Like most fortresses there is no foundation date for Elgin castle.  All that can be said is that it was possibly founded as a castle when the Normans penetrated into the north during the reign of King David I (1124-53).  Certainly this seems the time of the foundation of nearby Duffus castle.  Elgin was a royal burgh of King David after his conquest of Moray, although previous kings had probably been in possession of the town.  In 1136 David was at Banff when he made a grant to the monks of his own foundation of Urquhart priory (some 5 miles east of Elgin) of 20s each year from ‘his burgh and water of Elgin'.  Before his reign began in 1124 it seems likely that Aberdeen, Banff, Elgin, Forres, Nairn and Inverness all had a royal privilege of free trade, indicating their existence before the ‘Norman' conquest of Moray.  These rights were guaranteed by King William the Lion (1165-1214) to his burgesses of Aberdeen and all his burgesses of Moray.  King David also founded Kinloss abbey, some 10 miles west of Elgin in 1150 and granted rights in Elgin to his new foundation as were confirmed by King William the Lion (1165-1214).  It seems unlikely that the early Scottish kings would have held the town of Elgin if there was no castle there.

King David's grandson, William the Lion, seems to have visited Elgin on numerous occasions, often meeting up there with the Freskins of Duffus castle.  Presumably they all stayed at Elgin castle.  The royal castle was certainly in existence when mentioned in 1160 during the reign of Malcolm IV (1153-65), while in the period 1189-99 King William granted the bishop of Moray the right to build a mill on the Lossie (Loscyn) above the cruives [fish traps] and below his castle of Elgin.  On 28 November 1234, some hundred years after the castle's probable foundation, Elgin city received a charter from Alexander II (1214-49) when he was staying there.  Earlier in 1231 he had spent the Christmas celebrations in the city and possibly stayed at the castle.  In 1242 Wynton, on commenting that the king came from Elgin to the south of Scotland, noted that he visited Moray yearly.  The 1263 Exchequer Roll also notes that King Alexander III (1249-86) passed through Elgin on his way to Inverness when Alexander Montfort was sheriff of Elgin and presumably resident in the castle.  That the castle was one of the main royal residences of the kingdom is suggested as it was one of the 23 royal fortresses rendered up to King Edward I (1272-1307) and garrisoned by men loyal to him - Elgin and Forres castles being held by Henry Rye.  The 23 were soon transferred to King John Balliol (1292-96).

After Balliol's overthrow, King Edward visited the castle on his 2 northern campaigns of 1296 and 1303.  In the first it is recorded that the king left Stirling on 14 June, reached Banff on the 22nd and arrived at Elgin on the 26th where he remained for 2 days ‘in the good castle and town'.  He was at Rothes by the 29th, Kildrummy on the 31st and was back at Edinburgh on the 17th of August.  During the king's stay at Elgin many of the burgesses and magnates of the district came to him to pay homage.  On the king's second expedition he left Edinburgh on 4 June 1303 and marched on Brechin castle which was forced to surrender.  He then came via Aberdeen and Banff to Elgin on 9 September and stayed there until the 13th before marching around Moray visiting such sites as Kinloss, Lochindorb and Kildrummy before finally reaching Elgin again on 10 October.  On the 11th he began his march back through the Mearns to Dundee.

The castle was apparently sacked and slighted after 2 unsuccessful attacks during King Robert Bruce's harrying of Buchan which devastated the district in 1308.  After this disaster the castle was repaired by Thomas Randulph (d.1332) who was granted the earldom of Moray by his uncle, King Robert (1306-29), in the period 1312-14.  In June 1336, King Edward III (1326-77) marched through Moray burning the district as he moved to relieve the countess of Athol besieged by Andrew Moray (d.1338) in Lochindorb castle.  He reached Elgin on 12 June and, after relieving Lochindorb, returned to Perth via Elgin again.

The castle was apparently still functional on 1 May 1390, when Earl Thomas Dunbar of Moray (d.1415) remitted the assize of ale formerly paid at the earl's castle of Elgin in consideration of the 3 past pestilences and various violent attacks made on the town recently.  The castle may have been destroyed the next month, for on 17 June Earl Alexander of Buchan, the Wolf of Badenoch, burned all the town with its cathedral, the church of St Giles and the hospital of Maisondieu.  Despite being forgiven his sins on condition that he made recompense for the damage he had done, Alexander died in 1394, while the bishop had to plead with the king for funds to rebuild his cathedral.  If the town and castle did recover it was soon burned again when Alexander of Lochaber, the lord of Inverlochy, the third son of the Lord of the Isles, came by on a pillaging expedition on 3 July 1402.

If the castle had survived the 2 burnings of Elgin, which seems unlikely, the town was burned again in May 1452 when the earl of Huntly, in vengeance for the burning of Strathbogie castle, marched north and torched Elgin.  By the 1450s the earl's sheriffs were installed in a town house, which would again indicate that the castle was destroyed.  By the 1500s the castle site was known as Chapel Hill or Lady Hill, which would indicate that the castle chapel had survived the abandonment of the castle.  However, the current masonry remains are unlikely to be any such chapel as they are not aligned east to west.

Lady Hill stands at the opposite end of Elgin to the cathedral to the east.  The natural hillock, some 140' high, is now crowned by the 1839 memorial column to Duke George Gordon which lies west of the castle masonry remains.  The building of the monument which was finished in 1855 has much mutilated the summit of the hill, but the castle would appear to have consisted of a sub-rectangular enclosure about 250' east to west by 165' wide.  There was also a lower triangular ditched bailey to the north-west, which sloped towards the River Lossie on a slight spur of land.  This may have been the original castle approach and is perhaps matched by the barbican at Painscastle in Wales.  The main ward seems to have been ditched, traces of which remain to all sides except to the west where the slope is gentler.  It has been argued from this that the hill was the site of a prehistoric or Dark Age hillfort.  However, excavations here have revealed nothing from that date.  A round depression barely 2' deep at the west end of the site is supposed to represent the remnants of a large squat masonry structure shown on early images of Elgin.

Excavation ascertained that the hillock was totally natural and not a motte, the ditching being cut into virgin ground.  It was found that the outer defences to the north consisted of an earthen rampart based on stone with a timber revetment or palisade on its outer face.  There were also traces of what may have been a further rampart with a stone revetment within the main rampart.  Between these 2 structures were a line of postholes and an undefined stone building.  Many iron nails were found in association with the outer ditch and it was thought that this was a remnant from a palisade, presumably from the earliest castle, although no dating evidence was found.

The main remnant of the castle is the hall keep to the east of the site.  This rubble built rectangular structure is about 65' north to south by 35' wide and walls 8' thick.  Sadly this is pretty much reduced to foundations, nowhere more than 6' high above current ground level.  Presumably it was of 2 storeys and resembled the hall keeps found much further south like Bowes in Durham and Grosmont in Gwent.  Both of these are likely twelfth century.

A fragment of rock with an incised cross was found at the castle.  Whether this came from ‘the chapel' or not is open to question.  The stone is now in the Elgin museum.

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


Copyright©2022 Paul Martin Remfry