Old Slains today, with the present chief’s house in the background

Covid 19 restrictions have  unsurprisingly meant Clan Hay’s ambitious plans for a four-day gathering in August 2020, funded by Visit Scotland, have had to be postponed until next year.  Visit Scotland, the government agency charged with promoting Scotland as a tourist destination, has generously agreed to carry the funding over to 2021, when ‘Coasts and Waterways’ is the theme for events supported by their Clans and Historical Figures Events Fund.

That theme is ideally suited for Clan Hay, given the family’s principal base on the Aberdeenshire coast.  This is the first of four articles which will explore the 2021 gathering’s four principal themes: Slains and the Hays of Erroll, Castles of the Coast, the Jacobite Coast, and the Smugglers’ Coast.

The lands of Slains were historically part of the Earldom of Buchan, a territory with origins deep in Scotland’s Celtic past.  By the early 13th century, that earldom had descended through the female line to the mighty Comyn dynasty, at the time one of the most powerful in Scotland.  Slains Castle was one of the earldom’s principal seats.

Things changed during the War of Independence which Scotland fought between 1292 and 1314.  The Comyns

Old Slains by Andrew Spratt

Old Slains Castle as imagined by artist Andrew Spratt

were the principal opponents of King Robert the Bruce, a family that had to be utterly destroyed if his crown was to be truly secure.  This happened in 1308, with Bruce’s stunning victory at the Battle of Barra, near Inverurie, followed by the ‘Harrying of Buchan’ during which the entire earldom was burned, its principal residences destroyed, and the Comyns and their supporters driven from the realm.

The Earldom of Buchan was broken up and its lands divided among King Robert’s principal supporters.  Among these was Sir Gilbert Hay of Erroll, fifth Chief of Clan Hay and one of the king’s closest and most trusted companions.  He received the Barony of Slains, a reward that was something of a mixed blessing, granted to Sir Gilbert free of taxation and wardship, almost certainly an indication of the level of destruction it had suffered during the Harrying of Buchan, and the amount of rebuilding necessary to make it productive again.

Marble cornice uncovered at Old Slains

Sir Gilbert’s support for Scotland’s cause had earlier invoked the wrath of England’s Edward I, his house and lands of Erroll, on the Firth of Tay, destroyed by Sir Aylmer de Valence on that king’s orders.  There are indications that the original Slains Castle may have been slighted during the Harrying of Buchan; archaeologists believe that the Hays’ castle, whose fragmentary remains can still be seen, dates from the early 14th century, probably built by Sir Gilbert Hay.

With his home at Erroll wrecked by Sir Aymer de Valence, Slains immediately became the principal seat of the Erroll Hays.  That this castle was a place of some sophistication, not a rudimentary tower house, is indicated by a fragment of marble cornice, recently revealed by a landslip on the steep cliff on which it stands.  It would remain the family’s main residence for near three centuries, until Sir Gilbert’s descendant, the Earl of Erroll, found himself on the wrong side of a rebellion, in the political turbulence of post-Reformation Scotland.

Francis Hay, ninth Earl of Erroll, was a staunch Catholic in a country that had become firmly Presbyterian by the later 16th century.  In 1594, together with his friend and ally, George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, he engaged in a campaign against the Protestant ascendancy.  They won a notable victory at the Battle of Glenlivet, against the government army led by the Earl of Argyll, but that incurred the displeasure of King James VI, who personally travelled north to teach the two earls a lesson.  Slains Castle was reduced, and Francis fled to France.

New Slains Castle in its glory days, when it inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula

During his exile, his Countess, Elizabeth Douglas, tried to have the castle rebuilt, whilst residing at the farm of Clochtow, still to be seen, on her husband’s estate.  During this period, she acquired a nickname – ‘the Guid Wife o’ Clochtow’ – by which she was colloquially known for the rest of her life.  By the time Earl Francis returned from exile in 1597, it had become clear the old castle was beyond saving and would have to be abandoned.  A fishing village grew up among its ruins, built with stone culled from the still-proud remains of Sir Gilbert Hay’s seat, and some of these houses are occupied to this day.  The family relocated further up the coast and progressively disposed of their older seat.  By the 1780s, the Earl of Erroll did not own a single acre in the parish of Slains.

Charles Hay, 20th Earl of Erroll

The Earl of Erroll moved his family four miles north into his lands of Cruden, where he had a strongly situated tower house, then known as the Tower of Bowness.  The tower was expanded to provide a fitting residence for one of the grandest noblemen in the land, and this is the building we now know as Slains Castle, or New Slains.  His grandson, Gilbert, 11th Earl, expanded the wings of the L-plan tower to form four sides of a courtyard in 1664, in line with the fashion then prevailing in Scottish architecture, to imitate continental courtyard palaces.

Further developments by successive earls included a new frontage added by the 13th earl in 1707.  Later in the 18th century, the 15th earl built an enclosed corridor on the four sides of the courtyard, adding greatly to the residents’ convenience, as the bedrooms had previously opened directly into the courtyard.  The most dramatic reconstruction was undertaken by William George, 18th Earl of Erroll, in 1836, completed by Aberdeen architect John Smith, whose nickname – ‘Tudor Johnnie’ – is evident in the alterations he made.

All that remains of the new Castle of Slains at Cruden Bay

William George’s reconstruction was completed to the highest specifications, built to stand the test of time.  It failed to do so.  By the time of his grandson, Charles, 20th Earl, old money was coming under great pressure and the castle had to be sold in 1916.  Some of the sadness Earl Charles must have felt at the loss of his family’s ancient Aberdeenshire patrimony is evident in his photograph.  He ended his days in a house in Surrey, England, rented for him by his son.  The castle was sold to a Glasgow shipowner, who demolished much of it for architectural salvage.

So ended the Hays’ 600 year connection with Aberdeenshire….or so it appeared.  However, in 1950, the late 23rd Countess of Erroll and 31st Chief of Clan Hay purchased the ruin of the original castle of Slains, where she and her husband built a new house, where their family grew up.  This is today the seat of her son, the present 24th Earl of Erroll and Chief of Clan Hay.

© Alan Hay 2020