We give grateful thanks to Simon Forder, author of the book ‘Fortress Scotland’ published in 2016, and who has given us his permission to print his chapter on Castle Roy in full.
Castle Roy is a small quadrangular courtyard castle built on a natural mound on the southern side of Strathspey, and overlooks the minor tributary known as the Allt Mor. A short distance upstream is the junction of the larger River Nethy with the Spey. This side of the Spey valley is supplied with a large number of these natural mounds, some of which are much more significant in size, and it appears most likely that the castle site was chosen more for its views and location guarding passage along the southern side of the valley than for strategic defensive reasons.
The castle is simple in plan; a rectangular curtain wall enclosing a courtyard measuring roughly 25 metres by 15. The entrance to the castle is a simple archway in the middle of the north-eastern wall, which was originally edged with dressed stone on the outside. This fine masonry has been robbed, but the simpler masonry lining the top of the internal side of the arch does survive. The base of the wall shows signs of having had a splayed plinth, a fairly common feature of Scottish castles from the late 12th or early 13th century. The upper courses of this wall appear to be from a different build phase, being of a slightly different type of stone, and this feature continues around to the south-east.
The eastern corner of the castle has suffered from some erosion or stone robbing in the lower courses, but most of the south-eastern curtain wall survives to what is probably the wallwalk level. It is notable that again there is a marked break in the masonry, suggesting that the walls of the castle were heightened at some point in its history. The southern corner of the castle has fallen, probably the result of deliberate destruction rather than landslip, and a small section of the south-eastern curtain is damaged near here. On the inside of this wall is a horizontal recess set high up in the wall, which is evidence of a building, possibly of two storeys, extending the length of the wall. There are no external window openings, suggesting it was likely to have been a service range of some kind.
The south-western curtain wall of the castle survives to a lesser extent, sloping steadily down towards the western corner, where it is perhaps half the maximum height of the south-eastern curtain. In the western corner of the castle is a small mural chamber, above which the remains of a garderobe chute and one side of a window opening can be seen on the outside of the castle, as well as remnants of vaulting. This suggests that in this corner of the castle was a projecting turret as well as confirming the presence of a two storey building serviced by garderobes on each level.
In the northern corner is a square tower which projects to the west and slightly to the north. The walls of this tower are markedly thinner than the curtain walls, indicating it was a later addition to the castle. Adjacent to this tower in the north-west wall is a small arched window, below which the wall has been hacked out and now provides another entrance to the courtyard. It seems likely that the range of buildings along this wall included the tower to create a lengthy L-shaped domestic range.
This particular part of Strathspey was divided into a number of small but strategic lordships in the 12th and early 13th centuries. Among these is believed to have been the Lordship of Abernethy, which was created by Alexander II and granted by 1226 to James, the son (possibly illegitimate) of the deceased Morgan, a previous Earl of Mar. The one reference to James is an agreement between him and the Bishop of Moray concerning payment of teinds which had formerly been paid to the king. The agreement was that all disputes relating to the feu of the land would cease, and that James would allocate an acre of land for the use of the church, and pay the Bishop half a silver mark twice a year, in return for which the Bishop would not pursue the matter further. Clearly there had been some dispute between the Bishop of Moray, who had extensive holdings in Strathspey, and James, but what this dispute consisted of, and the reasons for it is unknown.
Of James, there is no further mention. His father had died by 1183, and succeeded by Gillecrist, of whom we know very little save that he was succeeded by James’ brother Duncan in 1203, and that his descendants were the Durward family. Duncan ruled Mar until 1244, and was succeeded by his son William, who married a daughter of the Comyn Earl of Buchan. The alliance with the powerful Comyns was almost certainly a move to counter the rival claims of the Durwards to Mar, and it was successful.
After this, we simply do not know what happened to James’ lands of Abernethy. Tradition asserts that they passed to the Comyn family, Lords of Badenoch, and were forfeited to the Crown in 1307. The Comyns certainly held neighbouring Kincardine to the south as well as Badenoch. Tradition also asserts that they were part of the earldom of Moray granted to Bruce’s nephew Thomas Randolph. However, the grant specifies that Randolph’s earldom was made up of all the kings lands in Moray as they had existed in the time of Alexander III, and does not specifically mention the lands of Abernethy. They were also not part of the truncated earldom of Moray granted to John Dunbar in 1373.
It is possible that they passed to the Lords of Glencarnie, a junior line of the Earls of Strathearn, since in 1281-98 Gilbert III of Glencarnie granted lands in Abernethy to Duncan of Frendraught and his daughter Marjory. If so, we might look back to the time of the Comyn/Durward rivalry to find that in 1256, Gilbert of Glencarnie was granted lands in Mar by Alan Durward, and consider that in the event James died without children, his lands could have reverted to the Earls of Mar. The grant does not necessarily have to have been revoked when Durward was exiled and William son of Duncan was able to rule Mar uncontested. Wiliam’s wife died in 1267, and his second wife was the daughter of Malise III, Earl of Strathearn. This alliance closely linked William of Mar with Gilbert III of Glencarnie meaning that it would be perfectly reasonable for the Glencarnies to hold the Mar property of Abernethy.
