Three different castles have stood near the crossing of the River Deveron at its confluence with the Bogie.  The first, the Peel of Strathbogie, was an earthwork motte and bailey built in the late twelfth century.  The second, built in the late fourteenth century on the bailey of the first castle, was an L plan tower of the Gordons. The third, making use of the later, is the fifteenth century palace that stands next to the tower and motte today.

Strathbogie was an important route crossing from the heartlands of the kingdom of Scotland into Moray and controlled the route northwards via Kildrummy to Rothes, Elgin and Inverness.  Consequently it may have been fortified by one of the Scottish kings pushing into Moray in the period 1130-1230.  Certainly by the late twelfth century King William the Lion (d.1214) had settled Earl Duncan of Fife (bef.1155-1204) in the district.  Presumably he built the peel of Strathbogie now called Huntly castle.  Strathbogie then passed through Duncan's third son, David, to the his descendants, the earls of Athol.  On 7 November 1306, Earl John Strathbogie of Athol was hanged in London by King Edward I (d.1307) for his rebellion in supporting Robert Bruce and assisting in his coronation.  In late 1307 Robert Bruce was taken to the castle after being wounded or falling ill at Inverurie.  He went on to defeat and all but annihilate the Comyn earls of Buchan and their supporters.

Earl John's son, Earl David Strathbogie of Athol (d.1326), was restored to his lands and became high constable of Scotland for Bruce, until just before Bannockburn when he turned back to the English cause.  Consequently King Robert granted his lands to Adam Gordon of Huntly in Berwickshire and David returned to England where he appeared in parliament as Lord Strathbogie in 1322.  He died in 1326, probably in Gascony where he was commanding English troops.  His son, David (d.1335), was summoned to the English parliament as earl of Athol in 1330.  In 1332 King Edward Balliol of Scotland restored him to his estates, including Huntly.  He then rebelled against Balliol, made his peace, and finally fell fighting on 30 November 1335 at the battle of Killblane while trying to establish his rule over Kildrummy.  This effectively ended the Strathbogies ownership of Huntly, although he left a son, another David, who died in 1369 leaving two daughters who married English barons.  It was in this period from 1314-69 that the castle became known as Huntly after its new Gordon masters, rather than Strathbogie.

The Gordons died out in 1408 and the castle passed to Alexander Seton (d.1441), who had married Elizabeth Gordon (d.1437), the sister of John (d.1408), the last Gordon lord of Huntly.  In 1436 Alexander Seton was created Lord Huntly and some ten years later (1445/9) his son, another Alexander, was made earl of Huntly.  In 1452 the earl moved south with an army to support the king against the Black Douglases.  While he was still moving south Earl Archibald Douglas of Moray attacked Huntly and burned the castle, forcing Seton to about face and march to the relief of his earldom where broke the power of the Douglases of Moray.  It was probably after this that the new palace was built on the south side of the bailey.  Only the basement of his now remains.  It was unfinished when the earl died in 1470 and was buried under a fine effigy in Elgin cathedral.  The palace was then finished by the earl's son and heir, Earl George of Huntly.

King James IV attended the marriage of the pretender to the English throne, Duke Richard of York, aka Perkin Warbeck (d.1499), to Lady Catherine Gordon (d.1537) in January 1496.  Building work may still have been going on at this time as the king paid ‘drinksilver' to masons there in 1501 and 1505.  In 1506 Earl Alexander received a charter confirming him in his ‘chief messuage, which was formerly called Strathbogie, be in all future times named the castle of Huntly'.  In 1556 the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, visited this, the chief stronghold of the Catholic Gordon earls of Huntly.  It was then described as a ‘new expensive stately building, which he (Earl George) had joined to the old castle and rendered a very convenient palace'.  By 1562 the castle was the headquarters of the counter-reformation in Scotland.  The same year, after the earl of Huntly's defeat and death by apoplexy at the battle Corrichie by the army of Mary Queen of Scots, the castle was pillaged of its contents.  This included the treasures of St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen, one of which was the silk tent that King Edward II had slept in before the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.  At the time the castle was described by the English diplomat Thomas Randolph as 'fayer, beste furnishede of anye howse that I have seen in thys countrie'.

Rebuilding work was going on at the castle in July 1594 when the English ambassador reported that ‘Huntly hastens the building of his hall and gallery at Strathbogy'.  Huntly then began a rash rebellion with the result that King James VI marched on Huntly castle and then blew up ‘the greate olde tower' on the north side of the bailey with gunpowder supplied to him by the townsfolk of Aberdeen.  The earl made peace with the king in 1597 and set about repairing the castle after being made first marquis of Huntly.  One of the fireplaces has the date March 1606 carved upon it.  Another has a portrait of the earl in a top hat next to his wife.

In the troubled seventeenth century, the castle was fortified with a ravelin, probably before being occupied by the Covenanters in 1640.  The castle was then sacked and slightly damaged.  In 1647 the garrison under Lord Charles Gordon was starved out by General David Leslie and its 'Irish' garrison were hanged and their officers beheaded.  In December of the same year Huntly himself was captured and on his way to execution at Edinburgh was detained in his own mansion.  His escort were shot against its walls and the marquis was executed after stating ‘You may take my head from my shoulders, but not my heart from my sovereign'.   In 1650 Charles II visited briefly on his way to the battle of Worcester, defeat and exile.  The palace was briefly the centre of rebellion in 1689, but saw no action.  Within a decade the castle was being pillaged of stone by local villagers.  Despite this the castle was finally occupied by government troops in 1745 before being allowed to fall into terminal decay.

The motte, some 80' in basal diameter, and traces of the bailey under the current castle are all that remains of the original
Strathbogie castle.  At some point the bailey had the L shaped tower added to it with walls nearly 9' thick.  This structure has now been reduced to its foundations.  Traditionally such towers were only built in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.  Examples of such exist at Auchindoun, Dalhousie and Dunnottar.  There may also have been a curtain wall around the bailey at this time.

The third phase of the castle, the palace, is best preserved.  This appears to be of three periods; the earliest is represented by three basement vaults and a dark prison pit cut into the foundations.  Early graffiti survives on the plaster of the corridor.  In the middle of the sixteenth century the fourth earl is thought to have rebuilt this castle from the ground floor up.  On the first floor is the earl's apartment, the traditional arrangement of hall, great chamber and inner chamber with bed recess and privy.  The arrangement of the floor above, for the earl's wife, would have been similar.  In the upper hall is one of the splendid heraldic mantelpieces inserted by George, first marquis, in the third building phase.  This shows the arms of Huntly and Lennox with the royal arms above.  In between are obelisks bearing the Seton crescents and Lennox fleur de lis.  The topmost panel was removed by the Covenanter, Capt James Wallace, as it was of a sacred subject.

Adjoining this block is a round tower to the south-west.  At the top of this, some 65' above ground level, is a 'belvedere' or turret room.  The first marquis (d.1636) also added the impressive heraldic frontispiece over the main doorway and the gracious oriel windows on the S front.  The frieze of one contains giant relief letters stating, GEORGE GORDOVN FIRST MARQVIS OF HUNTLIE and HENRIETTE STEVART MARQVESSE OF HVNTLIE.  This has been dated to 1602.

Further wings were added to the castle in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry