Tales from the Road: Dean Castle and the Dick Institute

Following our recent trip to Dalgarven Mill, Heather Doherty and I recently continued out adventures in Ayrshire with a trip to Dean Castle and the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock. Both sites are administered by East Ayrshire Leisure which is why we were greeted by Jason Sutcliffe and Adam Geary in the courtyard outside Dean Castle on a sunny September afternoon, who had come to show us around.

Dean Castle, situated in Dean Castle Country Park, has played an important role in parts of Scotland’s history. Serving as a stronghold of the Boyd family, the land was awarded to the Sir Thomas Boyd for his service at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Unfortunately the castle keep is currently closed for visits due to repair work that is taking place to the south wall of keep. The collections that were housed in the keep, including musical instruments that are part of the Robert Burns Recognised Collection, have been carefully stored away while the repair work is ongoing. Luckily Jason and Adam still allowed us to take a look inside the keep while we were there.

The cavernous main hall of the keep was eerily devoid of exhibits but for a lone figure up in the minstrel’s gallery who was still to be packed away. Harp still in hand he was an example of the entertainment that the keep’s inhabitants would have enjoyed back in the 15th century. Unlike the rest of the guests, he had private chambers to sleep in, ensuring the travelling minstrel didn’t bring disease to the household. The castle also features an oubliette, a hole in the floor that drops straight in to the dungeon, which was used to punish criminals.

Upstairs the keep features a solar and private chapel that would have been used by the Lord and Lady of the keep. Normally the musical instrument collection would be displayed here, but of course, the displays were all empty. Before we left I was sure to get a picture of the key used to open the keep door, it was MASSIVE. If they made keys that large these days I’d be less likely to keep losing mine.

Although the keep is closed the palace is still open for visits (so don’t be put off by the scaffolding outside, they ARE open!) Exiting the keep and walked across the courtyard to the palace which has recreated a traditional castle kitchen on the ground floor. The huge range spans the entire back wall of the room and comes complete with its own built in oven. The massive table in the room is also decorated with various foods (all plastic obviously) and I did question whether some of the more exotic fruits on the table should be there. (Jason pointed out they didn’t say WHEN the kitchen was supposed to be a recreation of…touché.) The upstairs of the palace is currently hosting an exhibition on the Boyd Family and also features some items of armour and a teeny little cannon.

We left Dean Castle to head down the road to the Dick Institute which houses the community library, an art gallery and museum. When we arrived the staff were right in the middle of preparing the gallery spaces for a Gerhard Richter exhibition that was due to open that weekend. It was a rare treat to get a sneak peek of such impressive pieces of modern art on display in such an intimate setting.

The museum in the Dick Institute also contains many impressive collections with local focus. Of course Robert Burns features here but there are also many items from local industry such as Ayrshire lace making or Jonnie Walker whisky which originated in the area. There is also a separate collection on natural history sciences and archaeology. I’m told that Brian the Lion is this collection is a real celebrity, especially with the kids visiting.

Both venues were places that I could have easily spent an entire day in and whilst it’s shame that we weren’t able to view the musical instruments collection at Dean Castle due to the repair work going on everything is meticulously documented in the Future Museum project. That said we clearly have an excuse now to come back when the keep is open again.

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