However, the link would be broken in the following generation, and Gilbert IV of Glencarnie found himself politically opposed to both Donald of Mar and Malise IV of Strathearn, both of whom were supporters of Robert Bruce, who Gilbert just could not bring himself to support. Consequently it appears that Gilbert was disinherited at the 1314 Parliament, meaning that Abernethy could have passed back to the Earls of Mar.
An entry in the “Registrum Moraviense” for 1376 states that “from the time of the death of Cristina McCrath to the time of the entry of Lord Alexander to the Barony of Abernethy nothing is related.” The McGrath name is more commonly written as Macrae in Scotland, a family with no particular links to the Spey valley, but originating from the area around the south of the Beauly Firth. This is a very unusual name to find in Strathspey, but there is a more attractive alternative which links closely to the Mar theory. Earl William of Mar had a younger son, Duncan, who appears on record in 1268. He was married to Christina, who appears in 1296 swearing fealty to Edward I at Berwick on Tweed in the same list as Gilbert of Glencarnie. In it she is called “Christina of Mar, widow of Duncan of Mar, of the county of Inverness”. This Christina was Christina MacRuarie, the heiress daughter of Alan MacRuarie of Garmoran. The surname is very similar to the entry in the Moray Register.
The date of Christina’s death is unknown, but she was still active into the 1320s, when Robert Bruce forfeited her nephew Ranald, later to become a favoured follower of David Bruce and to be murdered in 1346. Her lands would then have passed to the Lord of the Isles, and in the politically charged atmosphere of David’s captivity and the increasing power of Robert Stewart, it is highly unlikely that John Macdonald would have been permitted to keep hold of the lands of Abernethy by his bitter rival the Steward. Abernethy was most likely claimed by the Crown at this time, with the sheriffs of Inverness collecting what rents were achievable.
According to the “Chiefs of Grant”, Abernethy was resigned to the crown at Montrose on 7th February 1381 by one John Comyn, and regranted by King Robert to Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan and Lord of Badenoch at Perth on 7th October 1384. Exactly who this John Comyn was is not known, but it seems most likely that he was related to the few other Comyns retaining some degree of prominence in the north, the descendants of Robert Comyn, brother of John Comyn of Badenoch, both of whom were killed by Robert Bruce and his men in 1306. Robert’s grandson Sir Richard was the Earl of Moray’s forester at Darnaway in 1368, and his two sons were Ferquhard, 1st of Altyre, and John. It would stand to reason that John could have been managing crown lands in Strathspey including Abernethy.
It is also only at this point that the lands were erected into a Lordship as a free barony, and as one of the many baronies held by Alexander Stewart, it is unlikely that he attached much importance to it beyond income. The castle of the Mar family (and possibly the Glencarnies) was most likely sacked during the Wars of Independence during the reign of Robert Bruce, and it is unlikely that it was repaired by the Lady Christina to any great extent, although it is quite possible that she reinstated it to be used by her officers as the seat of the lands. Once it passed to the crown it is also unlikely to have been much improved, so it may actually have been Alexander Stewart who brought the castle back up to an acceptable defensive standard.
It is known that Earl Alexander appointed his illegitimate sons to various seats throughout his lands, and it seems logical that the castle of Abernethy might have been one of these seats. If so, it is not clear which of the sons would have been based there. The Earl himself had a headquarters at Ruthven as well as Lochindorb and these would appear to have been his main bases in Badenoch; Castle Roy was not an impressive residence for a man of his royal and comital status.
It was fairly commonplace for small holds to have their walls heightened during the 14th and 15th century, and this area was regularly raided by bands of raiders from the north and west under the aegis of the Lords of the Isles. Indeed, the Lords of the Isles may well have been exercising what they saw as their right to uplift tribute from Abernethy when doing this. Earl Alexander had been granted the lands of Abernethy in fee and heritage, so it is likely that they were claimed after his death by his eldest son, Alexander, who reasserted a link with Mar when he married the widowed Countess. It seems likely that either of the two Ear Alexanders could have been responsible for raising the walls of Castle Roy, although raiding was minimal in their time due to their reputation.
It seems more likely that the raising of the walls took place in the mid 15th century after the death of Alexander of Mar. After a period in which the Lords of the Isles wrought havoc across the Highlands, the crown appointed Alexander Earl of Huntly to be Lord of Badenoch, but Huntly was not granted the Lordship of Abernethy, which was retained by the Crown.
