Located at Easter Elcho, Rhynd in Perth and Kinross, Elcho Castle was built in the latter half of the 16th century for the Wemyss family, whose descendents still own it, although it is now in the care of Historic Scotland. Overlooking the River Tay, the tower-shaped castle has many original features, including the ruins of the courtyard, the chapel and a round tower with kiln.
Elcho has been in the ownership of the Wemyss family for five and a half centuries, if not longer. It was part of the possessions confirmed to Sir John Wemyss of Wemyss by James III in 1468, and is still owned by the earls of Wemyss. The date when the present castle began to be built is uncertain, though it was probably in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. We know that the lands were confirmed to Sir John Wemyss in 1552, and this may have been a way of ensuring that his title to it was sound before he started a major campaign of rebuilding. He was certainly able to sign a charter at Elcho in 1558, though that does not necessarily mean that the new house was complete, since there must already have been a house on the site before the one we now see. However, there is a record that in 1570 the laird of Wemyss owed the late Thomas Bryson or Boynting the sum of £7 for ironwork, and it is tempting to suspect that this was for the wrought iron grilles or yetts at the windows and main doorway, and that the main work was complete by then.
The house we now see was never intended to stand in isolation, and work on the ancillary buildings associated with it probably continued over several generations -to meet changing requirements. The remains of a range which ran along one side of the main courtyard of the castle have the initials IEW on the gable, perhaps in reference to John earl of Wemyss. The earldom was created for him by Charles I in 1633 and he died in 1649. Around the house and the courtyards immediately associated with it would have been a small dependent township, of which the modem farm and houses in the area are the successors. There was a small boat anchorage below the castle at the junction of the River Tay with the bum which runs down the east side of the castle. Boats may also have been able to enter the quarry immediately north of the castle, which used to be flooded and connected to the river by a short cut.
It is not certain when the castle ceased to be a principal residence of the Wemyss family, though it was perhaps after the seventh earl acquired the Gosford estate, in East Lothian, in 1781. Elcho probably housed tenants and farm labourers after it was no longer used by members of the family. Nevertheless, it continued to be important to the Wemyss family since, until quite recently, the heirs of the earls of Wemyss bore the title of Lord Elcho. It was re-roofed in about 1830 by the eighth earl, and it was probably around the same time that the cottage on the west side of the courtyard was built. The eleventh earl placed the castle in the care of the state in 1929, and it is now cared for by Historic Scotland on behalf of the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Elcho was built at a period when domestic comfort, convenience and privacy were coming to be regarded as increasingly desirable by the greater landholders. Yet the times were not yet so settled that it was wise to dispense completely with the means of defending oneself from the attacks of rivals, while the trappings of defensibility might also be seen as something of a status symbol associated with land holding. What we see at Elcho, therefore, is a fascinatingly ingenious response to these differing needs, which provided its fortunate occupants with accommodation of a very high standard together with a considerable degree of security. The walls are mainly of rubble masonry, much of which may have been taken from the quarry to the north of the house, while the dressings to the windows, doorways and corners are of dressed ashlar. Originally, of course, all of this would have been covered by lime render, masking any irregularities that are now evident, and slight traces of this render may still be seen.
Towards the entrance courtyard on its south side, the house presented an elongated facade with a square entrance tower at its western angle. Although not symmetrical this facade was carefully composed to give an appearance of measured regularity. At the wall head the massing was enlivened by a restrained display of turrets, dormers and conically-roofed turrets. The tower, which had the only entrance to the house at its base, was the only part of the house to have an open wall-walk behind a parapet, giving it externally something of the appearance of a distinct tower-house.
Thee flanks of the courtyard in front of the house were probably originally defined by ranges, of which part of that on the west survives. At the south-eastern angle of the courtyard, behind the modern house, is a round tower from which it was possible to fire along the adjoining courtyard walls, and there may have been similar towers at the other angles. There were probably further courtyards to contain ancillary buildings such as stables and farm buildings, and there would also have been gardens and orchards. Immediately to the north of the castle, where there is the quarry, there was no need for defensive walls. The face of the house overlooking the quarry is much less regular than that towards the courtyard, with three unequally spaced towers along its length; dearly there was less effort to create impressive architecture here, and it is on this side that most of the latrine chutes are concentrated; nevertheless, the results are attractive to modern eyes.
The single entrance doorway at the base of the south-west tower opened onto the spacious spiral main stair within the tower, which rose no higher than the principal rooms on the first floor. Members of the family and their visitors would proceed straight up the stair to that level, because the whole of the ground floor was occupied by the kitchen and associated larders and storerooms. These are all covered by stone vaulting which created a fire-proof barrier and gave greater structural strength to the building as a whole. Piercing the walls of the ground floor are seventeen gun-loops which would have effectively discouraged .11 but the most persistent unwanted visitors. In the sills of some of these loops are wooden battens with a central hole, which would have allowed the hand-held guns to be swivelled through the splayed mouth of the opening. Though there are windows at this level, they are smaller than those at the upper levels and stoutly barred. The kitchen is the first of the rooms to open off the corridor along the courtyard side of the ground floor. It has a large arched fireplace, within which most of the cooking took place over an open fire, and at the back of which is a domed bread oven. From the store-room next to the kitchen a spiral service stair led to the upper storeys of the house, allowing servants to carry food both to the hall and bedchambers.
The main room on the first floor was the hall , a splendidly proportioned space warmed by a fireplace in the south wall. The entrance end of the hall was almost certainly partitioned off by a timber draft screen, which would have left the fireplace centrally positioned within the hall. Opening off the screened-off vestibule was a small storage room and two of the three stairs which interconnected the upper storeys of both the main block and the two towers at the west end of the building, though one of those stairs does not open onto both of the upper storeys in the main block. The hall was lit by four large windows which would have had glazing in their upper parts and wooden shutters behind; externally these windows had massive grilles as a security measure. Originally the walls of the hall were plastered.
Opening off the far end of the hall was the doorway to the rooms which probably served as the lodging of the owner. The main room was a large square chamber, with a smaller inner chamber beyond; within the inner chamber was a mural latrine, with a chute leading down to a cess chamber on the rear side of the house. This lodging was the finest in the house, and there are traces of an elaborate plaster cornice which was added at the junction of the wall and ceiling, probably in the early seventeenth century. When furnished, adorned with hangings and with a fire burning in the fireplace, it must have provided delightful accommodation for the owner of the house.
But many of the other lodgings and bedchambers on the two upper floors of the castle must have been almost as handsome, and one of the great delights for visitors to Elcho is to try to understand the ways in which the planning on those levels would have functioned. Allowance must be made for missing partitions of timber and plaster which subdivided the two levels above the hall, and for timber lobbies which were once devised around some of the doorways that opened off the stairways. When this is done, it can be seen that there were a number of individual chambers, while other chambers also had inner chambers or closets. The scale of these varied considerably, and in some cases floor levels were carefully modified to achieve the best proportions. But all of them had separate access from one of three spiral staircases, so that their occupants could have complete privacy, and all of them were- provided with a fireplace and a latrine. Most of these rooms would have been for members of the Wemyss family, their guests and important members of their household. We must assume that, apart from body servants who slept on truckle beds or in the inner closets, the other servants would have been accommodated within the courtyard buildings.
The ingenuity on the part of the designer of Elcho that was needed to achieve such well-contrived planning is quite remarkable; indeed, there are few modem houses which could afford so many occupants so much space and so many amenities.