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Issue 46 - Kellie Castle

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 46
August 2009

 

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Kellie Castle

Charles Douglas visits an ancient and important castle in the East Neuk of Fife.

Located inland from the attractive East Neuk of Fife villages of Pittenweem and St Monans, Kellie Castle is a hidden gem. But were it not for word of mouth, and the holidaymakers who annually swell the surrounding area during the summer months, it might almost have remained as such.

Neukis the Scottish word for a ‘corner,’ and that is exactly what this district of the Kingdom of Fife comprises, a delightful retreat from urban, industrial Scotland. For generations its coastal necklace of immensely picturesque little fishing villages and towns, verging upon rich farmland, has been a magnet for seasonal visitors.

The first record of there being occupancy at Kellie is from 1150 when Malmure, Thane of Kellie, witnessed a charter from King David I.

The estate then passed to Robert de London, a natural son of King David’s grandson, William the Lion, King of Scots from 1165 to 1214.

In 1266, however, the Kellie estate was acquired by the Siward family, who had arrived in Scotland from Northumbria a century earlier to assist Malcolm III (Canmore) in overthrowing Macbeth. They proved a duplicitous and short lived dynasty.

After Richard Siward’s support of Edward I of England in the first War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328), his lands were confiscated by the Scottish Crown, although his daughter Helena was permitted to remain at the castle. In 1360, she signed everything over to her cousin, Walter Oliphant, and it was his descendants who subsequently occupied Kellie for the following quarter century. During this period, additional apartments were added to the original tower house, with the east tower created in 1573 by the 4th Lord Oliphant who had the date and initials of his wife inscribed high up on its wall face.

But the Oliphants had other properties, and Kellie Castle was sold to Sir Thomas Erskine in 1613. Thirteen years earlier, this gallant had saved the life of the young James VI in the Gowrie Conspiracy plot at Perth, so it comes as no surprise to learn that it was at Kellie that the King chose to stay when, in 1617, he made his one and only return visit to Scotland after the Union of the Crowns.

Sir Thomas was created Earl of Kellie, and his descendants thereafter lived at Kellie Castle for almost two centuries.

Unfortunately when Archibald, 7th Earl, died in 1797, he left no direct heir and his titles and castle were inherited by a series of distant relatives, none of whom wanted to take up residence there. In 1829, the 10th Earl died, again leaving no obvious heirs, so the building was abandoned until 1835 when the Kellie earldom and estate were successfully claimed by John Erskine, 9th Earl of Mar, who offered proof of distant family links dating back two centuries. Alas, the Mars also chose to live elsewhere and the castle’s fortunes continued to go downhill.

By 1860 the great hall was being used as a barn for agricultural storage.

Then came salvation. During a family holiday in 1870, James Lorimer, Regius Professor of Law at Edinburgh University, came across it almost by accident. Taking up a 38-year lease, he moved his family into what was effectively a ruin with the 10th Earl of Mar and 12th Earl of Kellie agreeing to undertake external repairs on the basis that Lorimer restored the interiors. The acquisition is commemorated by a plaque with a Latin inscription which, when translated, reads: “This mansion snatched from rooks and owls is dedicated to honest ease amongst labours 1878.” But when James’s eldest son John died in 1936, the contents were sold and it looked as if the castle would be abandoned again.

Happily, his nephew Hew Lorimer, the second son of the celebrated architect Sir Robert Lorimer and himself a well-known sculptor, agreed to take on the lease and, with his wife Mary, brought the old place back to life again. Afew years before the 12th Earl of Mar died in 1955, he offered to sell Kellie Castle to the Lorimers, and they readily accepted. When Mary died in 1970, the family, aware of the costs of upkeep, approached the National Trust for Scotland which, with the support of the Secretary of State for Scotland, became the new owner, although Hew was able to stay on there until his death in 1993.

And all credit to the Trust. Now open to the general public, Kellie Castle’s interiors have remained unspoiled, homely and welcoming with painted panelling and fine plasterwork ceilings from the 17th century. In the nursery there are toys and a rocking horse. With his most celebrated work having been the 30ft high granite statue of Our Lady of the Isles, which stands on a hillside in South Uist in the Hebrides, Hew Lorimer is regarded as one of Scotland’s most important sculptors and examples of his work, inter-changing with paintings by his uncle John Henry Lorimer, are displayed in the stables.

From the garden can be seen expansive views over the Firth of Forth towards the East Lothian coast and Bass Rock. There is an organic walled garden with fresh produce available to buy, and, elsewhere, a fine collection of old-fashioned roses and organically cultivated herbaceous plants.