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Issue 29 - The castle in the cow pasture

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The castle in the cow pasture

This issue Charles Douglas visits Ballindalloch Castle in Banffshire

Ballindalloch Castle in the fertile Spey Valley west of Aberdeen has, during the centuries, earned itself the title of the “Pearl of the North.” But it was not always so.

The original tower house was built in the 16th century for defence. The exact date is unknown, but the date 1546 is carved into a stone lintel in one of today’s bedrooms.

Constructed on the traditional Z-plan design, the building we see today has been much altered and enlarged, but still retains the character of a great Highland fortress/dwelling house.

Foundations from an earlier building suggest that it was intended for the hill above its present location. However, the story goes that the laird of the time attempted to build his castle three times on the hill, but each time it was mysteriously blown to the ground. The third time, during an almighty gale, a ghostly voice was heard to cry out: “Build in the coo-haugh,” and in the coo-haugh (cow pasture) it remains to this day.

The branch of the Grant family who settled at Ballindalloch prospered until the early 18th century when financial problems compelled them to sell the estate to their cousin Colonel William Grant, commander of one of the independent Highland regiments from which the Black Watch was formed. His cousin was General James Grant who fought in the American War of Independence and became Governor of Florida in 1763. Inheriting Ballindalloch in 1770, it was General James who built on the north wing especially to house his favourite French chef. The estate then passed to his nephew, George Macpherson of Invershie who, in 1838 was created a baronet, taking the title Sir George Macpherson-Grant of Ballindalloch.

When the parents of the current owner, Mrs Oliver Macpherson-Grant Russell, inherited the castle, they added several modern touches such as placing a new kitchen next to the dining room, installing new bathrooms and re-wiring and reroofing the entire building.

Their daughter and her husband with their two sons, Guy and Edward, and daughter, Lucy, have continued to love and cherish Ballindalloch and to continue the family traditions, such as maintaining the splendid herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle started by Sir George Macpherson- Grant in 1860.

On arrival at Ballindalloch Castle, visitors enter the hall with its grand staircase and unusual umbrella and fan vaulting designed by Thomas MacKenzie as part of the 1850s renovation. Above the fireplace is a display of 18th century pistols.

Also on view is the naval dress sword of Mr Oliver Russell's father, who was 2nd Sea Lord and aide-de-camp to the Queen in 1953-55; a collection of china displayed in a Sheraton corner cupboard by Ridgeway circa 1820; a fine Bureau Plat of Louis Quinze period; and a set of Scottish chairs made in Chinese Chippendale style with unusual carvings of bells. The Scottish dirks on display were used for hunting or dispatching enemies. According to legend, a dirk should never be drawn unless to kill: ‘Draw me not in anger, nor sheath me in dishonour.’ The drawing room is a fine and elegant space with family portraits overlooking a pair of card tables, an oval Sheraton table and the beautiful gilt mirror (circa 1755). This room was redesigned and panelled in 1850.

More than 25,000 volumes are stored in the library. Having avoided any major dispersal, they provide a fascinating history of the cultural, literary and artistic development of the family.

Two of the main collectors were Colonel William Grant, who brought together most of the English classics and French books in the early 18th century, and Sir John Macpherson-Grant, who acquired all of the Spanish ones while he was secretary to the Legation in Lisbon in 1850.

The dining room is the largest room in the house having served as the great hall of the castle in the 16th century. It was redesigned and panelled in American pine in 1850. Above the magnificent fireplace are the coats of arms of the Macphersons and the Grants. The paintings of King George III and Queen Charlotte by Allan Ramsay were presented to General James Grant in recognition of his military service in the American Wars of Independence. The silver cups on the side table were won by Sir George Macpherson-Grant for his world famous Aberdeen Angus cattle.

Lady Macpherson-Grant's bedroom is in the 18th century wing built by General James Grant, but is decorated in 20th century style. The magnificent four-poster bed (circa 1860) is Scottish, made in cherry wood. Most of the other furniture is 18th century. A set of Macpherson- Grant family portraits here were painted by Crispini in 1864.

The nursery represents a history of all the children who have lived in the castle from the late 18th century until modern times. Items on display include a beautiful inlaid Georgian highchair made in about 1770, a cane and a mahogany cradle from about 1830, some much loved 19th and 20th century teddies, and a modern dolls’ house made by Mr Oliver Russell for his daughter, Lucy, in 1975.

The castle shop offers a wide choice of quality Scottish crafts and gifts. In pride of place is the Ballindalloch Collection, a range of luxury cashmeres, tartans, jewellery and gifts made in Scotland. Many of the items are designed by Mrs Clare Macpherson-Grant Russell herself and exclusive to Ballindalloch. They can, however, be ordered through the catalogue, which can be acquired by emailing the castle.

Ballindalloch Castle is available for business meetings, hospitality and events throughout the year. The castle rooms are suitable for many types of private functions, while the typically Highland setting and facade of the castle make a spectacular backdrop for product launches, fashion shoots, marketing and filming. There is also salmon and sea trout fishing on the rivers Spey and Avon, and the estate caters for driven pheasant shooting, rough shooting, roe stalking and other sporting activities. Accommodation, self-catering or with staff, is also available and the nearby Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course is an added attraction for those who wish to stay over in this glorious corner of Scotland.

Ballindalloch Castle, Banffshire AB37 9AX
Tel: +44 (0)1807 500 205
The castle is open daily 10.30 to 15.00 from Good Friday (April) until the end of September The castle is closed on Saturdays Last admission each day is at 16.45

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