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17 Mar 2022

A Tale of Two Tower Houses: Drum Castle

Written by Annie Robertson MRICS, Chartered Surveyor for Aberdeenshire & Angus
A view of Drum Castle on a sunny day, with bright blue sky behind. The ancient, square stone tower is to the left, with the Jacobean section to the right. Tall trees can be seen behind the castle.
Drum Castle
Part 2 of 3 in our series. After investigating the history and design of the tower house in part 1, Annie Robertson heads to Drum Castle to examine the inner workings of the 'Old Tower'.

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.

(Not caught up? Read part 1 of A Tale of Two Tower Houses)

To begin our examination of the tower house’s evolution, we must first come to Drum Castle. At the heart of the building as we see it today lies what is affectionately referred to as the ‘Old Tower’. Subsequently relegated to little more than an attractive pile of masonry which conveniently encloses the courtyard of the now well-established castle, in the 1320s this tower was in fact the principal building.

With the exception of a library added to the first-floor low hall in the 1840s, this relegation has meant that the Old Tower has remained largely unaltered. The surrounding barmkin (a local term meaning barbican or fortified gateway) and laigh biggins (effectively translating to ‘low constructions’) have long since been lost in the venture to improve the building and surrounding landscape. However the tower remains as a fascinating example of what an early Scottish tower house was like.

The Old Tower of Drum

Externally, the Old Tower fits every part of the picture that we have come to expect of a defensive, fortified castle. It appears somewhat austere and is lightened only by the battlements, projecting subtly on the corbel course of stonework at roof level. Set on a square plan, the tower’s corners are slightly rounded, meaning there are no weak spots from which a corner block could be knocked out to undermine the stability of the wall. The wallhead is crenelated and disguises a parapet walk, behind from which fire could be rained down on enemies below. The walls are generally unadorned and there are only a few small apertures: windows on the upper floors and small slits on the ground floor. These openings, whilst frugal, could still offer an additional field of fire and the slits to the ground floor would put any would-be attacker on the back foot.

Access to the inside was by a doorway on the first floor, reached by a ladder which could be swiftly removed should an unwelcome guest arrive. The castle appears dominant and formidable, a place designed for a fight while its mighty walls offer protection to the powerful family within. But was this building all about defence? This is what we are often told and outwardly it could appear to be the case.

There is a different way of looking at the building, which blurs our clarity on the long-standing story of castles for war. Maybe window openings were small simply because glass was a rare commodity, and large openings meant the Scottish weather would ring through the building. The openings on the ground floor were certainly too small to be actively used for fire, and were more likely just for ventilation. Rounded wall corners may have been designed for defence, but it could very well have been that a rounded corner was actually just easier to build than a squared one, especially in hard granite which was difficult to work into blocks. And the wallhead, whilst undoubtedly offering a great platform for active defence, was perhaps more about keeping watch – not just for trouble either, but for the comings and goings of the land, as the castle was located along a key route through Royal Deeside. Also when living beside the Forest of Drum, an active hunting forest, what better place is there to spot your target than from a great height?

An aerial view of Drum Castle
An aerial view of Drum Castle

Still, however much we re-paint the picture of our castle there is no denying that it was built when times were still troublesome, and when conflict was on occasion resolved in blood. Defence and fortification were a high priority, especially as the Irwyns were known to get into a brawl – a feud with the Keith clan was one of the most enduring in the early years of the Old Tower. It is also very likely that as part of the land grant provided by Robert the Bruce, the Irwyns were contractually required to construct a fortification through which the authority over the lands in the name of the king would be established and trade routes firmly controlled. This was a fundamental part of the feudal system: lairds were rulers within their lands and held political power, often hearing matters of the estate or holding court within the walls of their towers which acted as places of administration. So it is here that I think it important for us to consider how a large part of establishing such control was through the physical, symbolic display of strength and power that a tower house provided. It was a tall, impenetrable tower of stone built to last and here to stay, just like the power of the king and his appointed lairds.

Amongst all this establishing of dominance, Drum was also a home for the Irwyns and so it had to offer the best accommodation possible for a family of such esteem. Internally, the layout is very typical of an early tower house and is one that endures relatively unchanged throughout the years of evolution that follow.

In general, tower houses were formed with the ground floor dedicated to stores and service accommodation, the first floor housing the main hall (the central hub of household life), and the floors above containing private chambers as well as access to the walkway or a lookout at the roof. At Drum there are three main floors, all of which are stone vaulted: the ground floor, a low hall (Laigh Hall), and a high hall above. These double-height halls were divided further internally by way of a timber ‘entresol’, effectively a mezzanine level for additional accommodation which overall provided the tower with five floors. At roof level there is an open parapet walk around the whole of the tower with the pitch of the cap house (a small watch room or enclosed space at the top of a set of stairs) standing tall behind the battlements, and likely providing further accommodation.

