The castle is located on a promontory above the River Fiddich to the north of Dufftown, a small town originally called Mortlach.  It has been suggested that a castle was first built at Balvenie in the twelfth century, based on the villa and monastery of Mortlach (Murthillach) being mentioned in a confirmation of a grant of lands by the kings of Scots to the church of Aberdeen in 1157.  The existence of a vill may also imply that a castle was here.  Otherwise the first Mortlach castle is thought to have been built in the thirteenth century by either William Comyn (d.1233) or his son Earl Alexander of Buchan (d.1289).  William Comyn was the warden of Moray in the early thirteenth century and had married Countess Margaret of Buchan, sometime between 1209 and 1212.  Upon the death of her father, Fergus, the last native Gaelic Mormaer of Buchan at some point before 1211, the earldom of Buchan had passed to William as the inheritance of his wife, the only surviving child of Fergus.  This was all tied up with the campaigns of King William the Lion (d.1214) to pacify the north and bring it under Scottish control.  Despite this, the lordship of Balvenie seems not to have originally formed part of the earldom of Buchan, as Earl Alexander Comyn exchanged land in East Lothian for it during the 1260s.

During the wars that ruptured Scotland after 1292, the Comyns sided with their relative, King John Balliol (d.1314), after they lost their claim to the Crown.  They continued to fight for his cause after he was deposed by Edward I of England in 1296.  Peace eventually was agreed between the waring factions and in 1304 Edward I restored ‘the castle of Mortlach' to Earl John Comyn of Buchan (d.1308).  In 1306, Earl John's 2nd half cousin, John Comyn the Red was murdered by Robert Bruce in Dumfries church, precipitating Bruce's bid for the Crown.  In opposition to Bruce the Comyns held to their loyalty to Edward I as king, but they were all but annihilated when abandoned by Edward's successor, Edward II (1307-26) and overwhelmed by Robert Bruce who became king as Robert I of Scotland (1306-29).  After destroying the Comyns at the battle of Inverurie on 23 May 1308, Bruce granted the lordship – but not the earldom of Buchan – to his friend, the Good Sir James Douglas.  It is possible that the castle was derelict at this time, a victim of Bruce's harrying of Buchan.  James' family, the Black Douglases, became as mighty as the Comyns, with a power base in southern Scotland.  They seem to have kept the castle up until 1455.  This was after King James II of Scotland (1437-60) had murdered the young Earl William Douglas in 1452.  As a result his brother, the ninth earl, rebelled in 1455 but lost and had his lands and estates forfeited.  In 1460 King James II gave Balvenie castle to one of his relatives, the first Earl John Stewart of Atholl (d.1512) for the princely rent of one red rose a year.  John subsequently married Margaret Douglas, the widow of the eighth and possibly also the ninth earl, that year.  Stewart was later known as Sir John Stewart of Balveny.  The fourth earl of Athol (John Stewart, d.1579) was a member of the Mary Queen of Scots' council and housed her in the Atholl lodging on 4 and 5 September 1562 during her campaign against Atholl's father-in-law, the fourth earl of Huntly.

In the seventeenth century the castle was held by the
family of Innes of Balvenie, although the fortress saw little of the fighting that shook the kingdom in the 1640s.  Following the Battle of Fyvie in 1644, Balvenie castle was occupied by the marquis of Montrose to allow his men a few days' rest in safety.  By 1645 the Innes appear to have been in financial difficulties and the castle seems to have passed to James Sutherland 'of Balvenie' by 18 April 1648.  A little later on 10 June, Sir Ludovic Gordon of Gordonstoun and his wife Elizabeth Farquhar also seem to have been in possession of Balvenie, or perhaps a part of it.  The next year the castle was attacked by General Leslie's Covenanters and eighty Royalists were killed, amongst whom is said to have been Walter Innes, who was again described as the owner.  Innes had certainly died some time before the end of 1650 although the exact date isn't known, so there may be some truth in this story.

In 1689, following James VII abandoning his throne, Balvenie was garrisoned for William and Mary, but the garrison fled following the battle of Killiecrankie and it was then occupied by the Jacobites.  In 1695 a garrison of two companies of foot were installed in the fortress.  During the subsequent Jacobite Rising of 1715, the owner, William Duff, strengthened Balvenie for his own security and pledged support for the Crown, although the castle wasn't attacked.  In 1724 William Duff of Braco and Dipple built Balvenie New House to replace the old castle.  Despite this in 1745, William Duff supported the Government during the Jacobite Rising, and Balvenie castle was occupied by Government forces the next year.  Duff was later given the title Earl Fife in 1759 and the castle remained their property until the Victorian era.

