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24 Mar 2022

A Tale of Two Tower Houses: Crathes Castle

Written by Annie Robertson MRICS, Chartered Surveyor for Aberdeenshire & Angus
A view of the exterior of Crathes Castle, showing the elevation with a clock high on the tower. A flag flies from the castle roof. Tall trees with red and orange leaves stand either side of the lawn.
Crathes Castle
Part 3 of 3 in our series. After examining the inner workings of Drum’s Old Tower in part 2, Annie Robertson heads to Crathes Castle to explore how the Renaissance influenced the Scottish tower house design.

Drum Castle and Crathes Castle are situated just a few miles from each other in the picturesque landscape of Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire. These properties have been linked since the 14th century, when Robert the Bruce gifted the lands to the Irwyin (Irvine) family at Drum and the Burnard (Burnett) family at Crathes, as a reward for their service during the wars of Scottish independence. Both families were engaged in the management and protection of the Royal Hunting Forest of Drum, being situated to either side of this vast and ancient woodland.

Today, many people enjoy a great day out at both stunning locations as there is a drive of just a few miles between them. But despite this close geographical connection, this short drive can actually transport you through a story that takes place over 300 years. This is the story of the icon of Scottish castles: the tower house.

(New to the series? Read part 1 of A Tale of Two Tower Houses)

Much like the Irwyins at Drum, we will now leave our Old Tower in pursuit of a more ‘modern’ building: Crathes Castle. As we begin our drive of a few miles along the picturesque lands of Deeside towards Crathes, we also begin to move through the fits and starts of tower house construction in the years that followed the building of Drum’s Old Tower. These spirts of building activity were no doubt a result of the peace or conflict being experienced in Scotland at the time. The building of Crathes Castle for example was started in the mid-16th century, a time of relative abstinence in castle building. But by the late-16th century we began to see tower houses constructed at a radical pace – and these were quite different to the earlier towers, as we shall see when we arrive at Crathes.

The Burnards at Crathes were gifted their lands by Robert the Bruce in the 14th century, around the same time as the Irwyins were gifted theirs at Drum (much to some confusion and inevitable disputes). The Burnard tenure was secured by the ‘Horn of Leys’, an ivory hunting horn still proudly on display in the castle today.

The construction of the tower at Crathes however did not start until much later: a date stone above the east door bears the year 1553. It is said that Crathes was forever in the building, and was not completed until the turn of the 17th century with a further date stone of 1603, although it’s likely that the castle was complete in the main by 1596. Rather than a prolonged period of construction it is likely that by 1553 the tower was complete to the second story, albeit in a much simpler form than the one we see today. It is therefore to Alexander the 12th Laird and his wife Katherine Gordon that the sculptural masterpiece of the finished tower can be largely attributed.

The tower at Crathes and the Old Tower of Drum have their similarities. Here too the tower is weighted down by a lower extension of later buildings; for Crathes it is the Queen Anne wing originally built in the early-18th century to house the ever-growing Burnett family (a name change over time from Burnard). And as we cast our eye over the slender form of the tower itself, the lower storeys feel somewhat familiar: the simple walls with their rounded corners rise as an unadorned and solid mass of masonry. It isn’t until the second storey above the enlarged windows, mostly a creation of the 1870s, that our tower at Crathes begins to tell us something new. Gone are the simple crenelated wall heads and battlements, instead replaced by a spectacular display of ornamentation featuring bartizans (corbelled or projecting corner turrets), crowstepped gables, pinnacles, dormers, water spouts, armorial panels and a myriad of beautiful carved stonework. But why is this tower so different to our earlier one – what happened in those near-300 years between them being built?

What happened is much the same as today: tastes, styles and priorities changed. Scotland saw times of relative peace and stability and so the defensive requirements of the tower house were no longer such a priority. As we know, a major aspect of tower houses had always been a symbolic authority, the physical display of wealth, status and power through a tall mass of immovable and indestructible stone. But now the simple, unadorned form was no longer sufficient. Now, any self-respecting laird and new arrival to the landed gentry also had to show off. New ideas were coming from the continent, born in the European Renaissance and carried through travelling craftsmen and increased trading links. It was also an essential part in the rearing of a member of the elite classes that they must undertake to travel, and experience the art and architecture of foreign lands. These new ideas were brought home to Scotland, and were pioneered by leading figures such as King James IV and King James V in their work at Falkland Palace and Stirling Castle.

