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26 May 2022

The Great Eight at Craigievar Castle

Written by John Lemon, Visitor Services Supervisor
Craigievar Castle viewed from a lawn to the side of the pink tower house. It's a bright and sunny day, and the castle casts a long shadow over the drive.
Craigievar Castle as viewed from the estate
Nestled amongst the Aberdeenshire hills, the pink towers of Craigievar are spellbindingly beautiful, and enchant visitors and admirers of all ages. Indeed, the castle is said to have inspired Walt Disney for his Cinderella castle.

Begun in the Scottish Baronial style by the Mortimer family around 1576, this tower house is one of the best in Scotland. Craigievar Castle was completed by William Forbes around 1626, and the Forbes family resided here for over 300 years before placing it in the care of the National Trust for Scotland in the 1960s. Inside it holds an impressive collection of artefacts and art and, in keeping with the former owner’s wishes, there is no artificial lighting beyond the ground floor, meaning its collection is seen in the shifting light of the sun as originally intended.

Here are eight of my favourite things!

A yett, a large gate of wrought iron bars set out in a lattice, stands open against a white wall.
The yett, an iron gate of latticed bars, used for fortification and defence


This was the last line of defence for the castle. You could burn or chop down the door – but then you were presented with the yett. These gates were found in properties across Scotland and you needed the king’s permission to have one installed. It is made from inch-square iron rods which have been bent and woven together. You can only close it from the inside and then, when you do, you are locked in and safe. There’s no evidence of the gate being needed at Craigievar, but it was a deterrent. The fact it was there meant that anyone who wanted to get in had a really hard job. It remains as impressive and effective today as it was when it was first made. If we bolted it to the wall, you would need an angle grinder to cut through every single individual bar in order to get in.

Three high-backed dining chairs with tartan seats sits against a wood-panelled wall. The wood is carved and features columns as well as detailing along the top. At the corner of the room, the wood continues along the next wall.
Wood panelling in the great hall at Craigievar, installed by the Mortimer family

Original wood panelling

As far as we can tell, this is the original wood panelling installed by the Mortimers when they started building the castle in the late 1570s. The family built the first three floors of the castle, and this wood panelling is one of the few features that remain from that period. It is in very good condition. The Mortimers owned the land from, we believe, the late 1400s but what you see here at Craigievar is largely the work of the Forbes. It is a lovely piece of carved wood which surrounds the entire great hall, apart from the fireplace. It is very important to still have these traces of the Mortimers’ time, particularly as we still get visits from Mortimers today.

A section of white plaster ceiling, adorned with the moulding of the head and shoulders of a crowned and bearded king holding a lyre. Beside his head is the word ‘David’ in reverse.
A section of the plaster ceiling at Craigievar, with ‘David’ moulded in reverse

Ornate plaster ceiling

These magnificent plaster ceilings were done by Italian-trained English craftsmen who worked their way up from Bromley by Bow near London, doing various properties as they travelled. We believe that Craigievar is the farthest north that they came. We tell every visitor to look up at the ceiling in each room, as they are just beautiful. What I love about this one particular plaque which features in the photograph is that, if you look closely, you’ll notice there is a little mistake in the presentation of the word ‘David’. When they carved the mould, it must have looked completely fine but when they turned it out the lettering was back to front.

A wood panelled room, with framed paintings on the walls, two window nooks where bright sunlight is coming through, and two chairs upholstered in turquoise fabric.
The ladies’ withdrawing room

The withdrawing room

The idea of the ladies withdrawing after dinner and leaving the men behind to smoke cigars and drink was one that really took hold during the Victorian and Edwardian times. Nowadays the room they went to is often called ‘the drawing room’, but the full title was the ladies’ withdrawing room. The unusual thing at Craigievar is that this withdrawing room is a very masculine looking room. It is dated 1625 and there is speculation that ‘Danzig Willie’ or William Forbes, who bought the castle in 1610, had that room designed to look like an old ship’s cabin, reflecting his time trading in the Baltic region.

