This post is part 2 of my experience in Scotland’s castle country. Why not read Part 1 of Bending the Knee in Castle Country first?
Scotland’s modern geopolitical designations are a tangle of lieutenancies, registration counties, and shires – just to name a few – that thwart honest attempts to plan simple trips. I had several conversation with Rene while in MoraySpeyside about that very name. Is it Moray? Is it Speyside? Turns out it’s both, but they’re different, and it’s also Banffshire. Somewhere in my head region a vein pulsed. In these situations, I tend to seek relief in the past. I have this romantic and assuredly false notion that it was a simpler time.
Kingdoms and earldoms and all manner of geopolitical distinctions sleep unbothered on ancient maps of Scotland. You could grasp the rising and falling tides of history by leafing through those parchments, by watching names flare into existence and shrink into nothingness. Dalriada, Pictland, Mar. Of particular relevance on my travels through northeast Scotland, the ancient earldom of Mar covered the lands between the rivers Dee and Don west of Aberdeen, an area I trolled for its high concentration of castles. Craigievar Castle and Castle Fraser are a couple of the most impressive I stumbled upon in this region. Read on!
Seven miles south of Alford stands the impressive pink, harled Scottish Baronial towerhouse that is Craigievar Castle. Walking toward the castle from the carpark is a sight yanked from the imagination. Tall, smooth sides stretch toward the sky before a line of corbelling and a series of fantastic turrets. Clan Forbes built Craigievar in the early 17th century and majestically sited it on a hill overlooking the valley around it. Much like Crathes Castle, Craigievar shows little evidence of fortification though it’s said there used to be a walled courtyard that surrounded the castle.
The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) acquired Craigievar Castle in 2006 and has spent countless hours restoring this historical beauty to a semblance of its former glory. It’s one of the few castles that provides a guided tour, and I wonder if it’s a tool to keep overly-curious people from undoing their good work. The interior exists in a unique space between ancient pragmatism and Victorian splendor. Bare rock showed through in places and the stairwells and room walls were tight to one another. Then there would be a room laden with an incredibly skilled plasterwork ceiling. Memorable juxtapositions occurred throughout the castle.
Loads of Clan Forbes portraits bedeck the walls, including the sinister character of “Red” Sir John, a harshly-featured laird with wild red hair. It’s believed that a member of the Gordon clan fell to his death from one of the towers after being forced at sword point by “Red” Sir John. Now, “Red” Sir John’s ghostly footsteps can be heard ascending the tower stairs, as if recounting that treacherous night.
Just northwest of Loch of Skene hides Castle Fraser, considered to be one of the grandest castles of Mar. Like Craigievar, Castle Fraser was completed in the 17th century, but where Craigievar is locked in time Castle Fraser was updated through the Victorian period. The entry road runs between stands of forest all while the tremendous Castle Fraser appears to be hiding below ground, half-submerged like the tip of some giant boulder. The castle itself is all gray stone towers and proud turrets and fanciful witches’ caps. A massive gate leads into the rear courtyard, and you can’t help but think this is what a castle should look like.
Castle Fraser was home to the Frasers and later Mackenzie Frasers before the line died out and the castle was gifted to the NTS. The castle stands on several hundred acres of land and maintains a 19th-century garden that I traipsed through in the light May drizzle.
The castle interior is reminiscent of many castles throughout Scotland: Victorian era furnishings, loads of portraits, and fitted with a shop and café. Despite the museum-like quality, Castle Fraser presented a couple nice surprises in the form of the Laird’s Lug and Squint Hole. Machinations among clans were commonplace occurrences, and these two structural devices provided the laird of Castle Fraser with a distinct leg up. The Laird’s Lug is a small chamber accessed from the laird’s bedroom that provides the user with concealed eavesdropping of the conversations in the great hall. Similarly, the Squint Hole in the priest’s room runs through the wall to the ceiling of the great hall and provides visual access. Those tricksy Frasers!
How to Spend Your Time in Castle Country
With so many castles littering throughout northeast Scotland, it can be difficult to plot out your time. Let me help you. I’ve spun through this region on three separate trips and have a pretty good idea what makes the most rewarding experience.
Unless you are an absolute museum freak or architectural animal, I recommend that you spend two full days exploring the castles of this region. Two castles per day is a good speed, though it’s possible to hit three if they are in close proximity. Given the odd and short opening hours of the castles, you won’t be able to realistically see more than three castles in a day. And you wouldn’t want to, either: rushing from castle to castle robs you of the chance to soak in the unique history.
I strongly recommend Craigievar and Drum Castles. They capture history like few others. One final tip: remember to check the opening times of the castles. Most are only open in the summer months and each one has different opening days and hours. The last thing you want is to arrive at a castle only to find it’s closed. Trust me. It happened to me three times in one day back in 2006. Have fun!