On the hunt for the best castles in Aberdeenshire
Following in the footsteps of the Jacobites
My Jacobite Castle Trail in Aberdeenshire
If there’s one chunk of Scottish history that gets folk going, it’s likely to involve the Jacobites. Covering a bloody and tumultuous period in the 17th and 18th Centuries, these were chapters that show Scotland at its most divided. For my latest Scotlanders campaign, we’re teaming up again with the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland (as well as new partners National Museum of Scotland and Palace of Holyroodhouse), and fleeing around the country to see the best castles with a Jacobite connection. 5 bloggers, 5 regions, 26 historic sites. For me, my travels take me to Aberdeenshire which is home to a massive array of great castles, coming in all shapes and sizes. I give you my Jacobite castle trail….
My Aberdeenshire adventure kicks off at impressive Drum Castle, within easy reach of the city but at the same time taking full advantage of the gentle, easy on the eye, countryside of the north east. Going back as far as the 13th Century, this place is oozing history….including a clear line of support for the Jacobite cause by its owners. The resident Irvine family even discreetly sheltered their Laird in the castle after the 1745 downfall. On the run after Culloden, the Laird took refuge in a secret chamber within the castle to evade the redcoat search. It is thought he hid here for a full three years!
The second you cross through the grand entrance hall, Drum has the wow factor. Powerfully decorated but not in an over-the-top, garish manner that you might expect from such a magnificent building, it calls for quiet reflection throughout. Get there early on a week day I advise as having the place to myself made all the difference. Head to the library and take a minute to drink in the deafening silence. Aye, it’s impressive. Take at least half an hour to wander the gardens too. Almost tropical in places, there’s wildlife watching points and an endless army of plant life to admire.
Now you might be thinking that a pink castle is just bordering on the ridiculous. Something more appropriate for Disney movies than the north of Scotland. I hear you. It is, though, what makes Craigievar one of the most impressively distinctive Scottish castles of them all. A relatively modern family home, it was brought into being in the 16th Century and takes on the Scottish Baronial style in its memorable appearance.
Craigievar is, perhaps predictably, not renowned as a military castle. It was not built for defence and even the hints at weaponry placements and battlements are decorative at best. As for the Jacobites, there is a manuscript in the castle declaring an Order of Battle for the Battle of Culloden. The last nail in the Jacobite coffin, Culloden was of course the site of the decisive and brutal end to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s cause. While it’s not clear which side of the divide Craigievar fell, there is a tale of John Paton of Grandholm (a Jacobite fugitive) hiding here after the earlier 1715 uprising.
Exploration of the interior is by guided tour only and it’s very much worth doing. The Forbes family resided at Craigievar for over 300 years and the furnishings and interior design pay homage to their legacy. Surrounded by beautiful, tranquil Aberdeenshire countryside, it would have made for a wonderful home. Naturally, ghost stories (with seeming legitimacy, involving a daring member of the rival Clan Gordon) and secret passages add to the appeal for the 21st Century visitor and expect to get plenty of details along the tour. If you have the time to explore further, there are a couple of great walking routes around the perimeter of the extensive grounds – well worth adding in.
Oh I can almost hear the howls from the Outlander fans at this one. Yes, this is where Jamie Fraser would likely have lived, were he real. This Victorian-style mansion is the ancestral home of the Fraser family, one of those most decimated during the ’45 Jacobite rebellion. For those that have been to Culloden, the ‘Fraser’ clan gravestone is a particularly hard one to pause at. Have the tissues at the ready.
The castle is pretty huge and in excellent condition. All sorts of family valuables and relics adorn grand rooms including a great hall, library, numerous bedrooms and an impressive trophy room. Z-shaped and surrounded by 300 acres of land (best appreciate from the castle roof), this is a classic National Trust property and makes for a great family day out. Luck smiled upon me throughout this castle jaunt and astonishingly the sun was beating down the whole time. Not everything concerning the Jacobites needs to be grim and depressing.
It wouldn’t be a castle roadtrip without an atmospheric ruin. As much as I enjoy the beauty of grand, remote stately homes, nothing beats a barely-even-there-due-to-centuries-of-perpetual-wear-and-tear assortment of rocks! Kildrummy actually goes way back to the 13th Century when it was a Bruce stronghold. Robert’s brother, Neil (good name), was here and was witness to a siege during the Wars of Independence when he was betrayed by the castle blacksmith who set fire to the castle from the inside. The defenders, including Sir Neil, were hanged and the blacksmith handsomely rewarded. Edward I of England himself, cue chorus of boos, also visited on a couple of occasions. Presumably he had his eye on the place as a refuge for his regularly embattled troops stationed in ‘the north’.
But what of the Jacobites? The Erskine Earls of Mar controlling Kildrummy in the 1600s were Jacobite sympathisers and used the fortress as a base to attempt to gather support for the earlier Jacobite causes. Of course that attempt was all in vain and in 1715 the earl was exiled to France, with Kildrummy ceasing to be used thereafter.
What remains now is limited compared to the fortress in its heyday and imagination is required to recreate Kildrummy Castle at its most majestically impressive. But isn’t that what makes it most magical?
Talk about the middle of nowhere. Heading deep into the vast emptiness of the eastern Cairngorms, the roads become more colourful and the landscapes more wild with each passing minute on the way to remote Corgarff. With origins in the 16th Century, Corgarff Castle is another that fell predominantly on the side of the Jacobite supporters who used it as a barracks.
Corgarff was not a military fortress and was never subject to the batterings that the likes of Kildrummy received. No, this was more of a storage and gathering area for soldiers between stops. You can picture the lonely Highland warrior, weather beaten and starving, struggling to put one foot in front of the other, stumbling upon this place at the end of his brutal journey to aid the Jacobite cause. Akin to an oasis in the desert, the star-shaped castle would glare back at his disbelieving eyes and, for a time, life would seem a little sweeter.
Although you can’t fully appreciate the castle’s shape from the ground (and it’s almost always too windy up here for the drone), there is a good vantage point by the roadside a little further north along the A939. This’ll give you all the perspective you’ll need as to its quite miraculous location.
More from the Jacobite Castle Trail
Aside from my own 5 visits, my Scotlanders colleagues racked up plenty of Jacobite castle trails of their own. Patricia was in the north west taking of some of our most dramatic and isolated ruins including the likes of Urquhart Castle and the pivotal staging point at Glenfinnan. Laura was taking on the likes of Stirlingshire and Perthshire including the TV-friendly fortress of Doune Castle and the battlefield area at Killiecrankie. And Kay was hitting the capital, including Edinburgh Castle and the launch of the new exhibition.
For the full run-down, check out the hashtag #jacobitetrailblazer (mainly on Twitter) that shows off all of our simultaneous adventures on the road. You can also visit the Jacobite Trail website for the full story on this project and why it will always be a huge period in Scotland’s historical journey.
You can also listen to my Radio Scotland chat on the new trail by clicking play below:
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