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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XIV. The Oldest Castle in Scotland


DAMASCUS is called the oldest city in the world. Its history can be traced back to the days of Abraham, whose steward was Eliezer of Damascus (Gen. xv. 2). The oldest inhabited house in England is said to be what is locally known as the Jew’s House, at Wallingford, which dates from the reign of Edward I. (1272-1307). It is curious to compare England with the United States. In the latter the oldest inhabited house is said to be that of William Van Rennselaer, opposite Albany, New York. According to a plate set up by the Albany Memorial Society, it was erected in 1642. The front walls still show the two portholes, through which the early inhabitants used to shoot the Indians. In Scotland there are houses that have a hoarier antiquity that even the Jew’s House. Dunvegan claims to have been continuously inhabited since the 14th century; Dunrobin (Sutherland) since the 13th; and Redcastle (Ross-shire) since 1179. From war and siege, and the long result of time, these castles have undergone great changes, the old is merged in the new, and the original plan cannot be discovered. But it is otherwise with Castle Roy, which, though a ruin, and uninhabited for hundreds of years, still retains its first form and character. In M’Gibbon and Ross’s learned work on "The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland," it is given as the earliest type of castle, and it is on this ground that we claim it to be the "Oldest Castle in Scotland’." But before describing Castle Roy it may be well, for the sake of comparison, to refer to another so-called castle in our parish. On the hill above Loch Pytoulish there is an outstanding Crag, called Creag Chaisdeall. It faces the west, and commands a wide view both up and down the Strath. The sides are steep and rugged, and the only access is from the south-west. On this height there are the remains of an ancient fort. It is now but a great heap of stones, the haunt of rabbits but on examination the plan can be so far made out. The diameter is about 27 feet, and the thickness of the walls about 11 feet. The material is the schist rock of the district. There are no marks of tools or mortar, and the walls seem to have been built after the fashion of the pre-historic cairns, such as those at Miltoun of Kincardine and Loch-nan-carragh, near Aviemore. Probably the fort may have been used as a watch-tower or signal post, but there are no indications of fire or vitrification. On the moor below, as in other places near, there are the remains of cairns and hut-circles, and on one massive slab there are four cup-marks. This fort is allied to the Brochs. Castle Roy, on the other hand, seems to hold a place between the Brochs and the Norman Castles. The time of Norman settlement and colonisation in Scotland was about 180 years, from the accession of David I. as Prince of Cumbria in 1107, to the death of Alexander III. in 1286. During this period numerous castles were built in the north. The first were probably of the Castle Roy type, the Broch being enlarged and modified somewhat after the fashion of a Roman Castrum, of which there is a fine specimen at Richborough; afterwards they were developed into more elaborate structures. "The general idea of the 13th century Castles (in Scotland) is that of a large fortified enclosure. The plan is usually quadrilateral—but more or less irregular, so as to suit the site. . . . The curtain walls are about 7 to 9 feet in thickness by 20 to 30 feet high. The angles are frequently provided with round or square towers, and no doubt these and the curtains had parapets with embrasures for defence, and rampart walks all round the walls. The entrance gateway was always wide, and seems to have been generally provided with a portcullis. There is sometimes also a postern door." Castle Roy (Ruadh, red) belongs to the simplest type of these old fortresses. It stands on a height, from 10 to 15 feet above the level of the surrounding fields, about 200 yards north of the present Parish Church. There is a trend in the ground to the east, separating it from the rocks of the Craggans, and below, towards the Spey, are wide meadows, still sometimes flooded, and in old times probably an impassable morass.

Castle Roy

"The walls are 7 feet thick, built with strong rubble work, and are still from 20 to 25 feet high. The enclosed space measures 80 feet from North to South by 53 feet from East to West within the walls. The entrance is by a door-way, 8 feet wide, in the north wall, the inner pointed arch of which still remains. There is a square tower, at the North West angle, and the remains of a large window near it, which has also a pointed arch in the reveal; but it seems doubtful whether these are not later additions. The East angle of the enclosure is complete! without any appearance of a tower having ever existed there. At the South-East angle the wall is broken away, as if for the purpose of adding a tower similar to that at the North-West angle, but apparently no tower has ever been built there. The recess in the wall at the South-West angle, which is on the ground level, seems to have been used as latrines. There is a projecting garde-robe over this in the upper part of the wall, but no appearance of any tower at this angle either. The building seems to have been simply a large enclosing wall of great height, and was no doubt well defended from the parapet, for the purpose of sheltering the vassals and their property. There were probably wooden or other buildings within the enclosure, with roofs supported against the curtains, but no trace of these now exists" (M’Gibbon and Ross, Vol. I., p. 66). It may be mentioned that Lochindorb Castle has towers at the four corners, and is altogether of a more advanced type than Castle Roy. The stones of which Castle Roy was built must have been got from the neighbourhood. They are of small size. There is no trace of chisel or tool upon any of them. The lime employed was probably taken from Achnagonaln quarry, and there is the remains of a rude lime-kiln near the road-side, about a quarter of a mile to the east, where the stones may have been burnt. The mortar seems to have been mixed with charcoal, and is of singular strength and cohesiveness. The walls seem to have been built in stages, and the lines are well marked on the south side, showing that each stage was about 20 inches in depth. From the evenness and plumb of the wall, and the indications of its having been built by stages, it might be conjectured that the stones had been laid in a wooden frame, which was raised by degrees as required. There is an old Gaelic saying, Is ann mu ‘n seach, or, uidh air uidh, thogar an Dun, "It is turn by turn the fort is built," which favours this opinion. Tradition says that there was a crypt or vault in the central court; and there were old people alive 60 years ago who alleged that they had seen the opening and steps leading to this underground apartment. They said it was the cause of accidents to cattle, and that, therefore, it had been filled up. There are other traditions of the kind common to old castles, as that a treasure or Ullaidh is hidden within the walls, but as the plague is hidden there also, it would be unsafe to search for it. Another legend is that there was a secret underground passage leading from the castle to the church. A strange old world story is told connected with the Mote-hill. It is said that one of the Baron Bailies, at Balliemore, had taken earth from the churchyard to put upon his fields. This gave great offence, and the Bailie had to discontinue the practice. Some time after, when sitting on the Mote-hill, he was stricken with apoplexy and died. The people said it was a judgment of God; that though he had given up taking the earth with his hand, he had gone on doing it in his heart.

Castle Roy is believed to have been built by the Comyns, and may have been their residence in the Lordship of Abernethy. It seems to have been still in use in the sixteenth century, as it is named, along with the castles of Tarnua and Hall Hill, in the Charter of the Earldom of Moray obtained by George, Lord Chancellor, 13th February, 1548.


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