Welcome to Doune
Seven miles north west of Stirling is the little town of Doune, the historic capital of Menteith. It lies in a wooded valley at the confluence of the Ardoch Burn and the River Teith and also at the junction of the A84 and A820. Nearby are the hilly Bracs of Doune, which lead up to Callander, the forest of Glenartney and Ben Vorlich. Doune is a charming old town famed for its castle, perched on a mound at the town’s south-eastern extremity. The castle will be familiar to many who know nothing of the town due to its use as a setting for Monty Python’s The Holy Grail.
While the Doune Standing Stones, just off the B824 two miles east of the town, testify to prehistoric settlement in the area the first real evidence of settlement at the Doune site comes from the time of the Romans. Not only did the Romans fortify the outcrop but the finding of medical implements at the site of today’s primary school suggests they also used Doune as a medical centre for their northernmost legions.
The significance of the role of the fort in Doune’s early development cannot be overstated; even the town’s name is derived from Dun, which means fort. This suggests that the town came into existence to supply Doune Castle. However, when exactly this occurred is not easy to ascertain. The earliest record of the castle comes from the 14th century when the notorious Robert Stewart, the 1st Duke of Albany and brother of King Robert III, ordered its construction. However, this work may just have been the redevelopment of an existing keep.
The story of the Castle’s first recorded benefactors is one of intrigue, conspiracy and murder. Robert Stewart, who in effect governed Scotland from 1388 until his death in 1420, was an astute man who gained great political influence by manipulating his idiot brother, King Robert III (his real name was John but as this name was thought unlucky for a king of Scots it was changed). Robert III was not so foolish to be blind to the fact that the succession and the very life of his son and heir, the future James I, was threatened by his bullying brother. In 1406 the king despatched James I to safety in France only for the Prince’s ship to be intercepted off the Norfolk coast by a band of pirates, who had most probably been tipped off by the powerful duke.
When Robert III heard his son had been captured and was being held in the Tower of London he died of despair, his final words were ‘I am the most miserable of men.’ In the end James I was held in captivity for 27 years while Albany ignored pleas to raise the ransom for his release. Only when Albany died and his son Murdoch took up the reigns of power was James’ release negotiated. When the furious king returned he was far from understanding: he had the new Duke and his family beheaded. James seized Doune Castle, after which time it became a hunting lodge under the guardianship of the Earls of Moray. Today the castle, under the care of Historic Scotland, is quite striking: its grand design, on nothing less than a royal scale, testament to one family’s thirst for power.
Apart from growing to supply the castle, Doune became an important stop off point on the drovers road to the Highlands, which ran by the east of the town. Until 1535 a ferry carried drovers and other travellers across the Teith. That was to change when the ferryman refused to allow passage to Margaret Tudor’s wealthy tailor, Robert Spittal, who had forgotten to bring sufficient change to pay for the crossing. To spite the ferryman, Spittal funded the construction of today’s Teith Bridge, putting the ferryman out of a job.
Regardless of the motives for the building of the bridge its existence made the town a more prosperous one. Doune became an important regional market centre, the focus of activity being the old Mercat Cross where, incidentally, hangings also took place. In 1665 Doune was awarded special privileges to hold cattle and sheep fairs. There was also some industry: Doune became famed for the manufacture of items such as sporrans and pistols. Industry on a larger scale arrived in the late 18th century with the construction of Adelphi Cotton Mill, to the south of the River Teith. At its height it employed somewhere in the region of 1000 local men women and children. The mill was closed in 1965 and the building converted into a whisky distillery for the area’s other great industry.
In more recent years tourism has also become important to the local economy. The 1975 Monty Python film, The Holy Grail, filmed here in 1975, has added an unusual twist to this industry. The castle, used in the film as Camelot, the Castle of Guy de Lombard, the Swamp Castle and Castle Anthrax, now occasionally plays host to meetings of the film’s enthusiasts and stars.