Old Slains by Andrew Spratt

Old Slains Castle as imagined by artist Andrew Spratt

The last Zoom lecture of 2021 took place on 11 December.  Laraine Strafford, Clan Hay’s Convenor for Canada, took the chair, and our speaker was Alan Hay, the Clan Hay Archivist, who spoke on the theme of Slains and the Hays of Erroll.  Alan was born and raised just a few miles from Slains, for 700 years the principal seat of the Earls of Erroll, Chiefs of Clan Hay, and his focus was on the lands and castles of Slains – of which there are two – rather than the history of the family.

Sir Gilbert Hay of Erroll, fifth chief, was one of the closest friends and supporters of King Robert the Bruce, one of a tiny handful of nobles who never wavered from backing the king in his long struggle for Scotland’s freedom.  In 1308, following the final suppression of the Comyns, Sir Gilbert was granted the castle and barony of Slains, one of the main centres of the earldom of Buchan, formerly held by the Comyns.  These lands were granted free of wardship and relief, an indication of how badly slighted the Slains had been during the war, which meant everything had to be restored from scratch.  The barony’s farms had to be repopulated, the lands replanted, and the castle completely rebuilt.  Only one wall remains of the castle Sir Gilbert built on a powerful, clifftop promontory on the Aberdeenshire coast, but that is enough for us to visualise what must have been a place of great strength.  The tower itself would have contained the castle’s principal apartments for use of the lord and his family, with guardhouses, kitchens, banqueting halls, domestic offices and guest accommodation contained in the very extensive bailey, which surrounded the keep.  Alan pointed out the flat stretch of grass beyond the castle, but well inside the protective ditch that surrounded it, which is still known as ‘the tourney ground.’

Old Slains

Old Slains today

This was a place of considerable sophistication, not a rough old tower house as it is often depicted.  A recent landslip on the cliff to the north of the castle revealed an intricately carved piece of marble, which is extremely heavy and clearly a much denser stone than anything that can be quarried in Scotland, which gives a small indication of the sumptuousness of the castle’s interior.  Sir Gilbert was created Lord High Constable of Scotland by Robert the Bruce, a hereditary office still held by his descendant, the present Earl of Erroll, an office that put him first in rank behind the princes of the royal family.  His castle of Slains was a place that reflected the prestige of one of the greatest nobles in the land.

The Hays retained their historic property of Erroll in Perthshire.  However, the Place of Erroll had been reduced during the Wars of Independence by Sir Aymer de Valence, on the orders of England’s king Edward I, and it seems Slains immediately became the principal seat of the family, which it remained until the end of the 16th century, when the then chief found himself on the wrong side of the politics of the post-Reformation period.

Slains Castle in its glory days in the early 20th century

Francis Hay, ninth Earl of Erroll, was a Catholic supporter of the Counter-Reformation, alongside the other northern earls of Huntly and Angus.  In 1594, he and Huntly achieved a notable victory over the Protestant establishment at the Battle of Glenlivet, which King James VI reacted to by demolishing the two earls’ castles of Slains and Strathbogie, and forcing the two into exile.  Earl Francis was allowed to return home in 1597 on the condition that he signed the Protestant Confession of Faith, still retaining his ancient office of Lord High Constable.  His castle of Slains, however, was beyond restoration and he was compelled to relocate elsewhere.

The remains of ‘New’ Slains Castle on the Aberdeenshire coast, where the gathering will be based

Four miles to the north of the old castle, he had a tower house known as the Tower of Bowness in his barony of Cruden.  There, he extended the existing tower into a grand L-plan house, and this is the origin of the place most people now recognise as Slains Castle.  It was dramatically extended by his grandson, Gilbert, 11th earl, in 1664 to form four sides of a square courtyard palace, in the French chateau style which was fashionable in Scotland in the 17th century.  A new front was added by Charles, 13th earl, in 1707 and further alterations and improvements were made by James, 15th earl, in the 1760s and ’70s.  These included the construction of an enclosed walkway on the inside of the courtyard, which must have added considerable convenience as up to that point the bedrooms had opened straight into the open air.

Marble cornice uncovered at Old Slains

Earl James’s grandson, William George, 18th Earl of Erroll, carried out the most ambitious reconstructive work in 1846-37 when the castle was remodelled by Aberdeen architect John “Tudor Johnnie” Smith, who also constructed Balmoral Castle for Queen Victoria.  With these alterations the old building was comprehensively remodelled and brought into the modern age, and it was also clad in  the distinctively pink, Peterhead granite.  It was a place ahead of its time, with cisterns installed in the roof which provided the castle’s water supply.

Earl William George’s castle was built to the highest specifications, to stand the test of time.  Like many others of its ilk, it conspicuously failed to do so.  By the early years of the next century, the family was under serious financial pressure, a result of their own mismanagement as well as the inflation and taxation that resulted from World War One, and Charles Hay, 20th earl, was forced to sell the last of the family’s property in Scotland in 1916.  The castle was sold again in 1922 to a Dundee demolition company, which demolished it for architectural salvage.

30 years later, though, the family returned to Slains when Diana, Countess of Erroll, purchased the ruin of the original castle, demolished by James VI.  There, she and her husband built a compact modern house where they raised their family, including the present 24th Earl of Erroll, their son.  Old Slains remains his seat today.

© Alan Hay 2022