Clan Hay Gathering 2022: The Castles of Slains

Old Slains by Andrew Spratt

Old Slains Castle as imagined by artist Andrew Spratt

The gaunt and forlorn ruin of Slains Castle at Cruden Bay is perhaps one of the most recognisable images of the Aberdeenshire coast, still proudly standing on its precipitous cliff edge and dominating the skyline for miles around.  Tales of Bram Stoker basing Dracula’s castle on it, and recent publicity about the controversial plan to restore the place as a block of holiday flats have contributed to its fame.  But it is not always realised that this is not the original Slains Castle; in fact, it’s not even in Slains.

Four miles south of Cruden Bay, in the parish of Slains, there is another ruin.  Accessible only by a tangle of farm tracks, unknown even to many locals, this much older structure stands on a spectacular promontory, dating from the days when the first priority for any castle was that it must be defensible.

Old Slains

Old Slains today

All that remains of this, for centuries the principal seat of the Earls of Erroll, is a single wall, but that alone is enough to visualise what must have been a powerful keep.  Sources are hazy about when it was built.  There are indications that there may have been a Pictish fort here from the earliest times.  It was one of the baronies controlled by the Comyn Earls of Buchan, who held sway in the north until vanquished by Robert the Bruce, and was granted subsequently to Sir Gilbert Hay of Erroll, one of the hero king’s most enduring and loyal supporters.

At this distance in time, it is difficult to be certain about the exact nature of this building in its prime.  Little of it remains (at least above ground) and the amount of building in the years since undermines the value of any future archaeological work.  But some assumptions can be made, based on our knowledge of comparable properties.

Marble cornice from the old castle's interior

Although a castle stood here from a very early period, the consensus among historians and surveyors is that this building belongs somewhere in the period 1300 to 1450.  It is likely to have consisted of five vaulted stories, each around 20 feet high.  A fragment of the staircase, built into the thickness of the walls, can still be seen.  Part of the curtain wall is visible to the south west, and the boundaries of the bailey, protected by an earth rampart and ditch which was partly natural, can be clearly discerned.

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

The tower itself contained the principal chambers of the castle complex, including accommodation for the family.  Everything else, including guest accommodation, armoury, guard house, bakery, brewery and a host of other domestic offices, would have been contained in the extensive ranges of the bailey.

The Hays of Erroll made Slains their principal seat from the early 14th century, forsaking their more comfortable ancestral home in Perthshire.  The reason for this is not hard to identify.  The Comyn family had been Robert the Bruce’s most dangerous opponent; having broken their power base in the north, Bruce redistributed their lands among his strongest and most reliable supporters – and there was a clear expectation that these able men would base themselves in the area to prevent any possible resurgence.  From this base, the Hays built their wealth and power through a combination of Bonds of Manrent and a series of judicious dynastic marriages with some of the greatest families in the land; successive ladies of Erroll were daughters of the Earls of Douglas, Huntly, Sutherland and Caithness, and of the King himself.

The downfall of the castle came in 1594 when Francis, ninth Earl of Erroll, entered into an alliance with his neighbour, the Earl of Huntly, to challenge the Protestant supremacy represented by the Earl of Argyll.  This culminated in a battle on the braes of Glenlivet, from which Erroll and Huntly emerged victorious.  James VI, although privately happy at the humbling of the over mighty Argyll, was for political reasons compelled to take the Protestant side.  He came north in person to punish the Catholic earls, and Erroll is quoted at the time as saying, ‘If Huntly loses Strathbogie, my Slains will be sore hurt.’

‘Sore hurt’ it was.  Having reduced Huntly Castle, and forced both Erroll and Huntly into exile, the king personally oversaw the destruction of Slains.  There are conflicting reports as to how this was achieved.  Some argue that it was by artillery, others that it was burned.  One writer believes that burning is more likely, as during the Earl’s exile in France, the Countess apparently sought timber and carpenters for its restoration, which may indicate that the stone walls were intact.

During this period, the Countess of Erroll, one of the beautiful daughters of the Earl of Morton known as the ‘Seven Pearls of Lochleven,’ resided at Clochtow, one of her husband’s farms.  It is said that, for the rest of her life, instead of her grand titles, she preferred to be known by her nickname from this troubled time in her life – ‘the Guid Wife o’ Clochtow.’

Slains Castle

Slains Castle

Earl Francis returned from his exile in 1597 to find that his beloved Slains was beyond saving.  Four miles north, in the parish of Cruden, he had a castle called the Tower of Bowness, which he extended and made his principal residence, and this is the origin of the ruin we now know as Slains Castle.

The building underwent several facelifts during its comparatively short life.  It was significantly extended in 1664 by Gilbert, 11th Earl, to form four sides of a courtyard, each one room deep, but based on his grandfather’s original tower house, fragments of which can still be discerned in the square tower at the south east corner of the ruin.  Subsequent improvements included a new frontage added by the 12th earl, and a covered walkway on the inside of the courtyard described by Samuel Johnson during his visit.  This was the work of the 15th earl and must have added considerable convenience as the bedrooms all opened directly off the courtyard.

