The late Captain John Hay of Hayfield was a force of nature. He was, as he described himself, a “soldier, farmer, engineer, sculptor and Scottish patriot.” The words are on the magnificent gravestone he carved for himself, in Turriff churchyard. There is ample evidence of his activity in all of these spheres, but there are two further respects in which Clan Hay has much to thank him for.
Firstly, although it was the chief, the late Countess of Erroll, who convened the meeting that brought the Clan Hay Society into being in July 1951, it was Jock Hay’s vision, drive, and single-minded determination that made it a success. He was Commissioner of Clan Hay for 27 years, more than twice as long as any of his four successors in the role, and his influence is still felt today. Secondly, it is to Jock that we owe the survival of Delgatie Castle, the Clan Hay Centre in Aberdeenshire. He took on the castle in a very dilapidated state in 1951 and devoted the rest of his long life to its preservation. It is no exaggeration to say that, but for Jock Hay, Delgatie would today be just another one of the many dozens of ruins that litter the fields and hillsides of Aberdeenshire.
Jock is today recalled, by those of us who have been around long enough, with enormous affection and respect. But although he was laird for longer than any other in the 700-year history of the lands and barony of Delgatie, and the castle stands today as his enduring monument, he did not himself spring from the Hay of Delgatie kindred.
The original Hays of Delgatie descended from Sir Gilbert Hay of Dronlaw, a renowned warrior of the early 15th century who distinguished himself in France fighting for Joan of Arc against the English. His son Alexander married Marjorie Fraser, the heiress of Delgatie, who brought the property into the hands of the Hays. Their grandson, Sir Gilbert Hay of Ardendraught and Delgatie, was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, one of the 87 lairds and gentlemen of the name who died alongside King James IV in that conflict. The property remained with the descendants of the Fraser heiress for a further two generations until the early death of Sir Gilbert’s grandson, William, sixth of Delgatie, in 1570.
At that point, Delgatie passed by entail to William Hay of Artrochie, a very distant cousin descended from Sir Gilbert Hay of Dronlaw’s younger son, of a line not descended from the original Fraser lairds. It was his nephew, another William, the ninth laird, who is chiefly responsible for the castle as we see it today. He married Lady Beatrice Hay, a daughter of his chief, the seventh Earl of Erroll, and their sculpted heads can be seen in the corbels of the castle’s principal sitting room, dating from this time.
Scandal hit the family in the next generation with a doubly bigamous marriage between the 10th laird and Barbara Forbes, both of whom had surviving spouses. From this union, the later lairds descend, although they were technically of illegitimate birth. This laird, Alexander, adhered to the Catholic faith following the Reformation and joined the Earl of Erroll in a Counter-Reformation rebellion in 1594. The Campbells laid siege to the castle and Alexander took to his heels, leaving it in the hands of his mistress, a ghastly, six-foot redhead called Rohaise, whose ghost is said to haunt the castle to this day. She put up a spirited defence but the west wall of the main tower was breached. Family tradition asserts that the main tower was reconstructed after this engagement, with much thinner walls, to ensure the castle could not stand against the king again.
Alexander was succeeded in 1601 by the son of his bigamous marriage, under whom the family’s finances began to fail.
During his reign, he sold Dronlaw to one cousin, and mortgaged Delgatie to another. When his son, the great Cavalier, Sir William Hay of Delgatie, succeeded in 1636, there was little of substance for him to inherit. He commanded the Covenanter army in the Trot o’ Turra in 1639, and was a loyal lieutenant to the Marquis of Montrose, hanged alongside the marquis in Edinburgh in 1650. At the reformation, the marquis was reinterred in St Giles Cathedral, and Sir William lies with him in the Montrose Chapel today.
George Hay of Kinninmonth, the cousin to whom Delgatie had been mortgaged, remained in possession for the remainder of the century, but by 1700, the property had passed to the Earl of Erroll, who used it as a dower house. In 1762, the 15th Earl of Erroll sold Delgatie to Francis Garden of Troup. It was sold again in 1780 to the second Earl Fife, who let it to his nephew, Sir Alexander Duff. The Duffs sold it in 1843 to Douglas Ainslie, a solicitor and minor border laird who was land agent to Lord Douglas for his Berwickshire estates.
It remained in Ainslie hands until their family line came to an end with Douglas Ainslie, a poet, literary critic and sometime lover of Oscar Wilde, who based himself in London and rarely visited the castle. When he died in 1948 his estate was valued at only £260 and the castle was acquired by the chief of Clan Hay, the late Countess of Erroll and her husband, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk.
The castle had been requisitioned by the army during the second world war who caused the old building severe damage. The Countess therefore sold the castle to Captain Hay of Hayfield, who with his military engineering background and well developed skills as a stonemason, was well qualified to save it from ruin. He moved to Delgatie in 1951 and lived there until his death in 1997, aged 91, having dedicated his life to its restoration.
© Alan Hay 2022