The Renaissance ideas added opulence and decoration to the exterior, as well as notions of space and light to the interior. The respective Kings, James IV and James V, employed European masons who applied their elaborate ornamentation to the building. Stone carvings featuring figures, creatures and natural and geometric patterns were highly decorative and less functional – in many cases serving no function at all. European ideas were not slavishly adopted but instead blended with Scottish traditions and motifs, and a new style was born which later became known as Scots Baronial. Whilst always remaining distinctly identifiable as a tower house, Scots baronial buildings embrace their ancestry and use this alongside the influence of the Renaissance to form their own identity deeply rooted in the culture, history and landscape of Scotland. It is these influences and changes that we see in action throughout Crathes, particularly when compared to the Old Tower of Drum.

As with the rooting of the ideas of the Renaissance, many of the features seen at Crathes find their provenance in the older, functional defensive features of the early tower house – only here they are for decoration rather than for practical military use. The rope mouldings around the castle relate to the simple line of carved stone at the wall head of earlier towers, like Drum. Here however they run across the building rising and falling to frame windows, bartizans and many other projections and features of the building. They feature cannons which, in their placement, cannot serve any function other than purely decorative.

The bartizans are a key player in this evolution from the defensive to the defensive style. In earlier tower houses topped with battlements, these corner projections were part of the open wall walk, their positioning intended to allow a better line of sight and firing aim over the castle walls. As we move through this shift in function, we see these turrets first become covered with their now signature conical roof, and then eventually fully taken into the interior of the building as small annexes, providing bright but intimate private spaces. Whilst there is the occasional pistol loop to be found in terms of defence they really are rather useless. As at Drum, Crathes tower also has a bretasche (a projection of stonework on the parapet walk). Here it features a ‘machicolation’ better known in Scots as a ‘murder hole’, and is located over the entrance door which is now conveniently on the ground floor rather than the first floor. The story we often hear told is that this was used to pour hot oil or throw rocks onto intruders below. However it was actually used for hoisting goods into the upper floors of the castle.

The bartizans and bretasche at the top of the tower

In any baronial tower house heraldry is key, and Crathes is no exception. The Burnett coat of arms adorns the tower along with the coat of arms of Scotland, both of which can be seen repeated many times across the exterior and interior. On approach of the castle, there’s no mistaking who lived here and where their allegiances and derivation of power lies. Symbolic carved stonework abounds. For example, two sculptures atop of one of the dormers on the castle are unicorns, the national animal of Scotland (although their horns have long since been lost). It does also beg the question that if the castle had been finished just a little later, post the 1603 union of the crowns, would the Burnetts have perhaps created a unicorn and a lion instead?

Read more: Conservation of Crathes Castle’s armorial panels

Inside Crathes the general layout of the tower house endures, with the great hall on the first floor, services below and private accommodation above. Here however the plan is no longer a simple square but is instead in the shape of an L – in effect the original tower house plan with a wing added on. This was to create more accommodation within the castle and provide some increased privacy. Privacy as a concept was still developing, but many people continued to share spaces and the notion of a corridor was not yet invented, meaning rooms led on to each other and had to be passed through (no matter what the occupant was up to). Originally supported by numerous staircases, all this extra space meant that there were more chambers for housing guests as well as spaces for withdrawal for increased members of the household. Along with the laird’s room and chambers there is a room for the lady of the house known as the Muses Room, a small oratory for worship and, in a remarkable feat of architecture, the crowning glory of Crathes: a long gallery.

The Great Hall of Crathes Castle with an old timber ceiling and polished wooden floor. A chunky wooden table stands at the far end of the room. Red patterned rugs cover some of the floor.
The Long Gallery at Crathes Castle

Believed to be a concept arising from the open colonnades of Italy through which the well-to-do would while away their days by taking a stroll, in Scotland it was a room which was effectively as long as possible. It was a pleasure room, used to display art (as we think of galleries today) but also to take exercise, practice sports or just pass the hours when the weather was inclement. At Crathes this was later formed into a baronial court, formalising that essential activity of holding court and control of the lands. The installation on the top floor of the castle of a room which, by definition, required a clear, linear space in a building which was intended to be light on the ground and rise to the sky is truly a remarkable feat, and at Crathes the Bell family of masons achieved exactly that.

This utilisation of the roof space for additional accommodation also meant that wall head dormers became a common feature to provide these spaces with light and air. A wall walk was no longer required. Window openings, although still relatively small, were generous in comparison to Drum. Many of the windows at Crathes today are enlargements of the originals, as improvements in glass making complemented the desire for more light to the interior, and windows grew increasingly bigger. This need for light was matched with the desire for more heat and fireplaces became more embellished with decoration. They also became a feature in most rooms and were no longer reserved just for the great hall and the laird’s chambers; at Crathes even the smallest rooms are fitted with fireplaces.

