Category Archives: The Castle

Tour the Castle

Over the entrance to Ballindalloch Castle stands the Macpherson-Grant arms, finely cut in freestone, inscribed with Ye Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in. Either side of the inscription is carved Erected 1546 and the codicil Restored 1850. These two eras, more so than any other, have left their mark upon the architectural style of Ballindalloch Castle: a tasteful blending of middle-ages fortification and Victorian gentrification that brings to mind a romantic chateau from the pages of a children’s fairy-tale. The furnishings to be found within, however, are broader in their influences and reflect the wide interests and extensive travels of the Macpherson-Grant family from the 18th Century to the present day.

The Dining Room

The Dining Room

The largest and arguably the grandest room in the Castle is the Dining Room. Entered by a wide staircase from the Hallway, flanked by large oak balustrades, this was once the Great Hall; the beating heart of the original 16th Century fortress, whose stone floors once felt the tread of clan chiefs and emissaries of the crown. Positioned centrally, there stands a magnificent fireplace, an original feature, above which hangs the coat of arms of the Macphersons and the Grants. The walls of the Dining Room are decorated entirely in American pine, part of the 1840s restoration commissioned by the 2nd Baronet, Sir John Macpherson-Grant, and carried out by Moray architect Thomas Mackenzie. Most notable amongst the original artworks that adorn the Dining Room are portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte by the famous Georgian royal artist Allan Ramsay, presented to General James Grant in recognition of his military service in the American Wars of Independence.

The Hallway itself, from which entrance to the Castle is gained, boasts a grand staircase and unusual umbrella and fan vaulting, designed by Thomas MacKenzie as part of the 19th Century restoration. A fine collection of military memorabilia is housed here, including a display of Scottish dirks (or daggers), a compendium of 18th Century pistols and a naval dress sword belonging to Guy Macpherson-Grant’s grandfather, who was 2nd Sea Lord and aide-de-camp to Her Majesty the Queen between 1953 and 1955. Visitors to the Hallway can also view a delightful collection of china displayed in a Sheraton corner cupboard dating from the 1820s, a fine Bureau Plat of Louis Quinze period and a set of Scottish chairs made in the Chinese Chippendale style.

The Drawing Room

The Drawing Room

In the north west wing of the Castle can be found the Drawing Room, constructed along with the south wing in the 1770s at the behest of General James Grant. Much of the furniture here is contemporaneous with the room, pride of place being taken by an oval Sheraton table and beautiful gilt mirror which date from the 1750s. Next door is the Laird’s Smoking Room, where in times past the Laird and his gentlemen guests would retire after dinner for cigars and a wee dram. The nice collection of china displayed here dates from the 1770s.

Lady Macpherson-Grant’s Bedroom is also situated in the north west wing, but the decor here reflects the influences of later centuries. Do not be concerned with knocking before entering, for the room, though once her ladyship’s bedroom, is no longer so! The centrepiece of the bedroom is a grand four-poster bed, manufactured in Scotland from cherry wood in the 1860s.

The Library, which was also panelled and refurbished as part of the Mackenzie restoration, is home to the Macpherson-Grant’s private collection of original 18th and 19th Century European literature: a collection which runs to some 2,500 volumes. This valuable archive was begun by Colonel William Grant who was a keen collector of early 18th Century classic English and French literature. Sharing the Colonel’s antiquarian sensibilities, the 3rd Baronet, Sir John Macpherson-Grant, added many historic Spanish texts to the collection whilst serving as Secretary to the Legation in Lisbon in 1850.

At the fulcrum of the two wings of the Castle stands a tower, constructed in the early 1700s. Here, on the first floor, can be found the Nursery. This rather remote and austere room was, in reality, part of the servant’s quarters, but it is used today to illustrate the experience of growing up at Ballindalloch Castle throughout the ages. The furnishings here include a beautiful inlaid Georgian highchair dating from the 1770s, a cane and mahogany cradle from the 1830s, a collection of antique teddy-bears and a dolls’ house made by Mr. Oliver Russell, the current Laird’s father, for his daughter Lucy in 1975.

