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10 Mar 2022

A Tale of Two Tower Houses

Written by Annie Robertson MRICS, Chartered Surveyor for Aberdeenshire & Angus
The tower houses of Drum Castle (left) and Crathes Castle (right)
Part 1 of 3 in our series. Annie Robertson reveals the history of the Scottish tower house, and examines the question of why this design was favoured: was it defence, economy, or status?

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. It’s a story of the tradition, culture and politics of Scotland. It’s a story of uncertainty and of peace, of the power and status of the lords of the land, and the shifts in culture through changing demands and foreign influences. This is the story of the icon of Scottish castles: the tower house.

We really began to see the building of tower houses in Scotland in the late medieval period. There was a time of relative peace following the bloodshed of the wars of independence and, in part thanks to the rewards of land issued by Robert the Bruce and the establishment of governance through the feudal system (a hierarchy of loyalties and land holding), the tower house became the most common and esteemed form of castle construction, particularly in Aberdeenshire and the North of Scotland. These tower houses were in sharp contrast to the mammoth curtain-wall castles (also known as enclosure or enceinte castles) which were prolific in England and Wales. These are less common in Scotland, and the castle at Kildrummy is one of the finest examples built north of the border.

Tower houses were, in essence, a simplified and refined version of the enclosure castle, featuring a single dominating tower. Tower houses were often adjoined by a much lower enclosing ‘barmkin’ wall (a local term meaning barbican or fortified gateway) with gatehouse and ‘laigh biggins’ (effectively translating to ‘low constructions’) that housed many of the additional service accommodation such as bakehouses, brewhouses, stables and the like, but it was the tower itself that formed the main building of daily life for the laird and much of his household. Combining all functions including hall, chapels, kitchens, stores and residences into one building, it acted as essentially a self-contained but luxurious unit which, through its desire for altitude, was no less imposing or proud than its curtain-wall counterparts.

So why did this tower house design come about – and why was it so favoured in Scotland? In truth there is no one definitive answer, but there are many schools of thought. Some argue it was a response to the actual defensive need in Scotland at the time, as tower houses were more suited to defending against a passing clan raid, rather than a full-scale siege. Or perhaps it was due to the purse of the average Scottish noble being somewhat leaner than their counterparts south of the border – although still reasonably fat, as even building a modest tower house was no small financial undertaking. There is also the suggestion that timber for building was in short supply; stone was abundant and building in a vertical fashion limited how much timber you needed.

We don’t know for certain the extent to which these theories played a part. However in modern thinking a lot of these ideas are now old hat. For example, if timber was in such short supply then why did Willie Forbes, a man who made his fortune through the merchant trade and had access to timber in abundance, decide to build a great vertical tower and not a sprawling manor when remodelling Craigievar Castle? And it’s also hard to argue in favour of financial constraints because, just as in life today, families built within their means and many Scottish lairds were very wealthy. Not all English castles were great luxurious creations in the same respect that not all Scottish tower houses were modest ones; we only need to look at the magnificent Fyvie Castle to see that.

There is however another discussion to be had in understanding the Scottish tower house, as we shall discover: that they were structures formed in symbolism, statements of authority, prestige and presence made in stone, with their height making them visible and permanent monuments to the great families who built them. Perhaps this is why they became the favoured method for those of castle building resource in Scotland. What better way to demonstrate your status than to build a great tower house: surely the greater the tower, the greater the family?

However we may argue about the birth of the Scottish tower house, its evolution through its 300 years of domination is fascinating and it is this story that our journey to the two towers at Drum and Crathes can tell us. By looking at these two buildings, we can see the enduring architecture and symbolism of the tower house as well as the alterations formed from the demands of the nobility, the changing political landscape, the ever-advancing ambitions of style and comfort, and most importantly the manner of the physical display of power and status.

Read next – Part 2 of A Tale of Two Tower Houses: Drum Castle