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13 Jan 2021

A path to the past

Written by Annie Robertson MRICS (Surveyor, North East)
A view of a tall, turreted, pink-walled castle, with an older stone wall in the foreground. At the corner of the wall is a small tower, with a slate tiled conical roof. Green lawns, tall trees and shrubs otherwise surround the castle.
Craigievar Castle and the surviving barmkin
Craigievar Castle is an architectural masterpiece, the apotheosis of the Scottish Baronial tower house style. Set into the rolling hillside, its fairytale pink form can be seen from miles around.

But Craigievar Castle didn’t always stand in stark isolation as it does today; it was once adjoined by a lower enclosing wall, known in Scots as a barmkin. We’re now able to share the story of this lost wall through the installation of new flagstone paving and interpretation panels, allowing visitors to understand how the landscape around the castle would once have looked.

The barmkin wall at Craigievar dates from the 16th century, in line with the original smaller (and simpler) tower house built by the Mortimer family. The barmkin was retained in the 1620s when ‘Danzig Willie’ redeveloped the tower into the sculptural form we recognise today. However, the wall would have altered the appearance of the now-lonesome and majestic tower. Seen from a distance, its slender, seven storeys would have looked heavier and more deeply anchored to the ground, due to the proportions of its plain lower walls being offset by the barmkin before the tower erupts into elaborate ornamentation at its upper storeys.

A surviving section of the wall, with a corner tower, remains to the west of the castle, giving us an idea of the scale and form that the complete wall once took. Barmkin walls were an integral part of early tower house architecture in Scotland and most tower houses were once surrounded by such walls. In fact, the footprint of many courtyard castles and houses today follow the lines of the old barmkin enclosures – Leith Hall, near Huntly, is a great example of such a development.

This surviving section at Craigievar is now considered rare, as nearly all barmkins have been long since lost. Many fell victim to changing tastes and fashions, either at the hands of the improvers of the 18th-century landscape movement or from being demolished during the never-ending ambition to add wings and accommodate more rooms.

Early barmkin walls were sometimes built using earth and timber, but most were built from stone and lime mortar. Their size and form would vary depending on the site and regional construction habits, but the defensive need and political climate (both locally and nationally) also had an influence at the time of the construction. In 1525, in an attempt to control the disputes in the lands around the border with England, James V laid down a new Act of Parliament. It stated that every landed man in the region ‘shall build a sufficient barmkin upon his heritage and lands in the most suitable place, of stone and lime, containing three score foot of the square, one ell thick and six ells high, for the protection and defence of him, his tenants and their goods in troublesome times’. This translates to barmkin walls that were just under 1m thick, 5m high and enclosing a courtyard of 18m² as a minimum size. This would also, of course, depend on the depth of the pockets and status of the constructing family; great families built great towers with great barmkin walls.

A coloured illustration of a stone tower house, with a large walled courtyard attached in the foreground. Figures are shown on the lawn inside the courtyard. The roofs of the tower and courtyard buildings are shown as made from dark slate tiles.
Reconstruction drawing of the barmkin courtyard and old tower

The purpose of a barmkin was to offer the tower house a private and secure courtyard. Access was often limited to one main entrance with an iron or timber gate, which would be guarded by a gatekeeper to make sure that any trouble was firmly quashed outside the walls. There was a wall-walk (a raised, protected walkway) at the head, giving the watchmen a better vantage for monitoring the surrounding approach. It was also useful during a defensive attack, allowing fire to rain down from above.

Inside the courtyard there were usually a number of structures or ‘laigh biggins’ (low buildings), which provided areas for the ancillary aspects of life in a tower house. These may have included a brewery, dairy, bakehouse, stables, byre, stores, laundry or buildings to house tradespeople such as blacksmiths, carpenters, chandlers or weavers. The courtyard would have been a busy place, full of the noise and smells of people going about their daily work. Some livestock may have also been brought in for over-wintering or to protect them from thieves, particularly during any times of conflict. This hive of activity is much unlike the peaceful tranquillity surrounding many tower houses today.

At Craigievar, we don’t have any records to tell us exactly what activities were accommodated within the barmkin, but through archives, estate plans and archaeological investigations we know that there were a number of structures within the courtyard. To the north, a building made from timber or stone filled the gap that now exists between the castle and the surviving barmkin wall. To the south, archaeologists have found post holes, indicating that there was once a structure here made from timber, likely a lean-to with stone slabs forming the roof covering.

A newly paved flagstone path leads out from an old stone wall, with a corner tower. An arched entrance can be seen half way along the old stone wall, with a set of stone stairs.
The barmkin enclosure from the south

The entrance to the courtyard was through an arched opening to the west, still present in the remaining section where visitors can pass through today to get to the upper gardens (as seen above). This location would have been more precarious centuries ago and certainly not somewhere to procrastinate, due to the gun loops either side of the archway. Today, you’ll see steps leading down from this entrance. This change in ground level, still seen in the natural slope to the north, would have caused drainage problems around the castle. It’s likely that the ground towards the castle was dug out at some point to try to alleviate these issues, which resulted in the stability of the wall being undermined. Stone buttresses were added to strengthen the wall and prevent its collapse, and the stairs were added to the archway to allow access between the levels. We think it was this change in the ground level and issues with water that may have lead to the loss of the barmkin wall, with areas thought to have collapsed and then removed by the 1790s. This left Craigievar surrounded by rolling lawns, as we see it today.

The new interpretation at Craigievar follows the outline of the lost sections of the barmkin wall, with the flagstones placed above the archaeological remains of the wall footings below. Visitors can now walk along this path to the past to appreciate the size of the courtyard that once stood as strong as the castle. A new graphic board also offers a glimpse of the castle with the barmkin and laigh biggins below.

The grounds at Craigievar are open all year round.

For their support in allowing us to share this story, we would like to thank Professor Ian Young and his wife Sylvia, who enjoyed a long association with and deep love of Aberdeenshire.

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