Huntly Castle

Approximately 40 Miles Northwest of Aberdeen

Click here for pictures of Huntly Castle.

Scotland has two "castle countries," areas with a high concentration of castles. This is a bit misleading as Scotland has over 80 castles in an area smaller than the state of Louisiana. No matter where you drive (with the possible exception of the West Highlands) you are no more than a half an hour away from a castle (or, more likely, several castles). The three most prominent "castle grounds" are the Borders, the Lothian area east of Edinburgh, and the eastern highland area west of the coastal city of Aberdeen. The greatest concentration of castles can be found in the two "castle countries." The first, in Lothian, is the site of Edinburgh, Dirleton, and Tantallon castles, plus at least four others that I completely bypassed. The second, and largest, is the area west of Aberdeen.

I went to Huntly Castle because it was on the route from Aberdeen to Inverness, by way of the Glenfiddich Distillery. There's another castle, Balvenie Castle, just a mile down the road from the distillery but I didn't have a chance to visit it at the time. The drive from Aberdeen is a beautiful one, through the remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. One of the Forest's 1andmarks is a beech hedge over 100 feet high, a veritable wall of green that stretches about a quarter of a mile. The Glenfiddich Distillery is within 15 miles of the castle. In a 20 mile radius of Huntly are 4 distilleries, 8 castles, five prehistoric (mostly standing stone) sites, and about a dozen other places of interest. If this range is extended southward to about 30 miles, the area includes another 6 castles, 5 prehistoric sites, and the beauty of the Cairngorm Mountains.

Huntly Castle is found within the small town of Huntly down a narrow lane, with a park and a golf course as it's neighbours. In spite of the (few) signs, you have to know it's there to find it. Huntly Castle is rewarding in this respect, since it's nestled in the forest and the grounds are quiet and peaceful. This castle, more than any other I visited, would make a great setting for a secluded picnic. In the time I was there only one other small group of tourists showed up, compared to the hoards of people visiting Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles.

For all it's secluded location, Huntly Castle has had a colourful past. The site is near the crossing point of the River Deveron at its confluence with the River Bogie. In the 12th century, Duncan, Earl of Fife, was settled here by King William the Lion (a Norman). Duncan, a Celt, was loyal to the king and built a wooden castle known as the "Peel of Strathbogie." His great-grandson, David, eventually inherited the castle in 1264, but died on crusade in Tunis six years later. He was succeeded by John of Strathbogie, a loyal supporter of Robert the Bruce.

This earl was executed in England in 1306 as a follower of Bruce, the first earl executed in England in over two hundred years. During Robert Bruce's campaign against the Comyn family (for which he was excommunicated for killing Comyn in a church), he fell ill and recuperated at the castle. In spite of this, David, the new earl, turned against Robert in favour of the English. Unfortunately, he had the bad timing of doing this just months before Bruce's victory over the English at Bannockburn. As punishment, David forfeited his lands, which were granted to the loyal Sir Adam Gordon of Huntly.

Bannockburn was fought in 1314, but the Gordons didn't settle down in their northern lands until 1376. In 1408, Sir John Gordon, last of the male line, was succeeded by his sister Elizabeth, following Celtic tradition that allowed succession through the female line. She married Sir Alexander Seton, and either Seton or the late John Gordon were responsible for replacing the timber fortress with a new stone castle. Sir Alexander was made the first Lord Gordon in 1436, and his son was made the first Earl of Huntly in 1445 or 1449.

This earl supported the King against the Black Douglas family, bringing the earl success and power, which could be seen in a major refashioning of the castle. The Gordons continued to be favourites of the king. Lady Catherine Gordon's marriage to Perkin Warbeck (pretender to the Henry VII's throne, and championed by Scotland's King James IV) was lavishly celebrated in the castle in 1496. In 1506, Alexander, the 3rd Earl, received a charter that confirmed him in his lands provided that his "chief messuage, which was formerly called Strathbogie, be in all future times named the Castle of Huntly".

George, the fourth Earl of Huntly, became chancellor of Scotland in 1547 and visited France with Mary of Guise, the widow of James V and eventual Queen Regent. The earl, though, was an unfortunate victim of his times. He was a fervent Roman Catholic, and after the establishment of Protestantism, Huntly Castle became the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. Mary, Queen of Scots was a supporter of the Church in private, but was forced by political considerations and Huntly's independence to act against him. They met for battle at Corrichie, on the Hill o' Fare, on October 28, 1562. The earl died on the field without suffering a wound. His two sons were taken, and one, Sir John Gordon, was beheaded in front of the Queen in Aberdeen. The castle was pillaged and loot was taken, including the tent used by Edward II, the king Bruce defeated at Bannockburn. Of note, the house in Edinburgh where Darnley was murdered was furnished with plunder from Huntly Castle.

