Huntly Castle is a ruin but what a ruin. It is big and bold and sits in a green park surrounded by trees and the rivers Bogie and Deveron.
Next to what remains of the castle is part of an extant motte site of the original 12th century Strathbogie castle – built for an earl of Fife. This first castle was wooden and was burnt down by the Black Douglas clan in 1496. Out of the ashes emerged first a tower house built soon after the fire and gradually more buildings were added until the great hulk of castle we see now – bigger and bolder than the earlier one emerged and to be on the safe side it was constructed of stone; mainly sandstone and freestone, altogether more resistant to fire than wood. Practically nothing remains of the tower house but the later castle, though tumbledown, hints at what it must have been like – something pretty amazing.
King James IV used to make annual pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Duthac in Tain, north of Inverness, and he often stopped off at Huntly en route. During one visit, in 1501, he watched the stonemasons at work building or biggin the castle as they say in the northeast of Scotland and so impressed was he with their handiwork he gave them some tokens in the way of money and I’m not surprised because they made a grand job of it; the stone carving is superb.
A fragment of the original roughly paved road made up of pebbles and boulders which led to the eastern part of the castle constructed in the 17thC
The spectacular ruin that stands in Huntly belonged to the Gordon family. Many of you will know that the name Gordon is very much associated with Aberdeenshire although scratch around and you might disturb some French roots in the guise of Gourdon (there is a place of that name farther down the Aberdeenshire coast) and a nod to Berwickshire where a bloke by the name of Sir Adam de Gordon thought he would like a bit of a change – and having shifted allegiance during the Scottish Wars of Independence he eventually ended up on the right side and was promptly rewarded with parcels of land in Strathbogie by Robert the Bruce. Such is how land came to be distributed – ending up in the hands of powerful families – handed out like sweeties. Cronyism has a long pedigree. Doing someone a favour, raising troops to fight their cause once secured immense tracts of land for families who prided themselves on their ability to accumulate piles and piles of the countryside. Some of them are still determinedly clinging on to land they acquired in all manner of dodgy ways in the past and will fight anyone who suggests they don’t have fair claim to their estates – in the courts not on the battlefield anymore.
The Gordons were proud of their lands and the great muckle house built at Huntly. George Gordon the 1st Marquess of Huntly had pride a-plenty which probably explains why plastered his and hers names right across the front of their impressive pile – akin today of installing neon lighting on the front of your house. The bold inscription reads:
GEORGE GORDON FIRST MARQUESS OF HUNTLY 16
HENRIETTE STEWART MARQUESSE OF HUNTLY 02
Not forgetting the hand of God pointing out each name. Well if you have it, flaunt it, said God.
The hand of God points to the names of the Gordons who owned the castle
All generations of Gordons included a George so the story of the George Gordons can get very muddled and as the Gordons were always in the thick of the action, more than your average family, I will avoid going into detail. However, I cannot entirely.
One of the several George Gordons – the one who wrote his name across his house – was an influential political figure in Scotland, attached to the royal court, and a nephew of James V. He was no shrinking violet as you may have deduced and earned himself the nickname, the Cock o’ the North.
This epithet transferred to the Gordon Highlander regiment who came to be known as the Cocky wee Gordons and not-so-long-ago a popular ditty was oft sung across Scotland – ask your granny or maybe your great granny and watch her face light up with the memory.
A Gordon for me, a Gordon for me,
If ye’re no a Gordon ye’re no use to me.
The Black Watch are braw, the Seaforths and a’
But the cocky wee Gordon’s the pride o’ them a’.
Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ mother, was involved in a plot to clip the wings of the Cock o’ the North. I should have said the Gordons were Catholics and so was Mary of Guise but then she turned on some other Catholics at the time of the Reformation because – well, because that was the politic thing to do – and heads were optional extras in those days.
Gordon the Catholic was ambushed by a party of royalist Stewarts and he was killed. His corpse was then embalmed and put on trial for treason. I can assure you stranger things have happened. His castle was looted and religious carvings relating to the old faith found there, including two medallions above his front door – most unusual in Scotland, were destroyed.
