Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The 'Artillery House', Threave Castle

In case I haven't got enough to do, I'm attempting to model part of the artillery house at Threave Castle in Dumfries and Galloway. The photo above shows the square tower of Threave with the remains of the artillery fortification at the base.

If I was down with the kids I'd be doing this in Minecraft, but thank god I'm not, so the model is card and paper and will sit in a diorama with 28mm figures. It's a conjectural piece based on what I know of Threave from visiting and from photos and other published material. To that end it's not exact and is not intended to be, rather to provide an interesting model showing how architecture responded to the ever growing threat from artillery in the mid 15th century.

The Douglas Lords of Threave were the most powerful family in south west Scotland, and as their power grew they were perceived as a threat to the Scottish crown. In 1440 the 6th earl of Douglas and his brother were beheaded after the infamous Black Dinner at Edinburgh Castle. King James II of Scotland murdered the 8th earl in 1452 with his own hand, and resolved to bring his over mighty subjects to heel. A concerted campaign to destroy the Black Douglases was now underway. Given James II's passion for gunnery it is easy to see why the artillery house was built.

I am making one of the corner towers and two short sections of the walls which ran at 90 degrees to another two towers at either end. The tower is cut away to show the two upper floors. The top floor is open to the sky and is crenellated for the traditional means of defence by bow and crossbow. The middle floor, like the ground, has loops for use with small cannons. 

A bombard will also be part of the diorama, to illustrate the kind of weapons against which the artillery house would protect the castle.

The artillery house was not only a means of defending against guns, it was intended as a gun platform for shooting back. This is one of the first instances of a specifically designed artillery defence protecting a medieval keep.

Progress has for once been fairly rapid, and the tower is now structurally complete and ready to be covered in PhotostoneTM. That may have been trademarked already, but hey, sue me. A couple of Perry 28mm figures in there to give it scale. I photographed the castle on a family outing, so my daughter is peering out of the bottom 'dumb bell' shaped gun loop. 

With the walls covered in PhotostoneTM it's beginning to look quite smart. Presumably the decks in the towers were timber so I photographed my kitchen floor and waved the photoshop wand over it. I left the wall white in the middle floor to make it easier to see what's going on once the figures are in. A plastic meringue tub is a perfect fit for the slightly splayed base of the tower.

Work on the walls was a bit slow with three complicated embrasures to make. I'm glad the wall sections are short. I got there after a lot of cursing and sloshing around of PVA.

The two walls sections fitted to the tower at about one degree off perpendicular which is good enough for me! I need to figure out how to base it on the diorama, and then construct a wall walk and ladders.

The diorama will have 28mm figures manning small hand manipulated cannons (which I will need to scratch build) and of course there will also be archers on the wall walk and the top deck of the tower. Some already painted examples below.

James II was a warlike king, and his interest in military matters extended from archery to big guns (bombards) and everything else in between. The famous bombard Mons Meg which stands at Edinburgh Castle was gifted to James II in 1457. 

Bombards were indeed dispatched from Linlithgow to the siege of Threave in 1455. Whether all the king's guns made it is not known, but there are reports of one breaking a gate on its way out of Linlithgow, and then sinking in a bog in Clydesdale on the way. The walls of Threave were never beaten down and James II finally had to pay the garrison to leave. 

Mons Meg 
(and some big eejit in a dress standing in the way.)

James's passion for big guns would eventually kill him at the siege of Roxburgh in 1460. Whilst firing one of his guns, the 'Lion', it exploded. The Scottish chronicler Pitscottie takes up the story: 
                            ..."as the king stood near a piece of artillery, his thigh bone was dug in two with a piece of misframed gun that brake in shooting, by which he was stricken to the ground and died hastily."

Sounds like an artery to me. He was 29 years old.

There will be room on the diorama to include an example of a bombard from the period, which will come inevitably from Perry Miniatures, and no, I am not on commission. This link will take you to the website and I pinched a photo, for which I apologise.

Continuing with the Wombling theme, I got hold of some offcuts of that foamy insulating board stuff from a skip. It's very workable and ideal for shaping the base of the diorama. I'm working on the basic layout including the water filled ditch which will be made from resin modelling water. Threave stands on an island in the middle of the River Dee, so the water was just let in to create an extra defence.