The Highland Tower

The Highland Tower

An ascent of the adjoining and steeply spiralling staircase finds the Highland Tower; a caphouse which sits atop the original tower and once served as a watchtower. In later years this lofty room, with its cold stone floor and small arch window, was part of the servants’ quarters. Today it is preserved as such, complete with a simple wooden bed, side table and washing jug; a salient reminder, amidst all the grandeur, that life for the domestic servants of a great house was often ‘a life apart’.

Beneath the stone floors of the original 16th Century Castle there lies a dungeon. Here, where once the enemies of the clan Grant would reside, these past three centuries the wine has been kept. It was once the favourite room of General James Grant, whose ghost is said to walk the corridors of Ballindalloch Castle by night, his spectral journey a vain attempt to rediscover his beloved cellar.

* For more writings on the architecture and furnishing of Ballindalloch Castle please see:

Bruce B. Bishop Lost Badenoch and Strathspey (2011)

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The Gardens

The Gardens are the pride and joy of the Laird’s mother, Clare Russell, and the Head Gardener, Kevin Clarke. Although not blessed with the most ideal of climates to produce reliably horticultural firework displays, the Gardens have been planned to make the most of the soil and the landscape throughout the year!

The formal grounds of Ballindalloch Castle were principally laid down in the second half of the 19th Century, following the extensive restorations to the Castle made around 1850. To the north and east the grounds are bordered by the River Spey and the rising gradients of Cairn Guish. To the west lies the River Avon (pronounced Aan), its source on the summit of Ben Macdhui, with tributaries from the Cairngorms and Beinn Mheadhoin, and at 38 miles in length, the longest tributary of the River Spey. To the south stands the Bridge of Avon, dating from 1754, once the entrance to the Castle, once too a military road, built following the final subjugation of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. A remarkable structure, it is carved into the rocky gorge and consists of a lofty arch spanning two ornamental turrets. Although long disused, over the keystone can still be seen the Macpherson-Grant coat of arms and the family motto: Touch not the cat bot a glove.

Today the visitor enters the Gardens by passing the 18th Century Doo’cot (or dovecote) and soon discovers that there are, in fact, three distinct gardens waiting to be explored. Beyond the large lawn extending from the front of the Castle lies the Rockery, climbing up from the lower slopes of the valley of the River Avon, and affording fine views of the Castle itself. Adjacent to, and enclosed on three sides by the Castle, sits the Courtyard Garden, classically formal and hauntingly romantic. North of the Castle a laburnum arch and tree-lined avenue leads to the magnificent Walled Garden, redesigned in 1996 to celebrate the Castle’s 450th anniversary, and a profusion of colour and perfume all year round.

From the riot of daffodils in Spring to the Autumn roses, with the herbaceous border through the summer, there is plenty to see around the Castle all through the year. All three gardens offer a cornucopia of flora and fauna. Red Squirrels darting here and there between the magnificent trees; roe deer grazing along the banks of the River Avon.

A visitor to Ballindalloch Castle during the Edwardian era recorded: “There seems wood and water everywhere [and] there are so many ornamental trees that one forgets for a moment that the castle is in the Highlands.” A century later little has changed; the gardens of Ballindalloch Castle still provide a welcome oasis amidst a wilderness of granite topped mountains and heather bound moorlands.

As a result of careful planning, the Gardens perform for the visitor all through the year. From the lovely rose garden to the majestic tree-lined walks, this surely must be the most memorable part of any visit.

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The Family

Guy Macpherson-Grant and his wife Victoria today continue a tradition of family stewardship here at Ballindalloch Castle that dates back to the 15th Century.

General Grant

General Grant

The lands of Ballindalloch and Glencairnie were granted to John Grant of Freuchie by King James IV in 1499 in reward for his: ‘Good faithful and thankful service in peace and war’. It was John Grant’s grandson, also christened John, who began the construction of a castle at Ballindalloch in the 1540s.

