Clan Hay Gathering 2021: Castles of the Coast

The is the second of six articles trailing the principal themes and activities of Clan Hay's ambitious plans for its 2021 Gathering, postponed from 2020 due to Covid.

Boddam Castle, powerfully situated on its cliff-bound promontory

Generously funded by Visit Scotland, the Gathering will take place over the extended weekend of 6 to 9 August 2021, following Visit Scotland's themes of 'Coasts and Waterways', ideally suited for Clan Hay's main territories on the coast north of Aberdeen.  One of the four lecture and tours that weekend will focus on the Castles of the Coast.

Aberdeenshire is often called 'the castle country' and Scotland in general is, in the words of architectural historian Dr W Douglas Simpson, 'the land par excellence of tower-houses.'  The district of Buchan, where Clan Hay's lands are to be found, is historically bounded by the River Ythan on the south, and the River Deveron on the west, its remaining boundaries formed by the North Sea.  The 15 coastal parishes of Buchan contain no fewer than 15 castles, either on or overlooking the shore, an average of one every three miles.

A shot of the interior gives some idea of Ravenscraig's massive scale

The old and new Castles of Slains, for 700 years the seat of the Earls of Erroll, Chiefs of Clan Hay, are covered in a previous article.  But there are many other properties to be explored as part of the Gathering's activities.  The ruined tower of Knockhall, overlooking the estuary of the River Ythan and the magnificent Sands of Forvie nature reserve, dates from 1565, built by the family of Udny of that Ilk to defend the mouth of the river, then navigable for many miles upstream.  It was accidentally burned in 1734, when the Laird of Udny's charter chest was famously rescued by Jamie Fleeman, the 'Laird o' Udny's Fool', himself closely connected with several members of the Erroll family at Slains.

Inverugie, seat of the Earl Marischal, as depicted by Andrew Spratt

Moving north, beyond the Hay lands of Slains, we enter the territory of the mighty Keith family, hereditary Earls Marischal of Scotland.  The first Keith property we encounter on our journey north is the castle of Boddam, near Peterhead.  Built by the Keiths of Ludquharn in the 16th century, it was abandoned around 1700 and is now ruined.  At first glance, it seems little of it remains, but it bears closer inspection.  The gatehouse gives onto a huge courtyard, almost 30 metres square, whose footings are still to be seen.  The castle stands on a promontory of striking beauty, protected on three sides by towering cliffs of Peterhead granite.  Please note, great care is required when exploring Boddam Castle; the cliffs are absolutely sheer, near 100 metres in height, and the landscape gives no warning of their approach.

The semi-demolished remains of Inverugie today

Ravenscraig Castle is powerfully sited on a crag overlooking the River Ugie, anciently the caput of the barony of Torthorston.  Built by a close cadet of the Keith-Marischal family, Ravenscraig is a place truly massive in scale, the biggest L-plan castle ever raised in the north east.  Built in 1491, it was of sufficient interest for King James IV to visit it shortly afterwards.

George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal

The nearby Inverugie Castle was the seat of the Cheynes of Inverugie extending back into the mists of time.  But they backed the Balliol faction during the War of Independence, and were rewarded by being dispossessed by Robert the Bruce, who granted their estates to the Keiths.  The early 16th century marriage of Margaret Keith of Inverugie to her cousin the third Earl Marischal conveyed the Keiths' Aberdeenshire lands to the chief of the family and the great fortress of Inverugie quickly became their main base.

Inverugie was a palatial structure, as befitted a residence for one of the richest and grandest nobles in the land.  It was said in the 16th and 17th centuries that the Earl Marischal could ride from Orkney to the English border, eating every meal and sleeping every night in one of his own houses.  The massive tower of Inverugie was supplemented with round towers on its eastern corners and a lower range extending northwards.  Two further wings extended westwards from the north range, forming a structure that resembled the letter 'E' which contained formal gardens decorated with classical statuary that successive generations of Keiths looted during their tours of continental Europe.

All that remains of the Fraser seat at Inverallochy

Had it survived intact, Inverugie would surely today be one of the most important historic buildings in Scotland.  In the event, the 10th Earl Marischal backed the Jacobites and was forced into exile in 1716.  He and his brother spent the rest of their lives in the military service of the kings of Sweden and Prussia and of the Empress of Russia.  Inverugie was meanwhile acquired by the Fergusons of Pitfour.  James Ferguson restored the old building but his nephew stripped it back to its basic structure.  By the turn of the 20th century, George Ferguson concluded falling masonry was dangerous to visitors and blew it up, in a tragic piece of architectural vandalism that would not now be allowed.

