After leaving Elcho Castle and the foot of the Scottish Highlands, we elected to travel east, travelling to Edinburgh by crossing the Firth of Forth. This route bought us into the Kingdom of Fife and past Aberdour Castle, where we decided to call in for a look. As we visited this castle the same day as Elcho Castle, it was logical to make a comparison between the two. If Elcho Castle is a building representing the needs of one family at one particular point in time, then Aberdour Castle is one that is a representation of ever-changing needs over time. The castle has been adapted over a period of 500 years, expanding and changing shapes to the buildings (and ruins) you see today. There are actually four distinct steps in the castle’s history, and I found this absolutely fascinating.
The oldest section of the castle was built in the 12th century, meaning that Aberdour Castle is possibly the oldest stone castle in Scotland. The original building was built by Alan de Mortimer, and it’s likely he built St Fillian’s Church nearby as well (a short walking distance and worth checking out if you visit the castle!). The original building on the site was a keep consisting of two storeys, and it’s likely the second story was a great hall. Much of the ruined shell you can see on the site is the remains of the 12th century castle. You can even find the head of a double lancet window which once decorated the keep!
It’s not clear what happened to the Mortimer family, but in 1325 the lands, including the castle, were granted to Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, whose son granted part of them to Sir William Douglas, a famous soldier of the Second War of Scottish Independence. The castle remained in the Douglas family for 500 years! During the 15th century, the building was altered significantly. The original hall was built upon to create a tower house, and rooms were reordered. By the end of the renovations, the castle would have featured service rooms, a great hall, and private apartments. Because this tower house was built upon the older building, you need a key eye to determine which part of the ruins are from this house. However, one thing that certainly belonged to the tower house is the corner of fallen masonry found towards the back of the castle; it fell from its original place in 1844.
The 16th century saw the expansion of the castle again, with what is called the “Central Range” built beside the original tower house. This building is the better preserved of the ruins left today, and includes a kitchen on the ground floor and what would have been lordly apartments. Interestingly, and just like Elcho Castle, this newer building features corridors, which we know was an innovation at the time. During this period, the older building would have still been in use. The service courtyard towards the rear of the castle, beside the fallen masonry of the earlier townhouse, are dated from the 16th century, but it’s likely that they were rebuilds of older buildings. The Douglas family were obviously in an improving financial and social position, as terraced gardens were built to the rear of the castle. You can still walk on these (reconstructed) terraces today, and the dovecot, a small building where game birds would live, is the original from this time. It’s not really surprising that these renovations were done when you consider the occupants of the castle at the time… James Douglas, the 4th Earl of Morton, was the Lord Chancellor of Scotland in 1563, and was actually regent from 1572 to 1580!
The final additions to Aberdour Castle is the only section of the castle that remains roofed today, the “East Range”. This was added in the 17th century and included an art gallery, stables, and private generals. The walled garden was also added to the east of the castle. These changes show that during this period, under the ownership of William Douglas, the 8th Earl of Morton, the castle was in its prime; heavily decorated and a pride of the family. You can almost imagine what the three structures would have looked liked side by side in their glory, with a quite bustle of servants, gorgeous tapestries on the walls, and noblemen and women taking strolls in the terraced and walled gardens. If only the walls could talk!
This splendour, however, was short lived. By 1648, the castle was already in decline. A fire in the 1680s caused damaged, and plans for expansion and repair were abandoned in 1690. Only the newest section, the East Range, was saved. A second fire in 1715 rendered the buildings uninhabitable, and in the 1720s, the Douglas family left Aberdour Castle. Over the years since, the East Range has been used as barracks, a school room, a masonic lodge, and a private dwelling, until it was finally taken into state care in 1924. It’s amazing (and a little terrifying) to think that this site, which served the family for 500 years, adjusting and expanding to suit its needs, was abandoned in such a short time. It just goes to show that nothing is set in concrete. Or rather, set in stone, as it were.