Throughout the turbulent 17th Century the lairdship of Ballindalloch Castle remained the preserve of the Clan Grant; the title passing from father to son, brother to brother, uncle to nephew at various times over six generations. Then in 1711, John Roy Grant passed the castle and its estate to his cousin Colonel William Grant of Rothiemurchus: soon to be amongst the first commanders of the famous Am Freiceadan Dubh (or Black Watch). William’s daughter married into the Macphersons of Invereshie, and the current laird, Guy Macpherson-Grant, can trace his own ancestry back to this union of two of the foremost families of post-Reformation Scotland.

Traditionally, the lairds of Ballindalloch have been, at heart, men of the Highlands, concerned first and foremost with being good custodians of their estate. One notable exception was General James Grant, who inherited Ballindalloch Castle in 1770. Born in 1720, the 11th Laird participated in the capture of Havana from the Spanish and St Lucia from the French, before becoming Governor of East Florida in 1763. Following his inheritance, General James went on to fight in the American Wars of Independence and, upon his return, became Governor of Stirling Castle. Though something of a stranger to the estate, the General commissioned two new wings for Ballindalloch Castle and insisted upon being buried within the grounds, in sight of the River Spey.

The family today

The current laird, his parents and siblings

Upon General James Grant’s death in 1806 the title passed to his nephew, George Macpherson of Invereshie. In 1838 George was created a baronet, taking the title ‘Sir George Macpherson-Grant of Ballindalloch’, thus finally uniting the names of two of Speyside’s oldest clans. The 1st Baronet was a devoted farmer and his stewardship brought about tremendous improvements in the efficiency of the Estate. In similar vein, the 2nd Baronet, Sir John Macpherson-Grant, despite his sadly short-lived tenure, commissioned the extensive modernisation of Ballindalloch Castle carried out by Moray architect Thomas Mackenzie around 1850. The 3rd Baronet, Sir George Macpherson-Grant, added a further wing in 1878, but is better known for establishing, in 1860, the Ballindalloch herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle: now the oldest herd in the world.

It fell upon the 5th Baronet, Sir George Macpherson-Grant, to guide Ballindalloch Castle and Estate through the tumultuous era of two world wars. Of the many changes wrought by the post-war world, one was the end of male primogeniture. So when the 6th (and last) Baronet, Sir Ewan Macpherson-Grant, passed on the tenure of Ballindalloch Castle in 1978, he did so to his daughter. Clare Macpherson-Grant had journeyed ‘o’er the border’ to London in the 1960s and married Oliver Russell, second son of Admiral The Honourable Sir Guy and Lady Russell.

From 1978 for over thirty years, Clare and her husband Oliver devoted themselves to diversifying the activities of this ancient Highland estate, ensuring that Ballindalloch Castle continues to play an important role in the 21st Century, as both a working estate and a family home.

Their son, Guy Macpherson-Grant, and his wife Victoria moved up to live in the Castle in August 2014 and now work to make sure that the management of the Estate is carried on with the same dedication and attention to detail.

History of the Castle

15th and 16th Centuries

Situated on the banks of the River Avon, a short distance from its junction with the River Spey, Ballindalloch Castle has been the home of the Macpherson-Grant family since it was finished in 1546.

However, the lands of Ballindalloch and Glencairnie had been granted to John Grant of Freuchie by King James IV in 1498, though his grandfather is described as ‘Crown Tacksman of Ballindalloch’ in 1457. In turn, it was John’s grandson, also named John Grant, who began building the castle around 1542.

BC053Constructed at a time when the Highlands were rife with clan feuds and prey to the avarice of monarchs, both English and Scottish, Ballindalloch Castle was once a fortress as well as a family home. The original castle was formed in the shape of a ‘Z’ plan, with the living quarters, a three-storey square block of stone, flanked to north and south by two high circular towers, each protecting two sides of the rectangle. The Rivers Spey and Avon formed a natural moat to north and west, and the entrance to the castle was guarded by an apparatus designed to drop stones and sewage upon unwanted visitors.