A framed portrait of a man against a dark plain background, wearing black clothes and a wide white ruff high on his neck. He is looking directly out towards to the viewer: his head is turned slightly to the side but his eyes are forward.
William Forbes (aka Danzig Willie)

William Forbes (aka Danzig Willie) portrait

William Forbes bought the castle in 1610 and spent 16 years doing it up. He added the top floors, from the third upwards. He was the one who had all of the plasterwork and ceilings done and Craigievar would not look the way it does today without Danzig Willie. We have this portrait of him, but we know very little about him. He was a second son and made his money trading in the Baltics, particularly at the port of Danzig, which is now Gdansk. Aside from family records and speculation, we don’t have a huge amount of other information about who he was and the kind of person he was. Nowadays everything is documented on Facebook or Instagram; in those days it was written down in diaries. Some have passed down through the generations, others have been lost. Unfortunately, having spent 16 years doing the place up Willie only enjoyed the finished building for one year. He died in 1627.

A painted portrait of a young girl sitting on a rock underneath dense overhanging foliage. She has long brown hair in curls, and is wearing a blue long-sleeved dress with white socks and ballerina pumps. Her wide-brimmed hat with a matching blue bow is beside her on the rock.
Portrait of Margaret Forbes as a young girl

Margaret Forbes portrait

Margaret was the sister of the last laird of Craigievar. This portrait was painted when she was a young girl. Margaret was a curler, and we have her curling stones here. She also served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a wing officer during the Second World War. She was a remarkable woman, and we are continuing to find out new things about her today. It was only in the last month or so that we discovered that she served in the WAAF and not the Air Transport Auxiliary, as we first believed. We are always finding new nuggets and gems, particularly from visitors.

People always share their own stories about Craigievar. We were visited by a Mortimer family member and it was interesting to hear their version of how the castle passed to the Forbes and how that differs from what we have been told.

“The Mortimers claim that they lost the castle in a card game which could have been rigged. The Forbes say that they bought it with money earned through trading in the Baltics.”
John Lemon
Visitor Services Supervisor
A carved wooden table, with one straight edge and one waved edge with three curves shaped into it. Six spindle legs support it.
Carved card table

Craigievar Table

We have three of these tables in the castle. They are carved tables where two gentlemen sit and play cards. You’ll notice there is a curve in the side and we have two theories of why this has been done. One is that it is to accommodate the large bellies of gentlemen who sit around playing cards for too long. The second is that gentlemen were expected to sit very close to the tables so that they couldn’t drop cards into their laps or cheat. They are beautiful and they are interesting, and a lovely item.

On a table sits a group of equipment for environment monitoring: two small black boxes (one is plugged into the mains), a freestanding radiator, and a handheld-sized device with an info screen and an antenna at the top.
Equipment for the Hanwell monitoring system

Hanwell environment monitoring equipment

The Hill House in Helensburgh, another National Trust for Scotland property, has the Box to control the environment and stop the delicate building materials from rotting away. We have the Hanwell devices. This little device which looks like a walkie talkie radio talks to the black box and turns the heater on and off to keep the relative humidity of the property between 50% and 55%. At this humidity woodworm are far less active. It’s a natural way of stopping them from damaging the property.

The way that the Trust addresses challenges like this is evolving all the time. We could use chemicals to combat them, but why put on layers of chemicals over time that may harm the furniture when we can use the environment? We are always on the lookout for ways of controlling and dealing with problems that are as natural as possible.

And a bonus! If I could pick just one more thing...

Wooden stocking driers

This is an item which catches the eye of every visitor and which we are always being asked about. They are wooden stocking driers, cut in the shape of a lady’s legs. They are designed to keep the shape of stockings, which used to shrink in the wash. You’ll see that there are different legs and different shapes and sizes; they are to fit the leg as the lady grows or gets older. They are a really interesting item, one that shows how people used to live and something our visitors always ask about. We have never seen them in use though – certainly not in Craigievar’s recent history!

This story first appeared in The Scots Magazine

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