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Issue 30 - Banchory's hidden gem (Crathes Castle)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


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Banchory's hidden gem (Crathes Castle)

Crathes Castle is a 16th century castle in Scotland's Grampian region. Charles Douglas visited it

Situated 14 miles south of Aberdeen is Crathes Castle, the oldest part dating from 1583. Now within the portfolio of the National Trust for Scotland, it ranks as one the five so-called Castles of Mar – Craigievar, Drum, Fraser, Fyvie and Crathes – each a unique reminder of the ancient feudal life of the north east of Scotland.

On display in the hall at Crathes is a jewelled ivory horn which is known as the Horn of Leys, alleged to have been given to Alexander Burnard by King Robert I in 1323 when he granted him the Lands of Leys, which the Burnard or Burnett family has occupied ever since.

Many of Scotland’s oldest clans and families secured their lands in a similar way, and the horn symbol features not only on the Burnett family’s crest, but throughout the decoration of the castle, as well as being carved into the laird’s bed.

For the first 250 years of their tenure, the Burnett family lived in a crannog, a lake dwelling on Banchory Loch, otherwise known as the Loch of the Leys, now drained. By the 16th century, they had prospered significantly and were sufficiently established in the region to build the present castellated L-plan castle which exists today.

Writing about this in 1954, John Fleming observed, “Like all the houses in the castellated style, Crathes seems not so much to stand upon the ground as to have come up through it, though the weird effect is diminished by the 18th century square windows which break up the surface of the lower stories.” The bulk of the building of Crathes Castle was completed in 1596 by Alexander Burnett, great grandson of the Alexander Burnett who began it in 1553. A century and a half later, another Alexander, added the east wing.

The original oak and walnut furniture remains in situ in the barrel-vaulter great hall with its roughly dressed granite surfaces, but excepting the fascinating collection of period furniture, the most memorable aspect of any visit to Crathes has to be the magnificent painted ceilings of the rooms and upper floors – the Chamber of the Nine Muses, the Chamber of the Nine Worthies (ancient heroes – Hector, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great; three Old Testament characters – David, Jesse and Judas Maccabaeus, and three famous rulers – King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon), and the Green Lady’s Room, which is said to be haunted. These rooms feature figures painted in crude colours on the boards between the ceiling joists, very Germanic in style and thought to have been created by a German artist sent over by a professor of philosophy at Basle, a younger brother of the then Laird of Crathes.

Also on show is a Gobelin-style tapestry by William Morris circa 1868, and a Thompson chair complete with the tiny wooden mouse which is found on all pieces from the Yorkshire furniture designers.

On the top floor is the gallery where the barony courts would have been held, but beware of the ‘trick step’ on the staircase devised to confuse attackers.

Crathes is one of the finest surviving examples of a 16th century Scottish laird’s house. The castle remained in the hands of descendants of the same family until 1951 when Sir James Burnett, 13th Baronet of Leys, presented it and its contents to the National Trust for Scotland for safekeeping.

In 1966, a considerable amount of damage was caused by a fire, but many of the contents were saved and the current visitor centre stands at the entrance in place of the Queen Anne wing which was destroyed. As to the future, plans are currently in hand for an exciting visitor shopping and catering complex. Times move on, but the past remains and nowhere is this more evident than in this glorious corner of northern Scotland.

Crathes is additionally celebrated for its walled garden, which is really eight gardens, ranging from the formal to the modern. The massive Irish yew hedges were planted as early as 1702, while the Golden Garden was introduced by the National Trust in 1973. Most splendid of all are the June borders, which during the summer provide two lavish beds of dazzling herbaceous colour set against the backdrop of the castle.

Contact details and travel facts

Crathes Castle
Banchory, Aberdeenshire, AB31 5QJ
Tel : +44(0)1330 844 525
Fax : +44(0)1330 844 797
Web :
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