The sixth earl was involved in a failed revolt in 1594, and as a result the victors damaged the castle's northern tower to the point where it may not have been used for anything afterwards. The earl was banished to France but made his peace with James VI (who would become James I of Great Britain) in 1597. Construction work, with French influences, was begun on the castle. Two years later the earl was made the 1st Marquis of Huntly. More work continued with the 2nd Marquis.

During the English Civil War, the castle descended to ruin. The 2nd Marquis was loyal to the king, but in 1640 the castle was occupied by the army of the Covenant under Major-General Monro. A parson writes about the treatment the castle received under the Convenanters:

[The castle] was preserved from being rifled or defaced except some emblems and imagerye, which looked somewhat popish and superstitious lycke; and therefor, by the industry of one captain James Wallace (one of Munroe's foote captaines) were hewd and brocke doune off the frontispiece of the house; but all the rest of the frontispiece containing Huntly's scutcheon, etc, was left untouched, as it standes to this daye.

In 1644 the castle was held briefly by Montrose against Argyll. In 1647 it was defended against General Leslie by Lord Charles Gordon, but the "Irish" garrison was starved into surrendering. The men were then hanged and their officers beheaded. In December of the same year, Huntly was captured and executed in Edinburgh. On his way, in a final act of cruelty, he was detained at the castle and his escorts were shot against its walls. In 1650 Charles II visited it briefly on his way to defeat at Worcester and eventual exile.

The end of the English Civil War saw the last of the castle as an occupied house. In the early 18th century, villagers took stone from the castle as building material. In 1746, during the Jacobite rebellion, it was held by government troops. In the 19th century, interest in the country's history resulted in preservation of what remained of the castle.

As visitors approach the ruins, the castle does not look all that imposing as a defensive site. This wasn't always true. The original timber castle was built on two manmade mounds of unequal size. The smaller, but higher, motte supported the lord's house, while the more extensive but lower bailey held the hall, chapel, stables, and other accommodations. A wide, deep ditch separated the motte from the bailey, both of which probably had steep, sloping sides and wooden palisades at their top. When the timber fortification was replaced by the stone castle, the motte was left unused. Today, the motte appears as a flat-topped conical mound over 24 metres in diameter, and appears on the left hand side as you approach the castle from the carpark. This mound affords a great view of the rest of the castle grounds.

The modern approach to the castle directs the visitor north-east, directly towards the remaining southwest tower. This tower is a stone cylinder six stories high, with large window holes cut into it. At it's top is a crown of stone that once held accommodations. One small room, completely enclosed, still exists at the top of the tower. This turret-room, or belvedere, was used by the 1st Marquis to view the scenery around the castle in comfort and isolation.

I walked around to the back of the castle first. The courtyard buildings are all but gone, leaving behind nothing more than foundations. The largest set of foundations, both in area covered and in thickness of the walls, is all that remains of the north tower house. This building was L-shaped and probably rose to a considerable height, though it is impossible to guess how high. This tower — square, not round — would have been the tower that was wrecked by the king's men after the 6th Earl's failed revolt. It's unfortunate that this has been destroyed, as the tower house comprised the entire castle in the 15th century.

Other foundations still exist in the courtyard, including the remains of a bake house and a brew house. The eastern wall still stands a story and a half tall in places, as do the remains of one of the eastern buildings. The south end of the East Range attaches onto a collection of buildings that were built onto the end of the palace. These buildings still have their interior walls, but they do not have their upper stories. These thick stone walls, made of the same dark stone that was found at Dirleton Castle, are incredibly picturesque.

The palace consists of a large, rectangular block of apartments attached to the south-west tower. On the north-east corner of the palace is a much smaller tower that consisted of little more than a stone staircase. Huntly's great architectural legacy is the intricate stone work on the palace. The small staircase tower has a doorway into the courtyard at its base. Above this doorway is a spectacular frontispiece cut in an orange rock that looks like sandstone. This amazing piece of hand carved stone appears to be in one piece, rising upwards from around the doorway to three full stories above it. A Lord Lyon wrote, in the last century, "It is probably the most splendid heraldic doorway in the British Isles, for achievement after achievement stretches up the side of the tower, connected by delicately moulded panels, so that when all was fresh and emblazoned in colour, and the corbelled turret above was complete, it must have been a truly imposing entrance."

