall, but the term "great hall" has been predominant for surviving rooms of this type for several centuries, to distinguish them from the different type of hall found in post-medieval houses. Great halls were found especially in France, England and Scotland, but similar rooms were also found in some other European countries.

Muchalls Castle

Muchalls Castle stands overlooking the North Sea in the countryside of Kincardine and Mearns, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The lower course is a well-preserved Romanesque, double-groined 13th-century tower house structure, built by the Frasers of Muchalls. Upon this structure, the 17th-century castle was begun by Alexander Burnett of Leys and completed by his son, Sir Thomas Burnett, 1st Baronet, in 1627. The Burnetts of Leys built the remaining four-storey present-day castle.

Barryscourt Castle Castle in eastern County Cork, Ireland

Barryscourt Castle is a castle located in eastern County Cork in southern Ireland, close to the town of Carrigtwohill.

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Parkes Castle Building in County Leitrim, Ireland

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Dunlough Castle

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Carrigogunnell Medieval Irish fortification, County Limerick, Ireland

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Ballymarkahan Castle

Ballymarkahan Castle is a ruined tower house in the parish of Quin, in County Clare, Ireland. It was listed by Irish antiquarian T. J. Westropp as one of the 195 "lesser castles", or peel towers, of County Clare in 1899, by which time it was already a ruin. It was mentioned as a ruin in the Ordnance Survey Letters of John O'Donovan and Eugene O'Curry in 1839. It is marked on the Ordnance Survey map of 1842. The castle dates from the fifteenth century, some time after the construction of Quin Abbey, and was built by the MacNamara family, who built a number of castles in the area, including nearby Knappogue Castle. According to Westropp, it was built in 1430 by "Donall, son of Shane an Gabhaltais."

Ballyhannon Castle Historic site in County Clare, Ireland

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Architecture of Scotland in the Middle Ages Architecture of Scotland in the Middle Ages

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Welsh Tower houses

Welsh tower houses were fortified stone houses that were built between the early 14th and 15th centuries. They are related to tower houses, which occur in considerable numbers in Ireland and Scotland and to a much lesser extent in England. A map showing the distribution of tower houses within the United Kingdom is given in Houses of the Welsh Countryside.

Kilcrea Castle 15th-century ruined tower house and bawn

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  1. MacIntosh, J. Gordon (18 December 1937). "Muchalls Castle, The Residence of Mr. J. Gordon Mackintosh". Country Life Magazine . pp. 630–634.
  2. Hogan, C.Michael; Richardson, Sigvard; Graves, Peter (2004). "History of Muchalls Castle, Kincardineshire, Scotland". Aberdeen: Lumina Press. Archived from the original on 28 March 2007.
  3. Finan, Tom (2014). "Hall Houses, Church, and State in Thirteenth Century Roscommon: The Origins of the Irish Tower House" via
  4. O'Keefe, Tadhg (2013). "Halls, 'hall-houses' and tower-houses" via
  5. O'Keefe, Tadhg (2001). "Concepts of 'castle'and the construction of identity in medieval and post-medieval Ireland" via
  6. 1 2 3 Donnelly, Colm (1996). "Frowning Ruins: The Tower Houses of Medieval Ireland". History Ireland. Vol. 4, no. 1. Thomas J. Westropp, for example, preferred to use the term peel tower, a name derived from a broadly similar medieval building series found in Scotland and northern England. The term tower house only gained greater acceptance from the 1930s onwards, largely due to the work of Harold G. Leask [..who..] came up with a figure of around 2,900 castles throughout Ireland

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