The ground-floor store did not appear to have direct access from outside. Today, access is provided by a straight stair from the main stone turnpike stair at the first-floor entrance, which also serves as the main access to all floors of the tower. There is some evidence that a second stair existed, which would have separated service use from that of the family and guests. A small access point in the ceiling of the store would have been used to pass goods directly to and from the hall above, and there was a well to provide the tower with water, a practical feature that was also essential to protect the supply should the occupants ever need to take shelter within the walls. Some limited cooking may have taken place in this space, however it’s unlikely meat was cooked here: this was usually cooked over an open fire, of which there is no evidence. The space was mostly used for storage and preparation of food, with archaeological evidence of some butchery taking place.

On the first floor is the library which was created in the 1840s, as a structure set within the full height of the stone-vaulted lower hall and utilising the space which would have once been occupied by the timber entresol. Access was from the main turnpike stair, through a doorway which is now blocked up and was presumably done at the time the library was created. It is suggested that this doorway would have led into a screens passage, a service area formed using timber panels, such as the one which survives at Craigievar Castle.

From here we would enter the low hall with timber entresol above. The library walls mean investigations into this space are limited and it’s hard to establish for certain which level contained the main hall – the key space for dining, celebrating, entertaining, and the management of matters of politics, business and the estate. It’s likely to have been in the lower spaces, as from recent investigations the presence of mural chambers (spaces within the depth of the walls) were uncovered. These chambers would have provided a small buttery for the storing of food and drink, to be brought into the hall at mealtimes. There was a fireplace on the north wall, and the high end where the laird and family would be seated was to the west, the opposite side from which you enter.

There was another small mural chamber found here, which was evident by a small opening in the outside of the west wall that is now infilled with stone. During the investigations, archaeologists carefully removed this stone and discovered the chamber was a garderobe (toilet) with its stone seat still intact, along with the interlinking passage and doorway to the main hall. Evidence of iron fixings to the opening indicate that, thankfully, the users of this facility were provided with privacy courtesy of a timber door and latch.

The library at Drum Castle
​The library in the Old Tower, which was added in the 1840s | Image by Nicholas Frost

In the upper or high hall the space is now open as one but, as per the lower hall, this would have been divided by an intermediate entresol timber floor. Here though access was by a stair within the hall, rather than from the main turnpike stair. This may have been the laird’s private accommodation, although it is important to remember that privacy was not the same concept it is today and many people would have shared this space. Even the bedchamber for the laird would likely have accommodated the whole family and some servants. There were windows on all sides to both levels with some of the lower level windows fitted with stone seats to create a bright space for sedentary activities. Timber shutters would have held out the Scottish weather, and a grand arched sandstone fireplace on the lower floor and a modest fireplace (added later) on the upper floor would have provided warmth.

The entresol of the hall was supported on stone corbels which can still be seen today, and are the same profile as the corbels which carry the battlements to the outside of the castle walls. From the high hall, access was granted to the parapet walk around the head of the castle where the watchmen could survey the lands about the tower. They were at least afforded a modicum of comfort during their shifts: a small covered garderobe is present to the north-west corner, formed from a projection of stonework on the elevation known as a ‘bretasche’ with an aperture for the removal of the waste into the cesspit below. In the event of attack, the opening could also be used to defend the lower west wall of the castle by offering a further vantage point for raining down slightly more damaging missiles. All in all, it is not pleasant for anyone below – or in fact for the appearance of the walls on that side of the castle.

Today much of the tower appears as bare stonework, but both internally and externally this would not have been the case. Inside, the walls would have been given warmth through lime plaster and there are indications in the high hall that hanging tapestries may have been present. Floors were covered with cut vegetation, and at Drum the evidence collected suggests these were taken from the nearby riverside. Externally, the castle was harled using a mix of lime, sand and water which was hand cast – or in other words, very skilfully thrown at the building. This was often pigmented. Some patches of a mid 19th-century harl are still visible on the castle with its distinctive pink tone, but it’s likely the original harl was an off white. This would have made the tower even more vibrant in the landscape, adding to its visual domination.

It is not clear for how long the Old Tower was in daily use. However, by the 18th century it seems it was all but abandoned in favour of the newer wings added to the castle. Thankfully, as I have said, this relegation means that our tower at Drum survives and we can still appreciate it today.

Next week: Annie explores Crathes Castle for part 3 of A Tale of Two Tower Houses.

(Not caught up? Read part 1 of A Tale of Two Tower Houses)