All this light and warmth allows us to enjoy our last but most significant feature of Crathes, and one which makes it a jewel of our heritage: its painted decoration. Painted ceilings were popular in the 16th and 17th century and were heavily influenced by the Renaissance. Alongside images of heraldry, the Crathes ceilings boast well-known themes including presentations of the Muses (daughters of Zeus in Greek mythology and patrons of the arts and sciences), Nobles or ‘worthies’ (figures of great achievement through history) and collections of European figures and images which are thought to have been taken from a pattern book. It’s likely every room in the castle was decorated in some form so that even the smallest spaces would have been vibrant, warm and welcoming.

Amidst all this lavish luxury and opulent decoration, let us again ask ourselves a question that we first pondered at Drum: Is this building all about defence? Here I think we are more certain of our answer. Crathes reads first and foremost as a building all about style, identity, and status. That being said, defence and self-sufficiency were still a consideration for even later tower houses, and Crathes is no exception. Windows on the lower floor are barred and the door is protected by an iron yett (a defensive gate) with a timber draw bar. Now buried beneath a concrete floor is what is thought to have been the essential castle water well. The stores on the ground floor are stone vaulted and ample, and there is a generous space for cooking including a hearth for roasting meat. There are a number of pistol loops around the castle, and the low doorways and narrow turnpike stairs make for good defensive opportunities.

Moreover, as at Drum, Crathes would not have stood in isolation. It was surrounded by a barmkin wall with entry into the enclosed courtyard strictly guarded by the gatekeeper. On the tower, a small platform concealed behind a gabled chimney also provides a small, open rooftop area (although compared to the wall walk on Drum’s Old Tower it offers little by way of defence). It allows a good view around the castle grounds for surveying the landscape. It’s certain that most of the features on Crathes are about decoration but it also seems that old habits die hard and the Burnetts, despite their cunning diplomacy and talent for staying out of any conflict, still wanted to make sure they could sleep safely as well as comfortably in their beds at night.

We all love stories of mighty castles but I think that for our tower house there is a different story told much less often; a story about the tower’s presence not as a weapon of war but as a weapon of politics. A place for administration and governance, where lairds presided to keep peace and order, to ensure stability and continuity in their lands so its people could prosper. It is here in this feudalist system that the tower house should be considered and so the fundamental principle of its design, its remarkable height, makes sense. If castles were built to be seen and to dominate, investing all your resources (even if limited) into reaching for the skies with a single tower was more favourable than investing in the expanse of flanking lower walls that was demanded of castles built for warfare.

Aerial view of Crathes Castle
An aerial view of Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate

It is this shift which is noticeable in our two towers. There was always a balancing of the scales when a castle was required to act as a fortress as well as a residence, and along the 300-year journey of the Scottish tower house the scales firmly tipped towards the latter. The Old Tower at Drum was built immediately following a period of conflict by a family who often engaged in action, at a time when the great weapons of war had not quite reached the hands of the everyday clan chief. To them the tower house, whilst also a comfortable home and symbol of authority, was still considered a powerful military tool and Drum certainly saw action.

But then in the period of time which passed between the building of our towers, Scotland changed. Unrest and conflict still occurred, as the reformation demonstrated, but it was not the continual, full scale blood-and-guts warfare that we are often led to believe. Attacks on castles were not an everyday occurrence, and the majority of time spent in a castle was spent in peace. At Crathes, it seems the closest the castle ever came to a fight was in 1644 when the Marquess of Montrose camped his royalist forces outside and politely requested that Sir Thomas Burnett surrender in peace. Thomas, gifted with the usual Burnett political savvy for avoiding trouble, courteously obliged. The two men dined together in the great hall and Montrose soon packed up his troops and headed off on his merry way. Crathes was left untouched.

On that note, it is time for us to head off for home where we can reflect on our two towers, and the journey between their formation and the stories written upon their walls. We’ve seen how these buildings are steeped in symbolism, from the dominating solid mass of fortitude at Drum to the elaborate display of taste and status at Crathes. In their own unique ways, both these towers were towers of power. So no wonder that the tower house became the must-have building of its time! The essence of the Scottish tower house’s form and style not only endured, but also adapted and evolved through the years of its dominance.

Read part 1 of A Tale of Two Tower Houses

Read part 2 of A Tale of Two Tower Houses: Drum Castle