The castle stands on a slight mound with defined embankments to the north, south and east, some 80' beyond the castle enceinte.  To the north-west and south-west sides is a wide flat-bottomed ditch some 40' across and faced with stone, with a break on the south-east side for the entrance.  It seems likely that the ditch originally encircled the castle, but was partially infilled and replaced by cultivation terraces.  The berm at 30' is unusually wide, but this appears to be because the inner wall of the ditch is in fact the curtain wall of an outer ward.  The veracity of this is suggested by the ruins of an open backed D-shaped turret at the current south apex of the site.  This would have made the castle concentric.

both inner and apparently outer fortress were built on a quadrangular plan aligned approximately north-west to south-east, while the inner defence had a curtain wall which is still 30' high in places and a little over 6' thick.  A base section of the original crenellated parapet remains on the south side of the wall.  The outer wall measures around 170' south-east to north-west by around 130' north-east to south-west, although the sides don't form a regular rectangle.  Small rectangular turrets projected from the curtain wall at the west and north corners.  There may have been another tower at the east corner under the site of the current large round tower of Atholl's lodging.  There does not appear to have been a tower at the south corner.  The east tower was much bigger than the surviving north tower which seems to have been a latrine turret.  Possibly the west tower was a larger rectangular keep, although the wall fragment remaining to the south-east appears only 3' thick.  At the centre of the courtyard is a well thought to date to the earliest period of the castle.  The bottom is framed with oak timbers.

It has been held that the Douglas family was responsible for building the ranges along the insides of the curtain wall before 1455.  These stand against the south end of the south-east wall, to the south of the entrance.  Here lie the remains of a bakehouse on the ground floor, above which was a Great Hall measuring around 42' by 20' and featuring a barrel-vaulted ceiling.  This range is similar in style to the three storey hall-house at Dundonald castle in Ayrshire which was built by King Robert II (d.1406), the father-in-law of Archibald Douglas (d.1424) of Bothwell who died at the battle of Verneuil.

Along the north-west wall the Douglases built a 2 storey accommodation block, on the ground floor of which were vaulted storage cellars.  In the south-west corner was an L shaped staircase leading up to the first floor which seems to have consisted of a main outer hall entered directly from the stair, beyond which was a private inner chamber.  The only remains of this are the vaulting of the ground floor.  Along the north end of the south-west wall were service offices, while to the south was a 2 storey kitchen complex which contains the main kitchen, the huge flue of which stills stands, and a brewhouse complete with brew cauldron.  The arms of Atholl and Stewart are carved into the castle walls at various points.

Sometime, probably between 1547 and 1557, the castle was extensively remodelled by Earl John Stewart of Atholl (d.1579).  A new Renaissance wing was built at the north end of the south-east wall, destroying much of the original castle at that end of the courtyard.  Whatever form the original entrance took it was now replaced with the ditch being filled in to the south-east and north.  The new wing, known as the Atholl Lodging, was 3 storeys in height plus an attic, with a large round projecting gun tower, similar to that seen at Huntly, built in the east corner.  Unlike the largely plain curtain wall the Atholl Lodging contained various carved details and mouldings, elaborate heraldic panels set into the walls at various points and freestone dressings around the doorways, together with large windows which were glazed with leaded glass above wooden shutters.

The sixteenth century entrance was originally protected by two sets of wooden doors, neither of which survive although their hinges do.  Behind the 2 doors, and still in place today, is a double-leaved yett, unique in Scotland.  Beyond these defences a small vaulted guardroom is situated on the west side of the entrance tunnel.  Around the arch of the new entrance part of the old arch can still be seen, but the rest of the facade largely dates to the time of the fourth earl of Atholl's improvements.  Flanking the entrance are a pair of round turrets.

The north-east tower is slightly larger than it's south-west neighbour, and more elaborate, containing a staircase.  At attic level the round tower corbels out into a square, and is topped off with a small caphouse with crow-stepped gables - similar to that seen at Dunnottar castle.  The south-west tower, which would have been used by guests, was once surmounted by a plainer conical roof.

Why not join me at Balvenie and other Great Scottish Castles this Spring?  Information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry