There be six great barons of the north,
Fyvie, Findlater and Philorth,
And gin ye would ken the other three,
Pitsligo, Drum and Delgatie
The six baronies detailed in this piece of doggerel represent six of the great families of north east Scotland: Seton, Ogilvie, Fraser, Forbes, Irvine and Hay. The six great tower castles that were the seat of these baronies still stand today, four intact, two ruinous, each of them structures that attest to the power of their lairds.
Scotland, said the architectural historian, Dr. W. Douglas Simpson, “is the land par-excellence of tower houses.” Delgatie Castle has been the Clan Hay Centre since the foundation of the Clan Hay Society in 1951. It is one of the finest surviving examples of a tower house in the north east.
The castle and barony of Delgatie are of ancient origin. There was a castle here long before it came to the Hays, with their 15th century marriage to the Fraser heiress. Although it is possible the existing structure contains elements from a previous house on the site, family stories of the castle’s origin in the 12th century, or even earlier, should not be taken too seriously.
The structure we see today dates from about 1570. It is one of a group of four local tower houses of similar vintage, the others being the castles of Craig, Gight and Towie Barclay. The four were constructed by the same master mason, who is believed to be a neighbouring laird and vassal of the Earl of Erroll, Alexander Conn, first of Auchry.
The current castle of Delgatie is an ‘L’ plan structure, so built to enable the doorway to be situated in the defensible position in the corner of the ‘L’ shape, known as ‘the re-entrant angle.’ Of the two wings of the 16th century castle, the main tower, oriented north and south, contains five stories. The rooms on the ground floor, originally cellars, are barrel vaulted. Above is a mezzanine floor, followed by the original great hall, now the ballroom, which is much taller than the other storeys. Above the ballroom are two further floors. The structure would originally have been topped with a bartizan but that was replaced by a pitched roof with crow-stepped gables at a very early period, probably around the turn of the 16th century, and possibly following the siege of 1594, when the west wall of the tower collapsed. The main block measures 40 feet in length by just over 30 in width, dimensions very similar to its counterparts at Towie Barclay and Craig, although smaller than the very grand main tower at Gight.
The other wing, known as the ‘jamb,’ projects eastwards from the southerly elevation of the main tower and also consists of five stories. The jamb retains its original bartizan. From there can be seen the remains of a projecting section of roof, designed to throw rainwater clear of the walls below and technically known as a ‘weathering,’ where it connects with the main tower. This has led architectural historian Charles McKean to believe that the jamb is older than the 1570 build, possibly part of an earlier building, although experts are by no means in agreement on the point and an alternative view, held by David Walker and others, is that the whole structure is part of the same construction. At 35 feet in length, the jamb is the longest of Douglas Simpson’s group of four, although the immense thickness of the walls means the rooms within are relatively small.
Of this group, only Craig survives in anything like its original form. As fashions changed, alterations were made at Delgatie and elsewhere to make the building more comfortable and commodious. Around 1768, lower, two-storey wings were added by Peter Garden of Delgaty, which contained arches giving access from a new southerly approach to the old courtyard gardens on the north side, where the main entrance was then situated.
Further alterations were carried out about 1835 by General Sir Alexander Duff, the then laird, who in-filled the re-entrant angle on the north side, and relocated the main door to the southerly elevation in the middle of the main tower. A porch was added to that entrance and it is likely that the oriel window above was added to the ballroom at the same time. The original doorway can still be seen, although it is now inside the structure, linking the original main tower to the in-fill of the re-entrant. It also seems that the demolition of the northerly courtyard gardens took place at this time, together with the closing off of the two arches in the east and west wings, of which that on the west was turned into a doocot.
The interior of the castle is more complicated than might be at first apparent, due in part to the sharp, west to east, downhill slope of the site. The spiral staircase, originally at the rear of the building and accessed as at Gight via a corridor extending from the rib-vaulted vestibule inside the original north door, is now immediately to the right of the main entrance. It is one of the finest in Scotland, perfectly cantilevered, measuring 10 feet in diameter and rising through 97 steps, unusually reaching the full height of the building. Beyond is the castle’s renowned café, situated in what was the kitchen, right up to and including the time of the last laird, Captain Hay of Hayfield.
The ballroom on the first floor of the main tower is much altered and probably owes its magnificent proportions to the reconstruction following the 1594 siege, with thinner walls which enabled the main tower rooms to be enlarged. It is likely that it originally had a double rib-vaulted ceiling, as can be seen at Towie Barclay. The ballroom opens onto an ante room and then to a well-proportioned drawing room, contained in the 1835 in-filling of the castle’s re-entrant angle. The castle’s solar (family sitting room) on the first floor of the jamb also contains a rib-vaulted ceiling whose corbels are decorated with carved heads, believed to represent William Hay of Delgatie and his wife Lady Beatrice, a daughter of the seventh Earl of Erroll. The fireplace is dated 1570 and carved with the words ‘My hoyp is in ye Lord.’
The upper floors of the jamb contain internationally important painted ceilings which give the lie to the 19th century prejudice, still occasionally propagated by English historians of the Trevor-Roper persuasion, that late medieval Scotland was a cultural desert. The second floor chamber originally contained paintings of naked female figures, destroyed during the 19th century, leaving only the beautifully inscribed proverbs on the beams and the initials J.M., believed to represent the contemporary painter John Melville. The magnificent painted ceiling on the upper floor benefited from being covered for more than 100 years, revealed about 1885. It’s colours remain striking, kept in near perfect condition except for minor restoration by a painter called Sovanov, under Captain Hay’s direction, in the 1950s.
By the mid-18th century, traditional tower houses were out of fashion and those landowners who could afford it began to abandon them in favour of grand new country houses in the Georgian style, a style in which Scottish architects played a leading part. By the mid-19th century, Delgatie was in the hands of the Grant-Duff-Ainslie family, whose main residence was at Eden House, a Regency mansion nearby. Delgatie, like many others of its ilk, came to be used by younger sons of the family and ultimately as accommodation for estate employees. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the fashion for restoration and renovation began, and in the intervening period many – most, even - of the old tower houses were abandoned and left to deteriorate. That Delgatie survived can be attributed to the foresight of the late Countess of Erroll, in purchasing the old building and passing it to Captain John Hay of Hayfield.
Saving Delgatie Castle became Jock Hay’s life’s work and his hand can be seen in every corner. It stands today as a monument to this remarkable man.