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4 Sep 2019

The archaeology of castles: always changing, always learning

Written by Dr Daniel Rhodes
Archaeological excavation on the lawn in front of Castle Fraser
Nearly 200 volunteers worked on a dig to uncover a glimpse of the medieval remains at Castle Fraser
At number 86 on our 100 Ways list, Dr Daniel Rhodes explains how, with the help of volunteers, we’ve been uncovering the secrets hidden below some of our best loved castles, including Kellie Castle and Castle Fraser.

We look after quite a few castles throughout Scotland. But how do you define a castle and how did they change over time? As one volunteer commented at our recent archaeological excavation at Castle Fraser: ‘If it’s a castle, where’s the moat?’ The castles we care for didn’t start life as the grand Scottish chateaus you see today, and were usually built as much simpler towers. Over the course of 500 years or more, these towers have been redesigned and extended, meaning that the parklands and beautiful gardens associated with our castles are sitting on top of archaeological remains of earlier buildings. To learn more about these changes, the Trust’s Archaeology Team has been excavating at Castle Fraser in Aberdeenshire and Kellie Castle in Fife.

Both Castle Fraser and Kellie Castle began life as simple tower houses. Kellie’s first tower was built in the 1300s; it was redesigned in the 1400s and then joined to two adjacent towers between 1573 and 1606. Castle Fraser was completed some time around 1576, with a round tower and upper storeys added before 1618. Finally, two new wings were added between 1615 and 1635, containing food stores or ‘victuall houses’ on the ground floor and large rooms known as galleries above.

By their design, medieval tower houses were limited in the activities that could be carried out in them. Sometimes no larger than two or three rooms atop one another, there was no space for stables, a brewhouse or defence against attack or cattle raiding. Such defence was often achieved through the use of an enclosing ditch or wall (sometimes known as a barmkin), surrounding the tower house.

Print out of a geophysical survey at Kellie Castle. The red lines show the line of the medieval drive, barmkin and gate.
Geophysical survey at Kellie Castle clearly showed the potential for excavation. The red lines show the line of the medieval drive, barmkin and gate.

At Kellie Castle we carried out a geophysical survey in 2013 to find out what may have survived of the medieval enclosure and any buildings within it. The results were extremely promising and this year, with the help of local volunteers and gardeners, we had the chance to excavate some of these archaeological remains. Excitingly, we found the remains of an older walled approach to the castle and a possible gateway through an enclosing wall. These discoveries are to the credit of everyone who turned out to help dig as the weather was less than ideal, with heavy rain making things difficult. But we’re now able to work on reconstructing an earlier landscape which will offer visitors a glimpse of what it was like within the more enclosed medieval world of Kellie Castle.

Conditions were much better for our excavation at Castle Fraser and with the help of 12 hardy Thistle Camp working holiday participants and nearly 200 local diggers we were able to uncover previously unidentified building remains. Like Kellie Castle, the development of Castle Fraser would have included an enclosure and working buildings around the original tower. This year’s dig revealed the remains of some considerable wall foundations and a paved area not shown on any estate maps. At this early stage we don’t know if these remains are part of any medieval buildings or estate walls from an unknown garden design.

With the help of more volunteers next year at Kellie Castle and Castle Fraser we hope to reveal more of these previously undiscovered medieval landscapes and deepen our understanding of both of these iconic places.

You can see an excellent example of a medieval tower house with a surviving barmkin at another Trust property, Craigievar Castle in Aberdeenshire.

If you’d like to find out more about our archaeological excavations and watch our daily dig diaries go to our Facebook page.

The National Trust for Scotland works every day to protect Scotland’s national and natural treasures. From coastlines to castles, art to architecture, wildlife to wilderness, we protect all of this For the Love of Scotland.


In Our Strategy for Protecting Scotland’s Heritage 2018–23, we set out how we’re planning to work towards our vision that Scotland’s heritage is valued by everyone and protected now, and for future generations.

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