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Issue 99 - The Star of Strathdon

Scotland Magazine Issue 99
June 2018

 

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The Star of Strathdon

Charles Douglas visits Corgarff Castle

Over the four centuries of its existence, Corgarff Castle has witnessed its fair share of siege and bloodshed. Fire damaged in 1571, 1607, 1689 and 1746, this utilitarian fortress nevertheless squats defiantly upon the remote moorland of Strathdon to guard the Lecht Road from Tomintoul. Gleaming white and rising behind a star-shaped curtain wall, from a distance it has the startling appearance of a toy castle. But the truth is far from it. Corgarff Castle was built for a purpose.

The original fortified building, close to the headwaters of the River Don, was accessed at first floor level by wooden steps. Accommodation consisted of a basement with two vaulted cellars, above which was a vaulted main hall. On the first floor was a vaulted kitchen with a mezzanine level above. On the second floor was a non-vaulted storey divided into two chambers with a garret above. Despite the 18th-Century additions, it still remains much as it must have appeared when first erected. Ready for action.

Although the Forest of Corgarff was originally connected to the wealthy Aberdeen family of Elphinstone, the castle was most likely built in the mid-16th Century by Lord Forbes of Towie, who inherited the lands through marriage. In 1571, a rubble-built castle is on record as having been attacked and burned by Adam Gordon of Auchindoun, a massacre that resulted in the deaths of Lady Forbes and her two daughters.

Gordon of Auchindoun, based at Dufftown in Moray, was a fierce supporter of the exiled Mary, Queen of Scots, against the Regent Morton and followers of Mary’s son, James VI, which notably included Clan Forbes. When Margaret Forbes refused to surrender the castle to Adam Gordon, he ordered for kindling to be piled against the walls and all of the female occupants, numbering 30 or more, died in the blaze. This infamous incident is immortalised in the rather grisly traditional ballad Edom o Gordon.

Such a tragedy would obviously have affected the Forbes family’s ongoing occupation of the site which, in the meantime, was appropriated by some local insurgents. In 1626, they were evicted when John Erskine, 18th Earl of Mar, took over the estate. Although derelict, Corgarff reverted to its strategic role as a mustering point for the noble 1st Marquis of Montrose, who commanded the Royalist forces in Scotland for Charles II.

In the Jacobite Rising of 1689, James Graham, Viscount Dundee, ordered for the castle to again be destroyed to prevent it being used by the Government forces of William of Orange. Rebuilt in 1715, it was garrisoned by the 23rd Earl of Mar after he had launched the second Jacobite Rising from neighbouring Kildrummy Castle. From here he marched his fighting men on Braemar but, as a consequence of their subsequent defeat, Corgarff was once again burned down and confiscated by the Hanovarian Government.

The Corgarff Castle that we see today was largely rebuilt after the defeat of Prince Charles Edward Stuart at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Converted into a military barracks by the Hanovarian Government in 1748, the courtyard buildings were replaced with two pavilions. These, and the star-shaped encircling wall with musket loops, are not dissimilar to those at Braemar Castle, which can be found 12 miles to the south. Both castles were fortified as outposts to police the unruly north-east Highlands and, for the ensuing 95 years, Corgarff again protected the military road from Braemar Castle to Fort George.

Corgarff Castle was eventually returned to private ownership in the early 19th Century and, for a time, it became a farmhouse and whisky distillery, which was occupied until 1914. In 1947, the surrounding Delnadamph sporting estate was purchased by Sir Edmund Villiers Stockdale, later to become Lord Mayor of London, and, in 1961, he handed this over to the state. In 1971, the Stockdale family gifted Corgarff Castle to the Lonach Highland and Friendly Society, which had been founded in 1823 by Sir Charles Forbes.

Today the castle comes under the umbrella of Historic Environment Scotland. Visitors should note that the castle is closed each year from 1 October until 31 March.

Visitor Information 

Corgarff Castle Castle Lodge, Corgarff, Aberdeenshire, AB36 8YP 

+44 (0) 131 668 8800 

www.historicenvironment.scot