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8 Nov 2019

Miss Fraser and Miss Bristow of Castle Fraser

Written by Wendy Turner
Two portraits side by side of 19th-century women
Over the past few years, Project Reveal and the Morton Photography Project have been working to document and digitise the National Trust for Scotland’s historical collections. Along the way, they have discovered the stories of several women and girls. Some are already known to Trust staff and visitors, while some have been overshadowed by others associated with them, or simply overlooked and forgotten. Throughout this series, members of the project teams will share their experiences, thoughts and research to show how the objects we care for can reveal new ways of thinking about Scotland’s women.

Castle Fraser, near Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, is the most elaborate Z plan castle in Scotland and one of the grandest Castles of Mar.

Wide-angle view of a castle set in parkland on a sunny day
Castle Fraser, Aberdeenshire

Elyza Fraser (1734–1814) inherited the castle in 1792 when she was 58 years old. She first met Mary Bristow, who spent many years as Elyza’s companion at Castle Fraser, in Bristol on 18 June 1781. They became firm friends and travelled extensively in Europe, where they visited many gardens, and Mary gathered an extensive collection of gardening books which remain in the castle today.

When Elyza inherited the castle she decided to make a number of improvements, including widening the west window in the Great Hall so she could enjoy the sunsets. She also inserted the castle doorway to the south of the castle and added her own coat of arms to the exterior. A note in her own handwriting says ‘... And the whole Restored And Beautified by Elyza Fraser 1795’. However, only the coat of arms and her name and date are visible.

Coat of arms set in a wall, with the date 1795 and the name, Elyza Fraser
Elyza Fraser's coat of arms, set into the castle wall

Unusually for the time, Elyza played a very active role in the management of the estate and she developed much of the woodland. In 1794 she commissioned well-known landscape gardener Thomas White to draw up plans for the grounds – ‘to imitate and improve on nature’, and the walled garden, serpentine lake and stables were added at this time. She spent £9,600 on the landscaping and improvements, which is the equivalent to around £500,000 today.

Wide-angle view of a walled garden, with a castle to the left in the background
The walled garden at Castle Fraser

Between 1797 and 1800 Mary Bristow planned and planted a grove of trees and a walk through the ‘improved landscape’ – a pleasure ground of winding paths, pleasant glades and distant views. It’s believed that Elyza and Mary used this area for daily exercise and visitors to Castle Fraser today can follow in their illustrious footsteps by following Miss Bristow’s Trail.

Elyza’s affection for Mary is demonstrated by the memorial that she had erected after Mary’s death. It’s inscribed: ‘Farewell! Alas how much less is the society of others than the memory of thee. Sacred to a memory that subsisted 40 years.’

Circular mausoleum in a churchyard surrounded by gravestones
Miss Elyza Fraser's mausoleum

Elyza commissioned her own mausoleum, now a Category A listed building in Cluny Old Churchyard, from her lifelong friend James Byres of Tonley, an internationally renowned architect. She’s said to have kept his image on her bedside table throughout her life.

These two fascinating women are worthy of more research so that we can fully appreciate their legacy today.

This article is part of the Revealing Scotland’s Women series – read about The forgotten artist of Drum Castle and Lady Aberdeen, the trailblazer of Haddo House.

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