Friday, 7th September, 2007, but where is Graham Coe? Has Coe done a runner? A degree of panic prevailed as Graham unfortunately was delayed on a trip to Egypt and the responsibility for the smooth running of the tour lay with council members. Although not present, Graham's meticulous organisation ensured the weekend ran smoothly. A good hotel; almost 30 members in attendance; properties to visit covering a wide spectrum from derelict ruin to family homes right through to the massive scale and magnificence of Castle Fraser. This was the 50th tour which Graham has organised on behalf of the SCA over the past 10 years.
"Fit rot?" as the Aberdonian estate agent might say. Probably the only form of rot that was not visible. Westhall has been on the Buildings At Risk Register for several years and unfortunately is in a sorry state of repair. Westhall Castle is listed catgegory A.
Operating as a hotel until the early 1990s with leisure facilities and sporting opportunities, the property was sold to a German consortium with a view to golf course development. This did not materialise. At our time of visiting the property was again being offered for sale.
Nigel Tranter describes Westhall as a small but most attractive fortalice seemingly of the 16th century and probably extended to the north and east in the 17th century by a gable block and circular tower. The "Aberdeenshire style" is evident incorporating a copious application of label-moulded corbelling. MacGibbon and Ross refer to the large, modern house which had been added! Westhall belonged to the Diocese of Aberdeen from the 13th century and at the Reformation passed to the family of Horn and later to the Dalrymple- Horn-Elphinstone family.
It appears that Historic Scotland will insist on the retention of the 19th century addition. The cost of restoration is therefore going to be substantial. Along with the main building there is a steading development which had previous consent for conversion to five houses. However, although this could be considered as "enabling development", it is difficult to see how under present planning legislation it would be possible to ring fence any development profit for the restoration of Westhall. At a gross internal floor area of 1200 square metres, we are looking at renovation costs presumably in the order of some £5,000,000 purely for the main building at Westhall. Enabling development unfortunately would only meet a fraction of this.
Perhaps the insistence on retaining the 19th century additions will be detrimental. As we all know, negotiations on restoration tend to be protracted, but we must learn that buildings deteriorate rapidly and in the case of Westhall 15 years of neglect may be irreversible. I hope I am wrong.
Like Westhall, Logie House was once a hotel. Although it burned out in 1974, I recall staying there as a child and enjoying the elegance of the building and its setting. However, I have absolutely no recollection of staying in a castle.
Nigel Tranter describes Logie as a two faced house. From the north and west it is a plain, substantial, late style mansion of no great character; but from east and south it shows a picturesque 17th century frontage within a courtyard. Alteration over the years has left few of the original features evident.
However, the nucleus has been a tall old house of some three storeys and garret probably from the early 17th century, owned by James Elphinstone from 1670. Mary, heiress of Sir James Elphinstone, carried the property to her husband, Colonel Robert Dalrymple. After the '45 uprising Lord Pitsligo was a frequent guest at Logie and much hard drinking took place to the consternation of the Colonel's wife. Perhaps this was the catalyst for Logie's future as a hotel. Currently Logie is subject to an extensive restoration project which appears to be carried out in a most professional manner by the new owner, Tim Erbe, and we look forward to seeing the finished article probably in the not too distant future.
Barra Castle is a 17th century L plan tower house of three storeys and garret incorporating older work and altered and extended in the 18th century. It is one of the most attractive castles in Aberdeenshire. The buildings are arranged around three sides of a courtyard, the fourth side being enclosed by a wall in the centre of which is the entrance door atopped with three large ornamental vases. Barra was used as a farmhouse from around the mid 18th century and was restored by the Irvines in the 20th century. Family ownership can be traced back some 450 years. Sadly this is about to end. Although a fine house externally, the property is greatly enhanced by the furniture and possessions amassed over the centuries. They fit the property like a glove and it is difficult to imagine them being relocated without loss of integrity. Our host, Robert Bogdan, treated us to a fascinating insight into some of the family's more unusual artefacts such as The King of Tonga's trousers. These days such copious trousers are only available on prescription! An inventory of the contents would certainly be a fascinating record for future generations.
