Despite looking as though it belongs in the Loire Valley, Killyleagh Castle rises close to the south-western shore of Strangford Lough, County Down. The oldest part of the building was constructed in the late 12th century by the Norman knight John de Courcy and this subsequently passed into the control of the O’Neill family. However in the early 17th century Killyleagh was given by James I to a Scottish supporter, James Hamilton whose descendants have lived here ever since: much of its present form dates from c.1666 when the castle was rebuilt by James Hamilton’s grandson, Henry Hamilton, second Earl of Clanbrassil. A complex family dispute towards the end of the 17th century led the castle remaining in possession of the Hamiltons while the bawn wall and gatehouse passed to their relatives the Blackwoods. The two portions of the site were only reunited in 1860 when Frederick Temple Blackwood, future first Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, handed over his share to Archibald Rowan-Hamilton. By then the latter had employed Charles Lanyon to redesign the castle, including the addition of turrets on the two towers.
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James Hamilton’s agent was one Alexander Sloane whose son, after leaving Killyleagh, went on to become the inimitable Sir Hans Sloane: physician, naturalist and serial collector. He subsequently bequeathed his vast collection to the British nation, which provided the foundation for the formation of the British Museum. His name lives on in some celebrated London landmarks to this day, namely Hans Place & Sloane square. James Delbourgo has illustrated Sloane’s life in his excellent recent publication ‘Collecting the World, the life & curiosity of Hans Sloane’.