William George, 18th Earl of Erroll

The most extensive works were carried out from 1836 by William George, 18th earl.  He is often credited as being the real architect of Slains, and himself claimed to have ‘rebuilt’ the castle during this period, although like much in his life this claim was overblown and self aggrandising.  His improvements were largely cosmetic and the bones of the place, dating back to Earl Francis’s tower of 1597, can still be seen.

This Earl was a common example of his class and time.  Absolutely confident in his position and power, he believed his family’s influence was destined to last forever.  He made a very grand marriage, to Elizabeth FitzClarence, the illegitimate daughter of King William IV.  In 1822, he nearly bankrupted himself over George IV’s historic visit to Edinburgh with the extravagance of his pageantry as Lord High Constable of Scotland.  Subsequently he became Master of the Horse to Queen Adelaide, Lord Steward of the Household, Knight Marischal of Scotland, Ranger of Richmond Park and Master of the Buck Hounds.  He was a Knight of the Thistle, a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Hanover, and Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire.  His magnificence was boundless, and he needed a house to match his self image.

He engaged the well known Aberdeen architect John Smith, who had recently completed the remodelling of Balmoral Castle for Prince Albert.  But as majestic and ambitious as William George was, he wasn’t rich.  The castle that emerged is, for one thing, not as large as it first appears, as he incorporated the stable block into the main building to make it look bigger than it actually was.

Charles Hay, 20th Earl of Erroll

It was built to the highest specifications to stand the test of time.  It conspicuously failed to do so.  In 1916 his grandson, Charles, 20th Earl, crippled by the inflation and taxation which resulted from the First World War, was compelled to sell Slains and the last of his family’s property in Scotland.

The castle was acquired by Sir John Ellerman, a Glasgow shipowner who saw it purely as a profit opportunity and didn’t even trouble to visit it.  On Ellerman’s instructions, the castle was systematically dismantled for architectural salvage.  Only 70 years had elapsed since William George’s ambitious reconstruction.

Most of the layout of the castle can still be seen.  Approaching it from the car park by the Congregational Kirk in Cruden Bay, the remains of the main carriage drive lead the visitor on a pleasant walk surrounded by wild flowers and the native trees and shrubs of this part of Aberdeenshire.  Emerging from the woodland, the magnificence of this part of the coast bursts into view, as you are struck by spectacular cliffs, circling sea birds, and the front entrance of the castle straight ahead.

Slains Castle, photographed from the terrace

The castle was entered at first floor level, the doorway reached by a flight of granite steps, which are now installed at the Music Hall in Aberdeen.  The room on the left was the billiard room, and on the right were the family bedrooms, screened from sight of the front door by stained glass partitions.  The drawing room faced the sea, a splendid room measuring 42 feet by 20, and the remains of its huge bay window are clearly visible.  The octagonal room in the middle of the structure was known as the saloon, and it was lit from above by an enormous circular skylight.  The three irregular shaped spaces immediately off it were small outdoor courtyards.

At the rear of the building is the double height library. The library of Slains Castle was renowned in its day.  Its nucleus was the library of Bishop John Drummond, a seventeenth century clergyman sheltered by the Earls of Erroll through the wilder days of the Covenanting wars, and the extensive collection of the noted bibliophile Alexander Falconer, who had married the 14th Countess.  Next to the library, and conveniently connected to the kitchen behind, was the dining room.  To the north of the kitchen range, you can clearly see the outline of the stable yard with its charming corner turrets and gatehouse, a complex which included a slaughterhouse, bakery, smithy and carpenter’s shop.

It is sad that this pleasant and interesting building was allowed to be dismantled in the interest of one man’s profit.  If, however, we return to Old Slains, there is still evidence (although behind closed doors) of its newer counterpart.  After the destruction of the old castle, a village known as Old Castle grew up among the ruins.  The main reason that so little of the old tower survives today is that its stones were pillaged to build houses, barns and walls.  At its height, there were 22 fishermen’s cottages here, and photographs from the turn of the 20th century show a thriving fishing community with at least two of the houses roofed with upturned boats.

In the 1950s, the late Countess of Erroll purchased the old castle and the six acres of coastline around it.  Behind the wall of the old tower, and incorporating two of the surviving but and ben cottages from the village, she built a compact modern house.  Her grandmother, Lucy Countess of Erroll, had rescued a number of things from the dismantling of New Slains which were included in the new house.  Set into the walls of the garage are two stone tablets from the ‘new’ castle.  And in the main hall of the new house, a double height, book lined, galleried room strangely reminiscent of the magnificent library at New Slains, is the spectacular stone carved armorial fireplace commemorating the 17th century marriage of the 12th Earl of Erroll to the Jacobite Lady Anne Drummond, daughter of the Earl of Perth, to serve as a small reminder of a now vanished part of the north east Scotland’s architectural heritage.

© Alan Hay 2022