A lot of thought went into the frontispiece. On the door lintel are four shields containing, 1) the arms of Huntly; 2) the initials of the 1st Marquis and his wife; 3) the arms of his wife's family, Lennox; 4) the date 1602. Above the lintel is the long, vertical panel that rises up three floors. First is the Marquis' family coat of arms (Gordon) and that of his wife's family (Lennox). Above this is the Royal arms of Scotland along with those of the king's wife, Queen Anne of Denmark. The Scottish unicorn carries the Royal banner on the left while the Danish wyvern on the other side carries the Royal banner of Denmark. Immediately above are the initials IR6 and ARS, standing for Jacobus Rex Sectus (King James VI) and Anna Regina Scotorum (Queen Anne). The next two parts were the sections defaced by Captain Wallace in 1640, including a tribute to Jesus Christ, and a circular panel showing Christ in heaven. At the top of the frontispiece is a small figure of Saint Michael, the warrior archangel, triumphing over Satan.

The small tower's staircase leads upwards and downwards. The basement contains the vaults, attached by a relatively tall, but narrow, passageway. Each vault is topped with a rounded roof, the only light filtering through from the single gun-loop that aims outside.

There are three vaults, each containing a number of stone statues, pots, and other objects of art and utility. The place is very oppressive, in spite of the bright electrical lighting that was installed in the 20th century. The passageway leads upwards slightly, and then angles to the left to a room beneath the main tower. This round room below the level of the rest of the basement, was the prison. It is featureless and lit through two small openings.

The ground floor is better lit, containing two storage cellars flanking the kitchen. There are also two other exits into the courtyard, allowing light to filter in more strongly than in the rooms below. The kitchen has a large arched oven cut into the wall, and a couple of water channels, one for fresh water and another for soiled water. At some point the cellars were converted to rooms as fireplaces were added. The tower portion of this floor contains a room that was probably the lodging of the lord's steward. The room has three windows, a privy with the wooden seat still intact and two staircases leading to the lord's chamber directly above.

The main floor was above the ground floor. The palace was split into two sections, the hall and the great chamber. Today these are open to daylight as the wooden floors immediately above them are gone. Still, the stone work on the floor and in the rounded windows are very well done. The hall was used as a dining room, while the chamber was the ancestor to the Victorian drawing room and used as a more intimate gathering place. The tower room was the inner chamber, the private room of the earl. Two large bay windows open to the outside of the castle. A recess in the wall was set aside for a bed, and a small fireplace was built into the wall, nearby. The stairs leading down to the steward's room have two small openings, one that was used as a peephole and the other that holds the remnants of a bell rope. The privy in this chamber also has its wooden seat intact, a rare find in any castle.

The floor above the lord's appears to be of the same layout as the principal floor, however the original wood is gone. In its place, the National Trust for Scotland has built a partial timber floor. This is for one reason, to allow the visitor to view the amazing stonework on two fireplace mantelpieces on this level. They appear to be of the same age and quality as the frontispiece, and are covered in amazing heraldic symbols. You can't actually touch the mantelpieces, as the floor doesn't reach one of them, and both are covered in metal and plexiglas cages for protection.

The tower still goes upwards, spiralling around the inside edge to a small landing at the top of the tower. This landing leads to the belvedere (now sealed off) and offers a beautiful view of the surrounding tree-covered countryside. Even with my incredible fear of heights, I found the view spectacular. The tower is 20 metres high at this point, the tallest structure in the area.

From the top of the tower you can see along the upper edge of the palace. The upper floor's roof and dormers are gone (though a sketch in the guide book shows that they still existed in 1799). What is still there is the last piece of spectacular stone work in the castle, best seen from the ground. The palace top storey, below the roof level, has a set of three ornate oriel windows. Carved above and below these windows is a frieze bearing the inscription:


The frieze has been mutilated on the ends, but the words are still easily read.

In most respects, Huntly is like no other castle I visited, though it has a lot in common with other Scottish castles, such as Claypotts. Although it may have begun life as a defensive position, Huntly eventually evolved into an aristocrat's palace. The stone work itself is worth the visit. Photographs don't do the work justice; it is best seen live to be appreciated. The lush green of the surrounding forest has a warming effect on the structure that somehow seems appropriate for this building, which was used more as a residence rather than as a fortress.