The SCA Summer Trip was based in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, the heartland of the Gordon family, and most of the properties on our itinerary had Gordon connections at one time in their life – some good, others less so.
The extended Gordon family are second only (to the Stewarts) in ownership connections to castles than any other family in Scotland.
The name is territorial, from the lands of Gordon, in Berwickshire. The family may be Norman in origin, but appear in Scottish records from the 12th century. They held lands in Galloway and the Borders, but became major landowners in Aberdeenshire, giving their name to a whole area of the north-east.
History shows the Gordons as being keen in their pursuit of power, sometimes on the winning side, sometimes not, and the Gordon name appears in many Scottish peerages, including the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, the Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair, and the Marquess of Huntly. In the early 16th century, a younger son of the Huntly line married the Sutherland heiress, and their son became the 11th (and first Gordon) Earl of Sutherland.
The first visit of the day was scheduled to be a "first" for the Association – an apparent modified 16th century tower house which is actually wholly 21st century construction. Due to seriously inclement weather in the week preceding, the visit was nearly cancelled, as a phone call the day before advised us that the ground floor of the tower had over 3ft of water flowing through it, the nearby River Isla having burst its banks.
However, the water level dropped considerably overnight, and after hurried discussions with our driver, we found a road to the property that was not under water. It was worth the detour, although for obvious reasons, we were unable to see internally above the ground floor area.
For the owner, a stonemason and archaeologist, whose expertise is in the interpretation and reconstruction of ancient buildings, Issueburn is the completion of a long-held dream. Using his knowledge, he designed and built the tower so that someone passing by would appear to be looking at a 15/16th Century construction, with 17th and 18th Century alterations and extensions. External signs, such as blocked-up "doorways", different roof lines and windows, and patchwork "repairs" to the external surfacing all add to the image. Certain aspects of the building, internally and externally, were influenced by features seen on other towers, and noted for inclusion here. The end result certainly looks the part, though as a new construction, it is governed by modern construction and design standards.
Those of you who have had various difficulties in obtaining permissions for restoration projects will be interested to know that far fewer problems were encountered here than expected. Although there was existing planning permission for a house on the site, a request for an alternative building in a more vernacular style was approved with little difficulty – what could be more vernacular in this part of Scotland than a tower house? Construction in concrete block took from 2003 – 2009, carried out almost solely by themselves, thus keeping costs to a minimum. Despite assurances that the ground was unlikely to flood, ground floor electrics are mounted some 4ft off the floor, thus diminishing the effect of the flood waters on the building. The garden, however, was another story…
Our grateful thanks to our host for allowing us to come under trying circumstances for him and his family, and our congratulations in his achievement.
Next stop were the minimal remains, by a farm, of a 16th Century Z-plan tower and courtyard of the Gordons. Only one round tower with 2 vaulted stories remains, which looks as if was adapted for use as a doocot in later years.
The castle passed in 1539 from the church to the descendants of Jock o' Scurdargue, one of the illegitimate sons of Gordon of Strathbogie and Elizabeth Cruickshanks of Aswanley, who held the property until 1724. The castle was ruinous by 19th Century.
Last visit of the morning, Auchindoun is situated on top of a conical hill in remote countryside, about 200ft above the River Fiddich.
Steep banks on 3 sides provide ample defence, and there are visible remains of banks and ditches of earlier fortifications.
A castle is said to have stood here from the 11th Century although the present building, a ruined L-plan tower of 3 stories and (formerly) a garret, is no later than 15th Century. It is enclosed by a courtyard, with a round tower and ruined ranges of other buildings. The basement was vaulted, as was the first-floor hall. There were private chambers in the wing and on upper floors.
Unusually, the entrance is not in the re -entrant angle. The hall was on the first floor, and the vaulting is groined and ribbed in two bays, as against more usual barrel vaulting The existing castle was built for John, Earl of Mar, who was murdered by his brother, James III, at Craigmillar. It passed to Robert Cochrane, one of James's favourites, who in 1482 was hanged at Lauder Bridge by Archibald "Bell the Cat" Douglas, Earl of Angus.
The castle was acquired by the Ogilvies, but by 1535 had passed to the Gordons. In 1571, Adam Gordon of Auchindoun besieged Corgarff Castle in Strathdon, during a feud with the Forbeses. Corgarff was burnt, and Margaret Campbell, wife to the Master of Forbes was killed, together with family and retainers – a total of 27 people.
The Mackintoshes sacked and burned Auchindoun in 1591, in revenge for the murder of the Bonnnie Earl o' Moray at Donibristle by the Marquis of Huntly and Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindoun. Sir Patrick was killed 3 years later at the Battle of Glenlivet.
The castle was restored, but by 1725 had been partly demolished for materials. The castle is now in the care of Historic Scotland.
Lunch was at the Grouse Inn, at Lower Cabrach, famed for its collection of over 700 whiskies - highly appropriate in an area noted in earlier times for the number of illicit stills in operation.
Described by Tranter as a "substantial fortalice", Beldorney stands in a secluded part of the Deveron valley. It is a large 16th Century Z-plan tower, much extended in later years. It has a main block of 3 stories, with a square tower on the NW corner, and a large round tower at the opposite corner. A stair-turret in the re -entrant angle by the round tower is crowned by a watch-tower.
