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22 Apr 2024

Unique organ revived at Fyvie Castle

Written by Sarah Burnett
A view looking from the grand drawing room of Fyvie Castle into the adjoining Gallery, with a large pipe organ on the far wall.
The pipe organ in the Gallery at Fyvie Castle
Good progress has been made on our project to restore a remarkable ‘self-playing’ organ at Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire.

This historic pipe organ, which has not been played for years, dates from 1905 and was one of the first of its kind in the UK. It features an electrical ‘self-playing’ mechanism that could play anything from opera tunes to the dance hits of the 1900s. Damage to the pipes had silenced the organ in recent decades, but thanks to specialist repair and restoration work carried out for our charity, the organ is playing loud and clear again.

To celebrate, the team at Fyvie Castle organised a recital on International Organ Day (Saturday 20 April), by renowned organist Roger Williams – the former organist and Musical Director for the Cathedral Church of St Machar in Aberdeen, and also the Honorary Music Advisor to the National Trust for Scotland. Roger and others played a varied programme of music to showcase the beautiful sound quality of the Fyvie organ, including pieces by Handel and Albinoni, a selection of Scottish dances, and the world premiere of a piece called ‘If only these pipes could talk’ by local composer Ronan Malster.

A close-up view of a pipe organ, installed high up on a balcony and reaching the ceiling. An open grand piano stands in the space beneath the organ.
The pipe organ in Fyvie Castle

With the original ceiling-high iron and tin pipes working once more, the next step in the delicate conservation project is to repair the organ’s direct current electrical automatic-playing mechanism. Self-playing mechanisms were hugely popular for pianos (or ‘pianolas’) from the 1900s to the 1930s. The modernity of the mechanism, added by Herbert Marshall of Regent Street, London, contrasts with the more traditional style of the pipe organ. Built by Norman Brothers in 1905 with a panelled oak case and carvings of lyres, it makes a spectacular addition to Fyvie’s grand tapestry- and art-lined drawing room.

“Self-playing organs were a very high-end fashion accessory for the wealthy in the late 19th and early 20th century, denoting their scale of entertaining and the grandeur of the spaces in which they entertained.”
Vikki Duncan
Curator (North), National Trust for Scotland

Vikki continued: ‘Records show these organs were sold to monied clients as far afield as Russia, North America and India, with industrialists and maharajahs among those buying them. Suppliers even offered suggestions on different types of organs suitable for different types of music to potential purchasers – for example, the Trust has a letter from Imhof & Mukle, suppliers of “self-acting musical instrument makers”, to the then-owner of Fyvie Castle, Alexander Forbes-Leith, with suggestions on different organs – some suitable for dance or operatic music.

‘The Herbert Marshall self-playing organ at Fyvie was one of the first of its type in Britain, and its installation at Fyvie Castle illustrates the cosmopolitan tastes of the Forbes-Leith family. Having moved to Scotland from the USA and purchased this baronial castle for £175,000 – the equivalent of over £20 million today – their horizons and tastes certainly reached much further afield than rural Aberdeenshire of the 1900s.’

Fyvie Castle has an 800-year rich history, evolving from an ancient fortress to a Renaissance palace to the 19th-century family home of Alexander Leith, when he returned to his native Scotland in 1889 after making his fortune in the steel industry and banking in the USA. Still in his 40s when he retired and returned to Scotland, he was accompanied by his American wife, Marie Louise January, and their two young children. He then added his mother’s surname to his own, becoming Alexander Forbes-Leith.

Find out more about the Forbes-Leith family

Once at Fyvie, the Forbes-Leiths furnished the castle with both the antique and the modern – installing sumptuous tapestries, armour and fine art, whilst also being early adopters of electricity and modern plumbing. The Fyvie organ, with its traditional oak case surrounding a modern electric self-playing mechanism to entertain and impress guests, perfectly embodies the style of the Forbes-Leiths and their transformation of Fyvie Castle.

Grand room in a castle, with a large stone fireplace on a wood-panelled wall. There is a grand piano next to the window at one end of the room, and paintings and tapestries on the wall.
The magnificent Gallery in Fyvie Castle

We will now work with specialist restorers this year to assess whether it is possible to repair and restore the organ’s original electrical mechanism to full working order. Katy Neithercut, the National Trust for Scotland’s Operations Manager for Aberdeenshire North, added: ‘As our charity celebrates the 40th anniversary of Fyvie coming into our care, we are excited to restore the Fyvie organ to working order again and share it with our visitors and supporters, along with the castle’s astonishing collections, fascinating mix of ancient and modern, and beautiful grounds.’

Both stages of this organ project support our charity’s strategic objective to stabilise and improve the condition of the heritage buildings and structures in our care, ensuring their future.

Read more about our strategy: Nature, Beauty and Heritage for Everyone

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