Moving on, we arrive at the first of the properties Douglas Simpson characterised as 'the Nine Castles of the Knuckle,' the eponymous 'knuckle' being the turning-point of Aberdeenshire's fist-shaped coastline.  Nothing remains above ground of the castles of Rattray and Lonmay, sited at opposite ends of the Loch of Strathbeg.  Strathbeg is today a lagoon, renowned for its birdlife and well worth a visit in its own right.  But in days gone by, it formed the extensive estuary of the River Ugie, defended by castles at its northern and southern extremities.  Both castles dated from the 12th century.  Rattray was reduced during the Harrying of Buchan in 1308, but Lonmay long remained a stronghold of Clan Fraser.  Both were overblown by the great sandstorm of 1720, which silted up the estuary and formed the Loch of Strathbeg as we now know it.

Cairnbulg Castle, today home to the Chief of the Frasers

The sad remains of Inverallochy Castle stand neglected in a farmer's field, but their considerable extent renders them worth a close look.  The Frasers of Inverallochy would eventually relocate to Castle Fraser, but were noted Jacobites in their day.  Charles Fraser of Inverallochy died on the field of Culloden on 16 April 1746, saved from being murdered on the Duke of Cumberland's instruction by the refusal of a young officer to obey his order; that officer would achieve immortal memory as General James Wolfe, of Quebec.  Inverallochy died of his wounds, the Last Rites administered with an oatcake and a bottle of whisky, the only materials readily at hand.

Kinnaird Castle, now the Scottish Lighthouses Museum

Not far away is the still-inhabited Cairnbulg Castle, home to Lady Saltoun, chief of Clan Fraser.  It too has a chequered past.  Early on, the Saltoun family abandoned it for their more comfortable nearby residence of Philorth.  Cairnbulg was acquired by the 'wicked Earl' of Aberdeen, who in the late 18th century installed one is his girlfriends there, together with their six children.  It later fell into disrepair but following Philorth's destruction by fire it was recovered and restored by the 19th Lord Saltoun as his home.

The Fraser castle of Pitullie

Kinnaird Castle is situated in the town of Fraserburgh.  Kinnaird is the earliest surviving seat of Clan Fraser, a basic tower house of a very early period, which the Saltoun family abandoned for more commodious quarters at an early date.  Kinnaird has survived intact, as an outstanding example of a castle of its type, because in 1787 it was converted into a lighthouse, a purpose it continues to serve today.  Although the current light is contained in a state-of-the-art 20th century structure within the castle complex, Kinnaird itself houses the Scottish Lighthouses Museum, an enlightening (excuse the pun) experience, not to be missed by visitors to the north east.  An added bonus is that next door is the Fraserburgh Heritage Centre, a must-see attraction for anybody with connections to the north east fishing industry, which includes many Hays.

Pitsligo's courtyard palace, home to 'The Great Lord Pitsligo', philosopher and Jacobite

The castles of Pitullie (Fraser) and Pitsligo (Forbes) stand within 200 meters of each other, up the hill from the village of Rosehearty and overlooking a glorious coastline of cliffs and beaches where the sea is so blue it's almost turquoise.   The great courtyard palace of the Lords Forbes of Pitsligo is sadly dilapidated, but the Pitsligo Castle Trust, led by Alex Forbes of Druminnor, does sterling work in preventing its further deterioration.  A look at this iconic place is instructive indeed for anybody interested in Scottish castellated architecture.

Dundarg Castle, such as it remains

We are now at the tail-end of this tour of the Buchan coast's castles, with the slight but historically important remains of Dundarg, on the great clifftop promontory of Troup.  A fascinating place, it's been 700 years since it stood intact, demolished as it was by Robert the Bruce in 1308.  But the Book of Deer, a key text of the early Scots church, tells us it existed as early as the sixth century.

Finally, we arrive at Fort Fiddes, where a fortification existed through the Iron Age and the era of the Picts.  Of course, there's nothing left to see of these structures.  But Fort Fiddes stands at the head of the Tore o' Troup, one of the greatest repositories for the natural world in northern Scotland, and one of few places in the north east where the elusive Scottish wildcat can be found.

Fort Fiddes, though, is mainly interesting because of the great thrill of exploring it.  There's a narrow crack in the hillside, called the 'Needle's Eye.'  Squeeze through it (and it's tight) you arrive in a smallish cave, about 15 metres in depth.  It's dark and the going is rough, so you need a light and to be careful of your feet.  But if you persevere to the end of the little cave, and press through an even thinner crack in the rock, your persistence is rewarded, for you arrive in a cavern of cathedral-like proportions, known locally as the 'Devil's Dining Room.'  This is an amazing place.  The spectral and ghoulish reflections from your torch, the terrifying echoes that result from the most whispered of exchanges, mean this climax of the Castles of the Coast tour must not be missed.

© Alan Hay 2020