It has puzzled observers ever since that John Grant did not build his castle upon the high grounds slightly to the east. If there is a strategic or geographical explanation then it is lost. All we have is a legend. John Grant ordered his stone masons to construct a castle upon the hill, but more than once a new dawn would find the foundations turned to rubble and lying across the bed of the River Avon. Eventually John Grant determined to keep a night time vigil upon his fledgling castle, only to find himself and his stonework swept off the hill by a mighty gust of wind sweeping down from the rocky tors of Ben Rinnes, accompanied by a demonic voice imploring him to build his castle “on the coo haugh”. So it was that Ballindalloch Castle came to be sited upon the ‘cows’ meadow’ running alongside the banks of the River Avon.

17th Century

For a century the positioning of the Castle on the flat meadows as a result of the spectral warning served the Grants well. Then the internecine feuding of the English and Scottish Civil Wars intervened in the history of the Castle. The Clan Grant had sided with the Covenanters, who stood alongside the English Parliament in their dispute with Charles I. In 1645 Royalist forces under the command of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, sacked the castle, burning the interior and causing the Grants to flee. It was to be a short-lived victory, however. Within the year the Royalists were defeated and the repair and reconstruction of Ballindalloch Castle had began.

18th Century

This century saw the addition to the original 16th century building of two wings to form the original Rose Garden. In 1718, Colonel William Grant added the two storey southern wing. In 1770, General James Grant saw the need for a further wing to the north to accommodate his French chef who had returned with the General after his time as Governor of East Florida.

19th Century

BC001The second – and final – occasion on which the ramparts of Ballindalloch Castle were to be breached was not by the forces of Man but by the forces of Nature. Known hereabouts as the ‘Muckle Spate’ (large flood), a great thunderstorm broke across the Cairngorms in August 1829, causing the normally stable rivers of Strathspey and Moray to burst their banks, wreaking havoc amongst low lying dwellings and farmland. A visitor to Ballindalloch Castle shortly after the storm, Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, recorded how the “garden wall for a time protected the Castle, but at last it gave way, and for twenty-four hours a body of water twenty-five yards wide rushed against the ground storey of the Castle, filling the vaulted passages. The garden was covered in four foot deep with sand; a ravine was cut between the Castle and the river bank…”.

BC179The Macpherson-Grants, like their ancestor John Grant three centuries earlier, were prompted by this ‘act of God’ to ring the changes, and by the mid 19th Century the tired and battered fortress had been transformed into a modern Victorian mansion. The work during 1848 to 1853 was overseen by Moray architect Thomas Mackenzie, who received widespread plaudits for his sensitive modernisation. He created, according to one visitor at the time, “an air of light, yet massive strength, and mingling modern and antique appearance…one of the most perfect specimens of the old Scottish castle north of the Border.” His style was consciously historicist , invoking all his antiquarian interests.

Architectural historians are today pleased that while Mackenzie added the baronial Scottish design that his Victorian client requested, the original architecture is still there for all to see and enjoy.

20th Century

Some essential modernisation took place in the 1960s as Sir Ewan Macpherson-Grant added bathrooms and tamed somewhat the excess of the Victorian additions. A wing to the North East was taken down – it had dry rot – and the plan of the Castle was updated for modern living by the addition of several bathrooms.

Further, during the 1980s Clare Russell, Sir Ewan’s daughter, oversaw the further modernisation of the Castle inside, with fabulous interior design being applied to the public rooms.

21st Century

Ballindalloch Castle and GardensTo the 21st Century eye, Mackenzie’s subtle melding of the original ‘Z’ plan, turreted fortress with modern wings, adorned with large dormer windows and gabled roofs, has the uncanny look of a ‘fairy-tale’ castle.

And yet once within the Castle gardens the gentle hum of activity quickly reminds us that Ballindalloch Castle remains part of a busy Highland Estate with several different businesses all based in the policies. In addition, to this day it remains the family home of the latest two generations of Macpherson-Grants.

Will there be any more notable additions (or subtractions) to the Castle? Only time and passage of this family’s history will tell…

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