Abernethy remained with the Crown for 66 years, presumably without a significant military role, until it was granted in 1501 alongside the Earldom of Moray – on a separate charter – to James Stewart, natural son of King James IV. By 1516, the earl had granted out the lands and lordship of Abernethy for a fixed rent of £40 to John Grant of Freuchie, and the lairds of Freuchie continued to rent Abernethy from the Earls for nearly a century. The first James Stuart died in 1544, meaning that the rentals were then paid to the Crown, and between 1549 and 1560 they were paid to the 4th Earl of Huntly, who was made and unmade Earl of Moray in those years. In 1560, Queen Mary made her half-brother Earl of Moray, and he then received rents from the Grants until his assassination in 1570. His daughter Elizabeth was acting Countess of Moray until her husband James was confirmed as Earl in 1581, and it was under Elizabeth that the rents were revised, although they continued to be paid by the Grants. After the assassination of the Earl in 1592, the earldom was held by a minor, and when he came of age, the 3rd Earl came to the conclusion that he wanted to set the arrangement in stone, and in return for an agreement to continue to pay the £40 rent, John Grant of Freuchie received a charter granting him “the Lands and Lordship of Abernethy with the Manor place thereof, woods and all other pertinents irredeemably, and without any condition, provision or obligation of reversion or redemption whatsoever.” This charter was confirmed by James VI on 17th June 1609.
The reference to the manor place of Abernethy is confusing. It would logically seem to refer to the castle, but from 1566, Duncan Grant, younger of Freuchie/Grant was resident at the manor house of Coulnakyle, which lies about half a mile to the south-west and overlooks the River Nethy. After his death in 1582, the manor was occupied by his son John, who would become Laird of Freuchie/Grant upon his grandfather’s death. A detailed history of Coulnakyle can be found in the Rev Forsyth’s “In the Shadow of Cairngorm”, which can be read online. However, an examination of Pont’s map of Strathspey reveals that “Abernethy Cast” is still clearly being referred to and habitable, and that “Coualnakyil” was possibly a small tower, but more likely a manor house, in a separate location.
So what was happening at Abernethy Castle? Pont’s map seems to suggest that the tower was taller than the curtain walls, three or perhaps even four storeys high. However it shows no windows, making confirmation difficult. What appears most likely is that the castle still stood intact to a large extent, but had been abandoned as a residence, being seen as archaic, possibly uncomfortable, and perhaps falling into a state of disrepair which would be too expensive to deal with.
A short time afterwards, John Grant acquired further lands from the Earl of Huntly which would become part of the Lordship of Abernethy, which now extended as far as Kincardine, in return for which he gave Huntly the estates of Blairfindy and others in Stratha’an. Huntly reserved the right to take wood from the forest of Abernethy to repair his property as part of this arrangement, but the Grants afterwards had this clause revoked in return for a cash payment.
The image Pont presents to us confirms that by 1590, the square tower at the northern corner of the castle of Abernethy had not only been built, but was probably falling into disrepair, indicating that it could have been built in the 15th century at the same time that the walls were being raised. (need to look at masonry on the tower and upper courses to see if there is continuity) There would appear to be little reason to strengthen or improve the tower after the mid 15th century despite the many feuds that were going on in the reigns of Kings James III and IV, purely and simply because the property belonged to the Crown. After 1501, it is highly unlikely that the Earl of Moray would have repaired it, although he did retain the title “Lord of Abernethy” and legend refers to the Earl declining to sell the nearby Moot Hill (location not clear but said to be to the east of the castle) in order to keep this. Could the Earl have also retained the castle itself?
If so, it is likely that it passed to the Grants in 1609 or soon after. There are no specific references to the castle in the “Chiefs of Grant” – but as we have seen, early references to the castle of Freuchies itself are somewhat absent, so the absence of references to the castle of Abernethy should not be a surprise. It is likely that the “Manor place” of Abernethy was the dwelling within the castle, and that Duncan Grant was unable to live in it due to it not being Grant property – and that by 1609 Coulnakyle was a more desirable residence. One would have thought that the castle may have functioned as the seat of justice for the Barony of Abernethy, and that after the raising of all the Grant lands into a single Barony, this function would have been lost and the castle fully abandoned. However in the 1694 creation of the regality of Grant, the lands and lordship of Abernethy are curiously absent, perhaps because they were still held in feu from the Earl of Moray.
The final days of the castle of Abernethy are therefore completely unknown. By the mid 18th century, the castle appears on Roy’s map as Castle Roy, the name allegedly being taken from the colour of the masonry (which is not particularly red!) and would appear therefore to have been inhabited, but by 1794 the Old Statistical Account states that it has never been roofed or inhabited, and that no history is attached to it, which would indicate that no-one within the parish had any recollection of it being inhabited. Perhaps therefore, the appearance on Roy’s map is purely because of its prominence in the locality.
In 1994 a charitable trust purchased Castle Roy, and in 2011 after it was discovered that the tower was starting to shift, significant efforts have been made to restore and stabilise it, and at the time of writing it is still being worked upon by the trust. It is possible to purchase small pieces of the land as part of the fundraising activity, and to make donations. When completed, it will be possible for visitors to enjoy this enigmatic castle for generations to come.