The further into this I get the more tempted I am to build the whole thing and not just a small section, but that would just be crazy. Or would it...

Yes, it certainly would.

An aside....

One of my working archery trips took me to Craigmillar Castle outside Edinburgh, where I was struck by the similarity in the architecture to the Threave artillery house. The photo below shows inverted keyhole gun loops in the curtain wall, which like the artillery house also dates from the 15th century.

The gun was clearly becoming a prevalent means of defence in Scottish baronial castles as it was elsewhere in Britain, and was influencing the design of new buildings, and the modification of existing ones.

The similarities to Threave in terms of design and construction are so striking that it's tantalising to think they were done by the same
man. It is thought that Threave artillery house was designed by a chap called John of Dunbar, who was  in the service of the earl of Douglas. I have absolutely no evidence for suggesting he was involved at Craigmillar, I'm merely making an observation, or taking a punt if you like.

...back to the model

There are always parts of modelling you enjoy more than others, and for me groundwork is a bit of a bore. In this case particularly the modroc plaster bandage used to create the ditch. It's messy and time consuming, and I'm also getting it all over the place, like a child. Hey ho, necessary evil. 

Boy, progress has slowed, and it's because of ground work. I'm impatient and so things like air drying clay and wet plaster just do nothing for me. The big push is on, and some more exciting things are happening like making the walkway for the wall.

I'm not sure (once again) whether the area of ground between the artillery house and the keep would have been paved with stone setts, or just had some sort of 'hardcore' type gravel surface. Today it is just grass. Anyway, I have plumped for more PhotostoneTM, as I think it looks rather good.

The next task is the ditch. I have never modelled water before, and in spite of Youtube videos and all sorts of online tutorial stuff, you can never really be sure until you do it yourself. Opinions of the various water modelling products seem to differ enormously, so I will just have to choose one of them and hope for the best. First I need to create a realistic looking 'bottom' for the ditch... then pour melted resin all over it. Could go horribly wrong.

Blending turquoise and mid green acrylic paint around the base of the moat gives a dark slimy look to it, like a weedy river bed. As I understand it, when using modelling water, a darker base colour gives a feeling of depth. I added a few small 'rocks' and picked out some light green flecks, just to break it up a bit. Not sure whether I might tinker with it a little bit more, but I tried it with real water, and it already looked quite realistic!

Although I have some figures for the model already done, the time has come to think about doing some more. I had a rake through my Perry plastics and discovered I had no crossbow 'shooting arms' left. Plenty of 'loading arms' but I want a few figures loosing their bolts. 
For consistency I want to keep all the figures Perry, so instead of buying a new box I borrowed some arms from Fireforge Foot Sergeants figures. Apart from a minor bit of detailing on the gambeson sleeves which is different to the gambeson on the Perry figure the arms fit really well. Problem solved and £20 for a box of Perry Mercenaries saved!

I've taken the plunge with Solid Water! Mix the resin and hardener together and Bob's yer uncle. I decided to go for two pours as I wanted to see how it looked, and also I figured it would cure more quickly in two layers, rather than just throwing it all in. Not sure I would go quite so green next time, but I'm happy enough - looks alright to a novice like me!

© Historic Scotland

An artist's impression from the Historic Scotland Threave Castle guidebook, showing the kind of small cannon likely to have been used in the artillery house. Nothing like this is available as a ready made model, so I have had to resort to scratch building. Balsa wood, copper rod and bits of cotton bud stem are being employed (below) to try and create a passable cannon. It's a dark art!

It's rough and ready, and possibly a little bit big, but not too bad... and it'll look better after a paint job.  Now I need to make another one!

And here they are, alongside  a painted Milliput powder barrel... KABOOM! 

A drone's eye view above the tower. A garrison archer looses a shaft while two cannon below him manoeuvre before giving fire. 

The noise and acrid smoke from the cannon inside the confined floors of the tower must have made the job pretty unpleasant for the gunners. The archers were lucky, I think, although it must have seemed like the world was collapsing beneath their feet with every salvo from the guns! 

I'm having fun now painting up the figures and working out where to put them. Some conversion work is needed to create gun crew figures too from the Perry plastic parts. Time to wield the scalpel!

