View of the Sorn Castle from Blaeu's Atlas, 1654.
The Castle from Blaeu's Atlas c.1654.
© National Library of Scotland
Sorn Castle, early 19th century.
Sorn Castle, early 19th century.
Old painting of Sorn Castle from the early 18th century.
Painting of Sorn Castle, early18th century.
Sorn Castle, from the river, 2002.
Sorn Castle, from the river, 2002.

A History of Sorn Castle (credit for much of the below history, and photo's of Sorn is due to Kenny Baird of

Sorn is a Celtic word, meaning a promontory, or rising-ground of frowning aspect. Sorn Castle undoubtedly received its name from its situation, as it stands high on a precipitous rock overhanging the water of Ayr. Almost sheer down from its massive walls, forty or fifty feet below their foundations, the clear stream dashes and tumbles over its rocky bed. At the time when the castle was built a site was eligible only as it showed advantages for purposes of defence. In such days the situation must have seemed an ideal one. From the side facing the river, the castle was almost impregnable, and the undulating country which stretched beyond could easily be overlooked from the castle walls. In front, the bare, treeless expanse of those days would offer no hiding place from watchful sentries. Such a stormy, troublous epoch has, happily, long since passed away, and the castle has again and again been adapted to meet the wants of the times, but in all its changes it has ever been the effort of its restorers to conserve its strictly Scottish style of architecture. In that they have been successful, and it is now a stately pile, with turreted windows, or low, broad casements, the crest of the Somervell family carved in high relief beside the entrance hall, the new part and the old blending into each other without the slightest incongruity. Its situation, chosen at first undoubtedly for defence, is now considered admirable because of its beauty. At an elbow-like turn in the river, near the kirk of Sorn, the bank on one side rises from almost canal-like flatness to steep bluffs and perpendicular scars of rock.  And high on its rocky promontory above the clear, impetuous stream, where its waters are caught and deepened and silenced in a long, slanting weir, stands this castle of Sorn. Of reddish stone, with windows set far back, like eyes deep-sunk with age, it is outlined through intervening trees or seen above their swaying branches.

The lands of Sorn belonged originally to the Keiths of Galston. Janet de Keith, heiress of Galston, married, first, Sir David de Hamyltoune of Cadzow, ancestor of the ducal house of Hamilton, and, secondly, Sir Alexander Stewart of Darneley. To her son of the first marriage, Andrew de Hamyltoune, she granted the lands of Sorn among others, and the charter was confirmed under the great seal on the 11th December, 1406. Whether the castle was built before that time or no does not appear, but the likelihood is that its erection was of an earlier date. Its first form was that of a keep, and there is a tradition to the effect that the masons employed in building it had the option for their wages of l.5 d per day or a peck of meal. If not built before Andrew de Hamyltoune's time, it must have been built when he acquired the land, for it became his residence.

The proprietors of Sorn Castle and descendants of Andrew de Hamyltoune have been among the most illustrious families in the kingdom.  Andrew Hamilton married Agnes, a daughter of Sir Hugh Campbell of Loudoun, Sheriff of Ayr, and by her had a son, Sir Robert Hamilton of Sorn and Sanquhar. Sir Robert married a daughter of Sir William Crawford of Lorhnorris; and Sir William Hamilton of Sorn and Sanquhar, a son of this marriage, was one of the Senators of the College of Justice and Lord Treasurer to King James V, as well as Captain of Edinburgh Castle.  He married a Kennedy daughter of the family of Cassilis, by whom he had an heiress, Isobel Hamilton, who married George, 7th Lord Seton.

James V visited Sorn Castle by invitation of George, 6th Lord Seton on the occasion of his son's marriage to the heiress Lady Isobel Hamilton, and which marriage brought Sorn to that family.  The chair which His Majesty is said to have used on the occasion was kept in Sorn Castle till the sale of the estate in 1782, when it was transferred to Loudoun Castle, where it still remains. It is a large chair of oak, of curious workmanship, with the arms of Sir William Hamilton carved upon the back.

The story of the King as he travelled to Sorn is: 

The journey was undertaken in the winter, and in those old days travelling was quite a different matter from what it is now.  The King was heartily tired of his ride over moor and moss and clay, and said "if he could play the Devil a trick he would send him from Glasgow to Sorn in the depths of winter." A well about half-way from Glasgow, from which His Majesty drank, is called the King's Well to this day.   The horse upon which the King rode came to grief near the well.  It sank in the bog, and His Majesty was rescued with some little difficulty.  The King made a joke of it, and said that his horse was truly stabled, and even now, or until a few years ago, the spot was known as the King's Stable.

