The Ship that Never Sailed: Blackness Castle

I know season one of Outlander came out a long time ago, but humor me. If you can, think back to Jamie and Claire’s dramatic escape from Fort William. After outwitting Black Jack Randall, the two leave his office and make their way to the battlements of the fort, from which, after a diversion in the form of an explosion in the courtyard, the couple jumps into loch and swims to safety.

I have three problems with that scene:

  1. That’s not how it happened in the book. As an English major, I studied adaptation and how the stories in books were changed to make for better TV, so I understand the change. But the book was better.
  2. As a former swimmer, there is no way that Claire could swim in that dress. No. Way. Even Michael Phelps would have issues with that.
  3. The water around Fort William isn’t deep enough for that.

All that’s left of Fort William nowadays is the foundations and parts of the walls, sitting on the edge of Loch Linnhe. The water in Loch Linnhe gets gradually deeper at Fort William, like the water at a beach. Which is why, in the book, Jamie and Claire escape by climbing over the wall. But, again, sometimes changes are made in order to make for good watching.

 

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Along those lines, a fort was needed to film those scenes. After all, the whole capture and subsequent escape would have been much less interesting if the ruins, with their two-foot-high remnants of walls had been used in filming. Instead, a contemporary castle with similar battlements and which was also situated along the water was used: Blackness Castle.

If you ever visit the town of Linlithgow (which is about 20 minutes outside of Edinburgh by train) you should make a full day of it. Visit Linlithgow Palace in the morning, have a picnic by the loch, then make your way out of town to Blackness Castle. It’s well worth the hike (or figuring out the local bus timetable, if you’re so inclined).

 

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Built in the 1440s by Sir George Crichton, the complex reflects the oddity of its creator. From the ground, you don’t really see it, but if you go inside and up onto the walls, you will. The castle walls have an odd shape, and the buildings inside where designed to fit inside the unique outline. From the high angle, you can see that the castle was built to look like a ship, with its bow pointed out into the Firth of Forth. The walls resemble a hull, the keep a mainmast, and the residence the stern cabins.

 

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The design of the castle is befitting of the storytelling architecture we see from modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright or Antoni Gaudí. In fact, the reason behind the interesting shape is really quite beautiful: The lives of the people who lived on and near that promontory were tied inextricably to the water, and the castle was designed as an homage to their livelihood. It was designed to look like a ship from the water, earning it the nickname “the ship that never sailed.”

The castle served as the port for Linlithgow, supplying the palace there with shipments that arrived via the Firth of Forth. There is even an entrance to the castle courtyard from the water side of the castle, so that sailors could bring their wares directly from the ship and into the safety of the castle courtyard.

 

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An interesting coincidence for Outlander fans, Blackness Castle served as a prison, much like Fort William. Blackness came under control of the Crown in 1453, and James II almost immediately set about transitioning the castle into a prison for the nobility. The keep was divided into several apartments, and valuable prisoners were kept under house arrest in furnished apartments (which had plenty of room for servants to accompany them, so…rough?).

The castle fell into disrepair, but was restored in the seventeenth century in order to hold the large influx of Covenanting prisoners during the religious conflicts in the 1650s and 1660s. Later, the castle was used as an armory, and during the World War I, UK forces used Blackness Castle with its waterfront loading areas as an ammunition depot for ships stationed in the North Sea.

 

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Today, Blackness Castle is a protected monument and open to the public. It also makes the occasional appearance on TV shows, such as Outlander. (For the record, at high tide the water in the Firth of Forth would be deep enough for Jamie and Claire to escape Blackness Castle by jumping into the water.)

 

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Visiting Blackness Castle

Getting there: The nearest stopping-off point for those of us bound by public transit is Linlithgow. I walked from Linlithgow train station to Blackness Castle, because it was a lovely fall day, but I don’t necessarily recommend doing so. It’s about a four-mile walk, and roughly half of that is along a windy country road with no sidewalks. I ended up hitchhiking the last bit in order to avoid being hit by cars coming up behind me. A safer alternative would be to take the train to Linlithgow, and transfer to a local bus which runs between the town square and the castle every 15 or 20 minutes.

Admission: Entrance to the castle is £6 for adults and £3.60 for children. Blackness Castle is managed by Historic Environment Scotland, so members go free.

Opening hours: From March to September, the castle is open daily from 9:30 – 5:30. From October to March, the castle is open Saturday to Wednesday from 10 – 4.

Visit the Blackness Castle website here.

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