I'm working on the crew for the cannons but can't help placing the completed figures in the model just to get a feel for the best position. 

The actual artillery house side of things is nearly done, but there's a big ugly blank clay space where the bombard will go.

I've only just realised how much work is in the whole thing, it's effectively two dioramas in one... 

It's one of those moments that get you thinking. Making a miniature version of something throws up so many questions. Each tower of the artillery house is capable of taking six guns, which means there could have been eighteen in all, across the three towers. That's a significant expense, which underlines the determination of the Douglases to defend Threave, but also serves as a demonstration of their conspicuous wealth.

There's no way I can know how many men would have crewed the guns, but assuming each gun required at least two men, (just to be able to move the things) in a three gun set up that would be six men on each floor, in what is a fairly tight space. It's mere speculation, but to me it seems more likely that there were only two guns deployed on each floor, moved around as necessary, perhaps with a crew of four to serve both. There's no way the guns could be cleaned and reloaded without dragging them inside the tower. Would there have been trestles or some means of supporting the gun for this, or would they just be put on the floor? Again it throws up questions regarding the logisitics of using these weapons in such a space.

For my purposes I have completed three crew figures for the cannon; a gunner and two assistants, known as mattrosses.  To see what's involved in firing a 15th century field piece have a look at the 'Companye of St George' on this link. It's wonderful.

A bit more progress. The model itself contains basic explanatory captions, integrated onto the walls and the base. There is also a free standing 'interpretation board', with graphic and photographic information.

Exciting times. After a bit of a Christmas lull, I have returned to the model and the beautiful bombard has arrived in the post. It's a big painting job, but it means the end is in sight on the project. Hurrah!

I'm keen to complete this project so keeping the painting moving as quickly as possible is top priority. Medieval monarchs were quite keen on decorating things, so I decided the mantlet should reflect that. The bombard is a nice burgundy colour. James II would hopefully approve.  

I wasn't quite happy with the metal 'ropes' for the mantlet, so I got the scalpel and drill out. They can be replaced with thick linen thread, something more akin to real rope.

The painting is coming along, there are only three of the crew to finish, so I've been positioning the bombard, to see how it looks. Lots of ground work to do now.

I'm pretty certain royal gunners would have worn a livery of some sort, but I'm not certain of the colours, so I went for green hose and ochre yellow coats.

...and that's the whole crew!

James II conducted the siege personally, staying at Tongland Abbey, just over six miles away from Threave. It's just possible that whilst 'personally conducting' things he would actually have dragged himself away from the wine butts at Tongland to have a look. (What a treasonable thing to say!) Anyway, just in case there's a royal visit, I reckoned the bombard should have a royal standard, so I got the watercolours out... 

I only have a few bits and bobs to do now, the last few days have been spent positioning the bombard and crew, and working in the ground work round about them. I have one more figure to paint and I ordered some little powder chests and barrels from Front Rank Figurines. I felt there wasn't enough gunnery paraphernalia (great word) so I also made a powder scoop and a lambskin mop for swashing out the barrel.

The final figure, standing guard over the lovely www.front barrels. Also, I think a nod is due to the earl of Orkney, William Sinclair, who was charged with rolling the king's guns to the south west, so the pavise bears his arms. There was no hope of painting such a complicated quartering onto a 28mm pavise, so the watercolours came out again. After a lot of naffing about I got the thing printed to the right size and stuck it on. Whether Orkney had crossbow archers in his retinue is mere speculation, but I reckon if you're a belted earl you can have whatever you damn well like. The Swedes and Danes were enthusiastic users of the crossbow, and most likely the same is true for other Scandinavian states who had trading and military links with Orkney.

The 'Sinclare, erle of Orknay' (sic) arms are from the book 'Facsimile of an ancient heraldic manuscript' compiled by Sir David Lindsay in 1542, and published in the 19th century. It's a fascinating collection of Scottish heraldry, and I think as good a reference as any for this sort of thing. It's online at the following link:  

Well, it's a momentous day, I honestly think it's finished, apart from a fairly costly acrylic cover which will come along eventually. Not sure when I started but it feels like a long time. What now? 

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