Yet the marriage of the Isobel was a very important one also, and Sir Richard Maitland in his "Historie of the House of Setoune," says that "the union was devised to bring about an alliance betwixt the Setounes and the Governor Arran, to whose house Sir William belonged, and was of such political importance that a medal commemorating it was struck, bearing the initials of the bride and bridegroom, I. H. and G. S., and the motto, "ung loy, ung foy, ung roy," is of great historical interest, as an example of ancient phonetic spelling of French!

George 7th Lord Seton and Isobel Hamilton were parents to Robert, 8th Lord Seton who became a great favourite of James VI and was created by him 1st Earl of Winton, by a charter dated 16th Nov 1600; to Alexander, 1st Earl of Dunfermline and Chancellor of Scotland under James VI; to Sir John of Barnes; to Sir William of Kyllismuir, and to Margaret who's marriage was celebrated at Lord Seton's castle of Niddry to Claud Hamilton, Lord Paisley, ancestor to the Earl of Abercorn.

The lands and castle of Sorn were sold by the succeeding Robert Seton, 2nd Earl of Winton to the family of Loudoun, and after remaining in that family for upwards of a hundred and fifty years they were sold to William Tennent, Esq., of Poole, in 1782."

Mr. Tennent retained possession of the castle and lands for only a few years and Mr. Graham of Limekilns, and Mr. Stevenson of Dalgain, became the next proprietors. In 1795 Mr. Somervell of Hamilton Farm, who was a partner in the house of Somervell, Gordon & Co., long known as one of the most eminent mercantile families connected with our colonies, bought the lands and castle and they remain in the Somervell family to this day.

Charles II. seized Sorn Castle, among others, about the year 1665, by virtue of an obsolete Act, and garrisoned it with dragoons for the purpose of overawing the Presbyterians in that quarter. Among the family papers of Auchmannoch is the following relic of those eventful times :

"God save the King."

"I, Lewis Lauder, Governor of Sorn Castle, dow heirby certifie and declare, vlz.-Klrkwood, servitor to Arthur Campbell of Auch-mannoch, in the parish of Sorne, did compeir before me, on solemn oath before Almightie God, did abjure and renounce the late traitorous apologeticall declaration, in so far as it declares war against his majestie, and asserts that it is lawful to kill all such as serve his majestie in church, state, armie, or countrie, conform to his majestie's late proclamation of the 30th Daye of December last.-Given at Sorn, the aught day of February, 1688 zeirs.


The troop of dragoons quartered at Sorn killed at least two lads in high-handed fashion, one at Tinkhornhill, and another, at the instigation of the curate of Sorn, at Tarbolton; many a conventicle was scattered at their approach, and the moors and moss hags in the neighbouring parish of Muirkirk are dotted with memorials of martyrs of the Covenant. What tyranny they exercised over the poor people we can well imagine. Their power was unlimited, and they were not the men, as those murders testify, to fall short in its use. The prayer which heads the written oath "God save the King " was the watchword of the day.

If a suspect repeated the words he was allowed to go; if not, so much the worse for him. We read of brave men and women who refused this watchword or test, not, surely, because they wished other than good to their sovereign, but to utter those words implied that they gave their adherence to the King and to all his decrees, and swore the whole of the test oath. Adherence to their sovereign was their duty, but when a King calmly declared himself arbiter of a nation's conscience, it was altogether another matter.

A large, beautiful flag of white silk is carefully preserved in the castle of Sorn- somewhat frayed now and discoloured with age. It was carried by the Covenanters at Drumclog, and again in procession when William III. was declared King. It bears the motto

"For God and the Presbyterian Reformation, for crown and country " - a crown, the letters W.R., and the date 1689. The lettering is in gold, the crown in blue and gold. The crown, initials, and date must have been added at a slightly later period than the motto, which in all probability was all it bore at first. With William and Mary dawned a brighter day for the Church of Scotland. Sixty years ago, the flag was showing signs of the decay of age. The silk had rotted so much that there was a danger of losing it altogether. The Curlers' Club had it repaired very carefully with a backing of new silk, and inscribed that fact upon it. It now reposes in state in Sorn Castle, in a mahogany chest, in a quaint old cupboard of the library.

About the beginning of the eighteenth century, Hugh, first Earl of Loudoun, married a daughter of John, first Earl of Stair. The lands of Sorn belonged to the Earl of Loudoun, and in the year 1727 the Countess took up her residence at Sorn Castle. She came to Sorn as the Dowager-Countess, and lived there for the long period of fifty years. When she died she was within a few months of completing her hundredth year. In those days servants clung to the service of one family, and seemed almost as much a part of the household as the sons and daughters. Most of the servants that the Countess brought with her remained during her life in her service, and some of them attained nearly as great an age as their mistress.