A later and lower wing has been added to form one side of a courtyard, and there is an adjoining modern house. The original entrance is to the West from the courtyard, at the foot of the stair-tower, with a later door nearby. There is a vaulted basement.
The land originally belonged to the Ogilvies (cf Auchindoun) but passed to the Gordons around 1500, who built the castle between 1552-62. It was acquired by John Lyon, a relative, when the Gordons got into debt, but he was unpopular, and was murdered by his tenants! Pillaged by Jacobites in 1689, Beldorney was sold to Buchan of Auchmacoy, then to William Grant.
It passed through other hands after the failure of the Grant line in 1919. It was restored in the 1960s, when early wall paintings were discovered, and again in the 1980s.
Our last visit of the day, Aswanley is situated a few miles further down the Deveron valley from Beldorney. It is a long, low L plan laird's house of 2 storeys and a garret, with a round stair tower projecting from the main block northwards. It was formerly enclosed on the south by a courtyard, the archway from which remains.
The building appears to be early C17, and may have been smaller originally. There is pediment in the archway, initialled "GC" and "IS", for George Calder and Isobel Skene, and dated 1692.
Aswanley originally belonged to the Cruickshanks. Elizabeth Cruickshanks is reputed to be the mother of 2 illegitimate sons of the last true Gordon of Strathbogie (the early name for Huntly). The grandson of this Gordon became the first Earl of Huntly, but it is from the 2 illegitimate sons that most of the numerous Gordon lairdships derive. The house was sold by the Gordons to Hugh Calder in 1440. At the death of the last of the Calders in 1768, it passed in lieu of debts to the Duffs of Braco, Earls (and later Dukes) of Fife.
Avochie, at first glance, looks no more than an abandoned farm building. Although much ruined, a closer looks reveals the remains of a 16th/17th Century rectangular tower house, of possibly 3 storeys. Two gable ends survive, with a corbelled-out bartizan at one corner. It has remarkably thin walls.
It was a property of the Gordons of Avochie, who took an active part fighting during the troubled reigns of Mary, Queen of Scots, and James VI. The family were also out in 1715 and 1745, and the castle appears to have been ruined by Government troops in 1746.
Formerly U-plan, before demolition following a fire in the 1980s, Auchintoul now consists of a 3-storey block with a massive round tower, and has a walled garden. The oldest part of the castle is 17th Century, but may contain some earlier work. It was a property of the Gordons of Auchintoul, one of whom founded the nearby planned village of Aberchirder, in 1764. His Grandfather, Patrick Gordon of Auchintoul, was one of the foremost commanders of Tsar Peter the Great. Patrick's son, Alexander, was also a general in the Russian army, but returned in 1711 and commanded part of the Jacobite army in 1715. The property passed to the Dukes of Fife in the 1890s. Seriously damaged by fire in the 1980s, it has been beautifully restored by the present owners.
Our last morning visit was to view work in progress on another new tower for the 21st Century.
There is a separate article about the story of Craigietocher on this website - click here.
After lunch our first call was Bognie Castle, sometime also called Conzie Castle.
Little is recorded about this large, rectangular building of 4 storeys, of which two walls are more or less complete. The thinness of the walls seems to indicate it may have been designed more for comfort than defence. There is no sign of vaulting, and little evidence of the interior design, but there may once have been bartizans on the corners.
The Dunbars of Conzie held the lands in the 15th/16th Century, hence the alternative name, but the castle is said to have been built by the Morrisons c.1660-70, whose family still have the property. It may never have been fully completed, or inhabited, as the Morrisons of Bognie inherited Frendraught House in 1698, and moved there. The nearby farmhouse at Mains of Bognie may also be fortified.
Our last visit of the weekend, Frendraught House dates from 1656, on the site of an earlier castle destroyed by fire in 1630. The house was remodelled in 1753, extended in 1790, and restored in 1974. Two small chamfered windows in the west gable appear to be the oldest features, although cellars of this wing may belong to the original hall house.
It was a property of the Crichtons, and visited by James V in 1535. In 1630, it was torched during a feud over land with the Gordons, 6 of whom, including Lords Aboyne and Rothiemay, were killed. The Crichton laird and his family escaped. Crichton was tried and acquitted, although one of his servants was executed.
Lady Rothiemay was not convinced of his innocence, and employed highlanders to attack and plunder his lands and family. Although imprisoned in 1635, she was later released. Crichton's son James was made Viscount Frendraught in 1642 and, although a Covenanter, fought for the Marquis of Montrose in 1650. After the death of the 4th Viscount in 1698, Frendraught passed to his wife's family, the Morrisons of Bognie.
As a bonus to our visit, we were invited to see the private collection of restored motor vehicles at Frendraught. Whilst not on the scale of commercial vehicle museums, seeing the variety of historic military, farm and other vehicles, most in working order, was an excellent finale to the weekend.
An article on recent changes at Frendraught House appears in issue 15 of our magazine 'The Journal'.
Our grateful thanks to all our hosts for allowing us into their properties.