The bit of North East Scotland which sticks farthest out into the North Sea is known historically as Buchan. And Buchan is said to derive from an old Scots expression meaning “Land at the Bend in the Ocean”. There certainly is a bend, and a sharp one at that, where the harsh North Sea gives way to the gentler climate of the Moray Firth.
A little bit round the bend is the village of Rosehearty. And about half a mile inland of the village lie the ruins of Pitsligo Castle. At first glance, it’s nothing special. Not in official care, and pretty much ruined, it has in recent times been used by a farmer to overwinter cattle. A little ironic, perhaps, that these cows should happily munch their feed in the great hall, where once their succulent ancestors would have rotated on a spit.
It doesn’t immediately attract the eye. Ruined and untidy. No car parks or coffee shops. No manicured lawns and flags flying. Sorry. But this is history in the raw. And while I feel very strongly that our historical heritage should be conserved, and applaud the work of the National Trust, Historic Scotland, et al, sometimes when I find a ruin like this, lurking forgotten and almost unseen, I rejoice that it is not commercialised. I’m not at all sure that I want to see coach-loads of tourists clambering over these ruined walls, smearing ice-cream over our roots.
So what do we have here, and what makes it special?
The oldest part of Pitsligo Castle is the three-storey square keep, built in 1424 by the Frasers of Philorth. It quickly passed into the hands of the Forbeses of Druminnor, by the marriage of William Forbes to the only daughter of Sir William Fraser of Philorth. The Forbes family extended it into a courtyard castle in the 1570s.
The three storey tower is an interesting structure, for it illustrates well the rudimentary living conditions of the times. Although it is some eighty feet long by thirty-six wide, each floor is only one room. The ground floor was the kitchen, the first the living area, and the second the communal bedroom – said to have contained twenty-four beds.
The living room was about twenty-five feet high. Pity the poor guy who had to cut all the peats to keep that warm in the winter.
The last Laird of Pitsligo is also the best-known – Alexander Forbes, twelfth laird and fourth Lord Pitsligo. He was born in 1678, and spent many years in France. With the exaggerated patriotism of the exile, his allegiance to the House of Stuart was unshakeable. And this is what got him into trouble.
Lord Pitsligo returned from France in 1700, and took his rightful, inherited seat in Parliament. He immediately allied himself with the Scottish Nationalists of the day, the faction which pursued the defence of independence. He took up arms with the Earl of Mar, but after the battle of Sheriffmuir he was forced to flee the country.
He returned to Scotland after six years of exile, and lived for some time in the Castle. Pitsligo was not, at that time, a wealthy estate, but nonetheless Lord Pitsligo was noted for his kindness, charity, and assistance to the poor. This benevolent and passive passage into old age was not going to go uninterrupted, however. At the age of sixty-seven, and not in the best of health, he heard the news of Prince Charlie’s landing at Glenfinnan. It was 1745, and things were about to happen.
The spirits of the Jacobites were high, but they lacked leadership. Though at the time, the pipe and slippers probably held more appeal, the good laird rose to the occasion, rendezvoused with the Prince’s supporters in Aberdeen, and led them to the Royal HQ in Edinburgh.
Well, on balance, it wasn’t the best of moves. He ended up at Culloden. The rest, as they say, is history.
At least he survived the Cumberland Butcher.
Hunted and persecuted, the ageing outlaw sought shelter among supporters of the cause, and had little trouble in that. For even after Culloden, the Jacobite cause was staunchly and widely – if secretively – upheld. Disguised as a beggar, he moved from house to house, getting a bowl of brose here, the shelter of a barn there. A testimony to his experiences is Lord Pitsligo’s cave, on the coast between Rosehearty and New Aberdour, in which he frequently took refuge.
He had many close encounters with the patrols of soldiers pursuing him. On one occasion, having heard of his habit of sleeping in the cave, the soldiers picked up a beggar, and made him show them where this cave was. It was empty, of course, given that his Lordship was the beggar.
In 1748, the estate of Pitsligo was seized by the Crown. The laird lost everything, and became wholly dependent on those around him who had once been his tenants, and who now risked their lives to give him shelter. They held him in high regard, though, and looked after him well. And the heat went out of the pursuit eventually, and when he died in 1762, although a pauper, he was no longer a fugitive.
Seems this has turned into the tale of a man, rather than a Castle. But then that’s what the castle is all about. Its physical remains yet hold many tales. We just have to seek them out.
To find Pitsligo Castle, take the A92 from Aberdeen to Fraserburgh, then follow the coastal B9031 to Rosehearty. Turn left on to an unclassified road as you enter the village. The Castle is visible at this point, being less than half a mile up the hill on the left. Map Ref NJ937669.
I wrote the above piece on Pitsligo Castle a few years back, after scrambling over the neglected ruins once again. I had been there many times before. I grew up not far away. And I spent many of my adult years within less than an hour’s drive.
It always saddened me to see such an important part of Scotland ‘s heritage crumbling and decaying, neglected and unloved.
I make no apology for my critical tone. I do not condone neglect of our heritage. I wrote it as I saw it at the time. Such is the Internet. Our offerings become overtaken by events.
Let us not underestimate the power of BritishExpat.com.
Via the Editor, I was contacted by someone involved with a group called Friends of Pitsligo Castle. I am just so happy with what I have learned.
This active local body has raised funds and accessed grants to carry out preservation work on the building. And furthermore, they have acquired the adjacent Peathill Church, with plans for a Visitor Centre.
I have provisionally arranged to meet with the Friends next time I’m in Aberdeenshire, so watch this space for the next instalment which hopefully I can call “Pitsligo – The Resurrection”.
© Mike Clark 2002, 2005
Mike discovered the joys of horticulture when, as a small child, he overheard a neighbour say she'd dropped a sixpence in the tattie patch. He has been digging ever since, with the tenacity of a true Scot, hoping one day to find a fiver. Despite now running his own landscape gardening business, Mike claims to be permanently broke, due in part to his quest for fame resulting in writing gardening columns for free. He likes trees, Jack Russells, and 12 year old Glen Ord, but not necessarily in that order. Gifts of any of these can be sent c/o britishexpat.com, but he would like to point out that the third item is by far the easiest and cheapest to post. One of the highlights of his life was winning a toilet brush in a raffle. He persevered with it for ages, but he's back on the paper now... Mike approaches gardening and writing with exactly the same formula. Throw in plenty of manure, and something good will eventually spring up.