The Countess was very beautiful as a young woman, and with greater age, although the freshness of youth must have gone, she did not lose her charm, and through all her long life-time was ever a sprightly, handsome, and dignified gentlewoman. When she came to Sorn her health gave her friends some cause for alarm, but she speedily recovered tone in the pure bracing air, and was almost untroubled by sickness again until a few days before her death. Besides being beautiful the Countess was a most cultured woman for her time, and she acquired a "large portion of those mental and liberal accomplishments which so much adorned the brilliant courts of Queen Anne and George I., and possessed moreover in a high degree that dignity of character and deportment, and that vigorous and active spirit, by which her brother, the celebrated Ambassador, was so eminently distinguished."

When the Countess of Loudoun came to Sorn, instead of the beautiful grounds laid out in the highest style of art which now surround the castle, and the lovely winding walks, shadowed by great trees along the banks of the Ayr, and a highly-cultivated tract of country stretching on every side with hedges and trees and plantations, the Countess found a bare, dreary expanse, with not a single road or hedge and very few trees. The castle was built around a courtyard at that time, and had all the characteristics of a fortress or keep. Her chronicler quaintly says that the Countess was not discouraged although she came from "a better country." She immediately set about working a great reformation in her surroundings.

She found only a very small garden and orchard; those she enlarged considerably and improved. She took an extensive farm into her own hands, enclosed the fields in hedges and interspersed them with belts and clumps of planting. She also adorned the banks of the river with trees and walks and the banks also of tributary rivulets. Scenes of beauty sprang up around her, to her great enjoyment. Many of the trees were planted and pruned by her own hands, and some of them remain to this day-giants of the woodland. The reformation the Countess initiated in agricultural matters was gradually followed by neighbouring proprietors. Mr. Steel, Mr. Farquhar of Gilmilnscroft, and Mr. Dunlop of Garnkirk took up the matter enthusiastically and the centre of the parish soon displayed a wonderful improvement.

Roads were made, hedges planted, drystone dykes erected, growing of trees was much encouraged, and reclaiming of moorland was gone into with great zest. The Countess died on the third of April, 1777. She had been a most liberal benefactor of the industrious poor, a most faithful steward of her goods, a gentlewoman of the old school, a happy, clever, sprightly personality. When she died, her passing left a blank, which to her many friends could not be filled.

The ancient keep, in the Countess's old age, must have sheltered a striking household. The castle itself accorded well with its inhabitants- brown with age as it was, old-fashioned, with stories of other days haunting every nook and corner; grey-haired retainers in the servants' hall, an ancient waiting-woman keeping watch and ward over her still more ancient mistress, whose spirit was as young as her body was frail and old! Twenty years after the Countess died, four of her servants were still living- one who had become the church officer and was at that time eighty-five years of age; a gardener and his wife, both ninety-four, who had been married sixty-eight years; and the possessor of a small farm, who was ninety-six. The last was the most vigorous of all, and made a point of walking several miles every day.

Mr. Tennent, the next proprietor, repaired the castle in a most thorough manner and built large additions to it. Among the additions was a most magnificent drawing-room, and a very handsome staircase. The castle was described by a writer of the time as a most spacious, commodious, and comfortable mansion.

In the year 1837, while a walk was being formed along the side of the Cleugh, some workmen came upon a wonderful treasure-trove. It was no less than five hundred coins of copper and silver, some of them dating so far back as the fourteenth century-the reign of Robert III. There were also representative coins of the reign of each James. It was supposed that they had been hidden by the Covenanters in the days of the Persecution. Perhaps the exact spot where they were hidden was forgotten, and some expectant soul may have toiled and dug many places in vain for his hidden treasure, or death may have come suddenly and snatched away their owner without giving him time to confide the secret of the hiding-place to another.

They may have been stolen and hidden there, but it seems more likely that it was a treasure hidden for safety. The denomination of the coins is pathetically small, even for the great value of money of the times, like a long, well gathered hoard. The silver coins are very little- some of them round, others octagonal, with edges as if clipped. Such a find naturally was noised abroad, and although the workmen delivered the coins to Mr. Somervell, he was not allowed to keep them. The Government claimed them, and they were sent off. About fifty were returned from the Exchequer, and are kept as antiquarian curiosities in the castle.

The last time that the castle was repaired or restored was upwards of thirty years ago, when Mr. Somervell again added to it and very considerably improved it. It is of the pure Scottish type of architecture, and has not suffered from the many heads and hands that have planned and worked at it, for it has been the endeavour of each succeeding restorer to retain its characteristic style. It is a handsome building in every way, and a commodious and beautiful residence. In the Island of Westray there is a ruined castle of massive Scottish architecture to which the castle of Sorn bears a striking resemblance. But while the castle of Westray has become a ruin, the castle of Sorn has had a happier history, in that it has been carefully preserved, and century after century has been the home of noble and patriotic Scottish men and women.

Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom (from 1603)
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    Sorn Castle History
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        Old Photos
        The Interior
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    Sir William Seton
     Photo: Village of Sorn
     The Lands of Sorn
     The Seton Medallion