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Issue 51 - Strategic value

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010


This article is 8 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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Strategic value

Charles Douglas visits Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire.

Strategically located on a bend of the River Ethan in Aberdeenshire, Fyvie Castle, which is administered by the National Trust for Scotland, once provided a useful northern stopping-off point for medieval Scottish monarchs such as William the Lion and Alexander II. The Gaelic word Fyvie means “Deer Hill”, and the estate then formed part of an extensive royal hunting forest. But it was a very different castle in those days, largely employed for defensive purposes, which meant that it was frequently under siege.

Occupied as a result by both Edward I of England and Robert the Bruce during the Scottish Wars, it was gifted by Robert II to his cousin Sir James Lindsay. However, after the Scottish victory at Otterburn in 1388, King Robert, needing to acquire the ransom rights to Ralph de Percy, captured son of the first Earl of Northumberland, controversially reassigned the lands of Fyvie to Sir Henry Preston, who had taken Percy prisoner.

In the event, the Preston family did not take possession of the castle until the following century when it passed through marriage to the Meldrum family. In 1596 it was sold to Sir Alexander Seton, a lawyer who subsequently became Chancellor of Scotland under James VI and was created Earl of Dunfermline.

Sir Alexander owned several other properties, notably Pluscardine in Aberdeenshire and Pinkie House at Musselburgh, and he dramatically altered the appearance of Fyvie by expanding the building with a west range and the creation of a central tower, the Seton Tower. As guardians of the Royal children, the Countess of Dunfermline was largely responsible for bringing up the infant Charles I.

Alas, the Setons were one of Scotland’s most remarkable families whose meteoric rise to become lords Seton, and earls of Dunfermline and Winton was only matched by the devastating speed of their downfall through backing the wrong side in the ever changing snake pit of Anglo-Scottish politics.

In 1689, James, fourth Earl of Dunfermline came out in support of the exiled James VII, and was outlawed and forteit of his estates.

He died five years later an exile himself in Paris, and, as a consequence, the Dunfermline estates were held by the Crown until 1733, when Fyvie was purchased by William Gordon, second Earl of Aberdeen for the eldest son of his third marriage.

It was this William Gordon of Fyvie who added what was to become known as the Gordon Tower on the north end of the Seton’s west range. The main entrance on the south front was replaced by an entrance facing onto the quadrangle on the inside of the west range. At the same time, marshes were drained and substantial woodland planting took place transforming the landscape.

Then in 1889, the castle and estate were purchased by Alexander Leith who had made his fortune in the steel industry in the USA. Fyvie Castle became the showcase for his impressive collection of paintings, tapestries and furniture, and Leith’s legacy was that he built the castle’s third tower.

Alexander Leith’s grandmother was Mary Forbes, from an old Aberdeenshire family, and after the acquisition of Fyvie, the family styled themselves Forbes-Leith. In 1905, Alexander was created Baron Leith of Fyvie, and commissioned the architect David Bryce to add on yet another tower, the Leith Tower, along with some spectacular interior decoration. The gallery and spacious drawing room in the Leith and Gordon towers, with barrel vaulted ceiling and pipe organ, are considered two of the finest Edwardian rooms in Britain.

Fyvie Castle was occupied as a hospital during the First World War, and although the family took up residence again soon afterwards, the death of an elder son on active service in Malaya in 1950, and subsequent family bereavements led to the castle and 100 acres of land being acquired by the National Trust for Scotland supported by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, in 1984. Part of the transaction agreement, however, stipulated that the contents, papers dating from the fourteenth century, and a magnificent collections of paintings including what is considered to be the finest group of portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn held outside of the National Galleries of Scotland, be left in situ on loan from the family.

There is therefore plenty for the visitor to see. In the entrance hall , there is an imposing fireplace over which there is a plaster relief depicting the Battle of Otterburn where the luckless Ralph de Percy was captured. The enormous drawing room opens into a gallery hung with fine tapestries. The library, built to an intricate design, features a second, smaller library and study in a turret. It is also rumoured that a secret chamber lies immediately below the Charter Room and that should it ever be entered, the laird of the day will die and his wife will go blind.

Wildly romantic in appearance, Fyvie Castle inevitable lends itself to the stuff of romance, fantasy and legend, and one particular tradition is encapsulated in the folk song The Bonny Lass o’ Fyvie.

For green grow the birks upon bonnie Ythanside, And low lie the bonnie lewes o Fyvie O; In Fyvie there’s bonnie, in Fyvie there’s braw, In Fyvie there’s bonnie lassies mony O.

The ballad is thought to have originated from 1645, prior to the Battle of Philiphaugh, when a troop of Irish Dragoons, part of the Marquis of Montrose’s army, sought refuge at the royalist held Fyvie Castle.

Take time to explore the walled garden bursting with fruits and vegetables. There is also the American Garden, the Rhymer’s Haugh Woodland Garden, and a loch. And why not join the evening guided walk to contemplate the footsteps of all those bonnie lassies who have trodden here. A Grey Lady, it is said, has often been seen.