As you will have gathered people, let’s be clear men, were pretty bloodthirsty all those centuries ago – and that’s without video nasties – and there was a definite trend for Scotland’s landed families to go at it hammer and tongs against their neighbours. You would think history has been a constant power struggle for land and political influence and you’d be right.
Back to the castle. Medieval palaces tended to expand over the centuries ending up in a melange of architectural styles. Huntly Castle is no different. Building was still going on when the Scottish civil war broke out in the 17th century. All these centuries on and the Gordons were still fighting anyone and everyone; family, strangers, neighbours – everyone.
Graffiti is there in abundance in the castle with some beautifully written letters
At the Battle of Aberdeen in 1644 at the time of the Scottish Civil War the Gordon clan fought on both sides – Covenanters and Royalists so that at least some of them would be on the winning side.
George Gordon, 2nd Marquess of Huntly, (son of George Cock o’ the North and Henrietta Stewart) brought up a Protestant Episcopalian at the court of James VI, was on the winning, royalist, side at the Battle of Alford in 1645 at which he fought alongside his son, also George, who was killed. George the 2nd Marquess had, in 1639, been secretly appointed to oppose the Covenanters in the north of Scotland and at Turriff he led a force of 2,000 in a show of strength against a gathering of 800 men led by the Marquess of Montrose (then in support of the Covenanters.) The two sides sized each other up but a tense situation passed without the spilling of blood.
Stone stairs lead to all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies. Some original joist ends have survived and the later castle from the north side
The peace was not to last and there followed a game of cat and mouse between Montrose and Gordon who was none too keen on getting dragged into the whole difficult affair with the Covenanters.
One day Montrose said to Gordon, “Do you fancy a trip to Edinburgh?”
Gordon smelling a rat replied, “No, not really.”
Montrose, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer and so Gordon was taken to the capital to intimidate him into behaving but he shrugged off the threat and travelled north again and fought in a battle at the Brig o’ Dee at Aberdeen. As a punishment Huntly Castle was plundered and the fate of both castle and the Gordons thereafter followed a downward trajectory. Gordon/Huntly was again a wanted man who embarked on the 1640s equivalent of trains, planes and automobiles to make his escape – by horse, foot and boat. He kept on the move – all around the north of Scotland but was captured at Strathdon in a violent incident that saw both his servants and friends killed. Gordon ended up back in Edinburgh, locked up in the tolbooth until in March 1649 he was beheaded.
Life was one long power struggle for wealthy families in past centuries but there were occasional intermissions when peace broke out long enough for a game of football to take place or even a marriage. Football was a popular pastime with the rich and powerful in Scottish society in past centuries – less so today.
The Gordons enjoyed a game of fitba and like most landed gentry they also liked to keep their options open by shifting allegiances according to where their interests happened to lie on any particular day. They were split as a family during the Jacobite risings in 1715-16 and 1745-46 when once more royalist/government troops took over Huntly Castle and the gentle decay that had begun in the previous century continued apace following the unfriendly attentions of anti-Jacobite government troops.
It’s hard to get an impression of how opulent Huntly Castle must have been in its heyday – reputedly no expense spared and very grand indeed with all the main rooms highly decorated and beautifully painted ceilings. John Anderson was the painter responsible for some of the ceiling work, not sure if he was local, might have been and so impressive were his efforts he was commissioned to work on Falkland Palace and Edinburgh Castle. Of course Huntly Castle set the standard. The few remaining carvings tease us into regretting what has been lost but Historic Scotland have done a grand job both with the preservation of the place and a highly informative glossy booklet available in the shop.
As for the Gordons they were scattered across the country and the Continent some settled in Poland. There are still an awful lot of Gordons around Aberdeenshire and some famous ones around the world – and the most famous of all surely Commissioner Jim Gordon of Gotham City unless you think Lord Byron better known – he was half-Scottish – a Gordon through his mother’s family and known as – well what else but George Gordon before England claimed him.
Enjoy Huntly Castle.