A Tower on the Loch?
One of our projects, Revealing Peel Tower, has involved consolidating the Peel Tower of Castle Semple Loch, but… What’s a Peel and why is it on the Loch?
It all started a long time ago…
Once upon a time, Castle Semple Loch was part of a much larger estate owned by the Sempill family (there has been a variety of spellings for their name, including “Sempill” and “Semple”).
The Sempills played a major role in shaping the landscape around Castle Semple Loch as we know it today, starting with the First Lord Sempill, who built Castle Semple and the Collegiate Church (the Castle no longer exists, but gave its name to the loch!). It is his grandson Robert, the Third Lord Sempill, who built the Peel Tower in the 1550s.
What’s a Peel?
Peel towers were small fortified tower houses that were commonly built in Scotland during the High Middle Ages. These free-standing buildings were built both for defensive and residential purposes, and were also a display of wealth and status.
Why did Robert build one in addition to Castle Semple?
The Sempills were an important noble family in Scotland in the 16th and 17th century, and as Victor Hugo once wrote: “fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats”. The family’s involvement in violent local feuds and national politics, as well as their opposition to the new Protestant Faith during the Reformation of the Church (1560s), meant that they lived under the constant threat of attacks.
Protecting the family and the estate was therefore a priority, and the Third Lord Sempill built the Peel as a refuge in the event of an attack. The tower was built to be easily defensible: located on a rocky islet in the middle of Castle Semple Loch, surrounded by marshy land.
So how come Peel Tower isn’t in the middle of the loch anymore, and the ruins are located on the narrow stretch of land between Castle Semple Loch and Aird Meadow?
Until about 300 years ago, Castle Semple Loch, Barr Loch and Aird Meadow were a single body of water, as it can be seen on Timothy Pont’s map from 1580.
At the end of the 16th century, drainage work around the loch started, to obtain rich agricultural land. Even though this work was originally initiated by the Sempills, it is the MacDowalls, the family who bought the estate when the Sempills’ family fortune declined in the early 18th century, who carried out most of the drainage.
What did the Peel look like?
Representations of the Peel from the time it was still standing are hard to come across, but here is some information on the building itself: it had very thick walls (nine feet thick!) with gun loops to fire shots. The tower is believed to have been three-story high and measured 15m x 7m x 7m.
Despite its thick walls, the tower was besieged:
In 1560, the Third Lord Sempill was to appear before the court for crimes related to local feuds, but he fled the estate instead and left his son, the Master of Sempill (also named Robert), in charge of defending the estate. It is during this time of intense feuds linked to the Reformation and to national politics that the Earls of Arran and Glencairn attacked Castle Semple Estate. The Peel Tower was besieged and the Master of Sempill was made prisoner.
More about the consolidation work of Peel Tower coming soon!
Beaumont-Sempill, R. A. (2015). The Semples, Lord Sempills of West Scotland: family and contextual history from the 11th to 19th Centuries. CreateSpace, and Amazon.com company.
Calcluth, H. (2012). Robert, 3rd Lord Semple. Retrieved from Renfrewshire Local History Forum: https://rlhf.info/robert-3rd-lord-semple/
Land Use Consultants (LUC) for Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park. (2008). A History of Castle Semple Estate. Retrieved from https://clydemuirshiel.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/History-of-Castle-Semple-Estate.pdf
Lochwinnoch S.W.R.I. (n.d.). Lochwinnoch, a short story of the village and the parish.
Paul, J. B. (1910). The Scots peerage : founded on Wood's ed. of Sir Robert Douglas's Peerage of Scotland; containing an historical and genealogical account of the nobility of that kingdom (Vol. 7). Edinburgh: D. Douglas. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/scotspeeragefoun07pauluoft/page/n551/mode/2up