Chris Tabraham of Historic Scotland has edited the official guide book to Tolquhon Castle and the building is also well documented particularly by MacGibbon and Ross. Tolquhon also features extensively in Charles McKean's "The Scottish Chateau". A noble residence for over 500 years, Tolquhon was comprehensively rebuilt between 1584 and 1589, this being recorded on the façade, by the 7th Lord of Tolquhon, William Forbes. The 15th century tower house, was retained within the reconstruction. The gatehouse façade abutting the tower, designed to impress rather than to deter visitors, places the entrance door between two small circular towers in the form of a symmetrical chatelet with small statues, possibly of Forbes and his wife, and fanciful triple gun loops. The most attractive square corbelled projection above the private stair tower may well have contained a small library (Charles McKean).Integral with the main house and at first floor level was a long, narrow gallery. The gallery, apart from providing an area to hang family portraits, has an arched cupboard in the west wall where the Laird showed off his library (Chris Tabraham). Interpretation of old buildings is never clear cut! The demise of Tolquhon probably dates from the early 18th century when the 11th Lord was dislodged by Redcoats and the comprehensive preservation is now cared for by Historic Scotland.
Balbithan is known as the last of the tower houses, the final fling of the fortified house tradition but probably built in the late 17th century. The building retains the ancient L form of plan with entrance and staircase in the re-entrant angle. There are angle turrets at each of the gables. It may well be that the south wing with its thick walling and guarderobes actually dates back to the 16th century. Our tour was hosted by John McMurtrie. His mother, Mary McMurtrie, acquired the property as a family house. For over 40 years she ran a nursery specialising in Alpines and old garden flowers and published a number of beautifully illustrated books including Scots Roses (1995) and Scottish Wildflowers (2001). She continued to paint until the last few weeks of her life which ended after a short illness in November 2003 at the age of 101. The walls of Balbithan are a fine backdrop for the work of this artist. Originally built by the Chalmers family, legend has it that due to a canon ball being fired from the Tower of Hallforrest and landing in the courtyard, they moved from Old Balbithan on the banks of the Don over a mile distant.
By the ruinous state of Hallforrest, could it be that the Chalmers family fired back?
The evening. Fortunately no AGM this time, although our council members did hold a brief meeting prior to dinner. The Strathburn Hotel catered admirably for all our needs and a most hospitable and entertaining evening was enjoyed by all.
Sunday morning. Still a full attendance and still no hitches.
Oh dear! Are you not expecting us? Hearts sank as we approached Skene House. Fortunately after a little negotiation and reassurance we were warmly welcomed by the unfortunate tenant who was looking forward to a quiet Sunday morning. Skene House is an extensive mansion incorporating a large 14th century keep which is currently being restored. The garden boasts the oldest living Chestnut tree. The Skene family date from the early 14th century and were far from invincible in battle. Adam Skene was killed at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411; Alexander Skene at the Battle of Flodden in 1513; and a third Skene died at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547.
Alexander Skene who died in 1727 was apparently a wizard and the carriage in which he and the Devil ride crosses the Loch of Skene at midnight on New Year's Eve only to sink before it reaches the bank. Unfortunate as soldiers, they appear not to have faired much better as sailors! Although we do tend to be sceptical at the mention of Green Ladies, Grey Ladies, our hostess reliably informed us that the Wizard does occasionally make his presence felt, having locked her in the empty house on several occasions and having tried to impale the gardener with an ornamental sword held by a stone lion on the roof of the building. At this point, we presented the SCA plaque and departed with some haste.
Although one of the very few examples of 14th century keeps remaining in the north, Hallforrest is unfortunately in extremely poor condition with gaping cracks in the massive masonry wall. Both the basement and first floor are vaulted and the original tower would probably be five or six storeys in height. It was built as a hunting lodge for Robert The Bruce and was occupied until the mid 17th century. The building appears to have been subjected to frequent attacks during the Civil War in the 17th century.
Kemnay House is similar in scale and general appearance to Balbithan. It is an L plan house probably built around 1600.
Kemnay house has been in the possession of the Burnett family since 1688. In the mid 18th century George Burnett carried out many improvements to the garden, planting a great number of trees and he has the distinction of being the first person in Aberdeenshire to grow turnips in a field. The history of the Burnett family is related in a book by Susan Burnett "Without Fanfare".
Castle Fraser was our final visit. A massive building, it is a Z plan tower house mostly dating between 1575 and 1636, the oldest part being a plain 15th century keep of 4 storeys and an attic. The building is maintained by The National Trust for Scotland, including the 18th century walled garden, grass amphitheatre, lake and woodland. The building portrays the usual features of a National Trust property, a guide per room, extensive documentation of every last portrait, red guard ropes and black route indicators. The castle is well documented in the usual sources. The sketch by MacGibbon and Ross of the castle viewed from the north is particularly impressive and typifies the level of detail for which they are renowned.
With such a wealth of buildings to choose from, Aberdeenshire was a first class choice for the 50th SCA tour. Graham permitting, perhaps we can come back to this area in the not too distant future and, who knows, we might even be able to book into Westhall or Logie House.
So still with no members having been lost, but a few new members perhaps found, we all headed home. Thank you to all who participated in making this such a successful visit.
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