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15 Feb 2022

Conservation of Crathes Castle’s armorial panels

Written by Annie Robertson MRICS, Chartered Surveyor, Aberdeenshire & Angus
A view of Crathes Castle from the garden, with the yew topiary hedges in the foreground. It's a lovely sunny day.
Crathes Castle
Crathes Castle is a 16th-century tower house in Aberdeenshire and is considered one of the finest examples of its type. Adorning the walls of the castle and along the rooftop are ornate carved stonework features, steeped with symbolism – much of it holding no pretence of subtlety about its meaning.

Standing proudly on the south-west turret is a figure thought to represent Alexander Burnett, the 12th Laird, who completed the castle. Dormers boast patriotic unicorns, the national animal of Scotland. Cannons project boldly at all angles, reminding you of the ancestral military strength and feudal lordship of the family who lived here. But the most essential piece of ornamentation, the piece that no self-respecting castle owner could be without, is the all-important armorial panels. These are inset, carved stone panels which feature the heraldry or coat of arms of the family (or families) who owned the castle. The panels are usually located in prominent positions and would have originally been brightly coloured to stand out against the castle walls.

Extensive rules govern heraldic depictions. For example, in an impaled coat of arms (one which sees two families united such as through marriage) the man’s coat of arms are on the left and the woman’s are on the right. The symbols used in the coat of arms also tell you a little bit about the person they’re attributed to – for example the use of a certain type of helmet above the shield would reveal the title held by the person, assigned by the Crown. The images used in a coat of arms would be unique to each family and would have been instantly recognisable. The coat of arms could be ‘read’ as you approached the tower house, so you would make no mistake as to who lived there and their status in society.

At Crathes there are six armorial panels adorning the walls of the castle, along with an ornate pedimented piece over the Great Hall window. The main showcase is on the south elevation, where the three main armorial panels sit high above the window of the Great Hall and would have been the first panels seen upon approach to the castle. They tell us who was responsible for the construction of the tower. On the left is the impaled arms of Alexander Burnett, 9th Laird of Leys and his wife Janet Hamilton – they began construction of the tower and completed it up to the Great Hall level in 1553. On the right is the arms of Alexander Burnett, 12th Laird of Leys and his wife Katharine Gordon – they completed the tower and moved into their new family home in 1596. Above them sits the royal coat of arms, demonstrating the Burnett family’s power to hold the lands and the castle as decreed by the Crown.

A close-up view of the three stone armorial panels on the castle wall, above a triangular decorated stone, which is above a large window.
The three armorials on the south elevation of Crathes Castle

The Burnett coat of arms is identifiable through its use of ivy, generally in the form of three flanking leaves, alongside the Horn of Leys, representing the ivory hunting horn gifted to the Burnetts by King Robert the Bruce following their support in the Wars of Independence. The Hamilton family is represented by the use of cinquefoils (small five-leafed flowers), and the Gordon family by the boar heads. Heraldic symbols for these families can be seen throughout Crathes Castle, both on the exterior and in the painted decoration, furniture and ceiling bosses inside the castle.

Below the three armorials we can see an ornately carved pediment above the Great Hall window. It boasts delicately twisting holly leaves with the Horn of Leys as the centrepiece. On the east side of the castle, above the original entrance door, we can see a monogram featuring the interlinked initials of Alexander and Katharine and the date 1596. Elsewhere on the castle, we can see armorials that represent later Burnett lairds, such as Sir Thomas Burnett, 1st Baronet of Leys and his wife Jean Moncrieff (represented by a lion) and Sir Robert Burnett, 7th Baronet of Leys and his wife Margaret Dalrymple Elphinstone (represented by a saltire with diamond lozenges).

The armorial panels are a hugely significant part of the building, telling the story of the Burnett family and their ownership of Crathes Castle. However, after being exposed to the elements for over 400 years, the armorials were in need of urgent conservation work to safeguard them for the future. In the summer of 2021 this work was undertaken by skilled conservators. Many of the armorial panels are made from sandstone, a softer stone which is easier to carve than granite. Sandstones are vulnerable to natural weathering and sadly some detail in the panels has already been lost. The use of inappropriate materials in previous repairs, such as dense impermeable cements, was also causing concern about accelerating decay. In addition to all this, the panels have been subject to biological growths of lichens and moss, which can again contribute to decay and loss of detail.

Our specialist conservators were able to undertake a detailed survey of each panel and carried out conservation work, including very light cleaning, removal of cement-based materials and the careful repair of cracks and fragile elements of the carvings. Special solutions were also used, along with limewash, to help protect the stone in the future and slow down the process of natural weathering.

The work also provided the opportunity to take samples of paint fragments that were visible on some of the panels. This has provided a fascinating insight into the colour schemes previously used – we now know the panels featured greys, carbon black, red lead and golden ochres. Samples from two of the panels were found to be heavily contaminated by soot, a striking reminder of the terrifying fire which nearly destroyed the castle in 1966.

Crathes Castle Estate is open daily all year round and the conserved armorials can now be admired from outside in all their glory. This essential work was made possible thanks to our generous members and donors and with grant funding from Historic Environment Scotland through their Annual Repair Grant scheme.

Further information is available about the heraldry at Crathes in the National Trust for Scotlands DVD Crathes Castle Heraldry Explained, presented by Charles Burnett.

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