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Benholm Castle
The Scottish Banner - North American edition June 2012
From Ruin to Restoration by Angus Whitson


A ruin waiting to be restored

THE PROPERTY (which today sits on approximately 14 acres) was once the foundation of wealth, so it tells us much about the prosperity of the area when more than one thousand castles and castle ruins are recorded in the north-east of Scotland.

A surprisingly large concentration of these fortified houses and castles is found in the Mearns, historically known as Kincardineshire, and bounded by the River North Esk in the south, and the River Dee to the north.

Some are roofless, lonely guardians of generations of family secrets; just rickles of old stone now - what remains after predatory builders plundered their stonework for later agricultural buildings. Others have disappeared altogether, names and footnotes in history, and the only reference to their existence marked  as “Site of…” on maps.

Some Survived

But some have survived the centuries and continue to be lived in as family homes. They may have been added to, had bits knocked off, restored and modernised, but they have attracted enthusiasts who have fallen in love with them and been prepared to spend eye-watering amounts of money and effort to bring them back to life again.

Scottish feudal baronies were landholding titles and titles of dignity, granted by the crown as a form of royal patronage in exchange for military service.

The Barony of Benholm was created in the twelfth century and was granted to Hugo de Benham by William the Lion, King of Scots. By 1225 it had passed, through marriage, to the Lundy family who held the lands and the title for more than three centuries.

Benholm Castle

Benholm Castle, sometimes known as Tower of Benholm, dates from about 1475. While undoubtedly its primary purpose was defensive, it was also demonstrable evidence of status.

The exact date of completion of the castle is uncertain, but there seems little doubt that it was built by Sir John Lundy.

Four-storey and eighty foot high, it is built of local red sandstone. It is a typical rectangular keep built in the vernacular Scottish style. The six foot thick walls would have been more than able to withstand the assault of artillery available at the time.

Turnpike Staircase

The turnpike staircase was a further defensive feature.  Curving to the right, it allowed defenders coming down the stairs the freedom to wield their swords with their right hand, while attackers from below were restricted to using their left.

Entry was by a

vaulted passage between two ground floor cellars which led to the Great Hall on the first floor, above which were the laird’s apartments.

The third floor may have been divided to form two chambers, as there are two fireplaces at that level. Above the third floor was a garret with crow-stepped roof and a parapet walkway for lookouts.

Later a caphouse was added which included the ultimate luxury of the day, a fireplace where the guards could warm themselves against the snell east coast weather.  The final flourish was the addition of bartizans or projecting roundels at the corners.

The Earls of Marischal

By 1559 the Barony and castle had passed into the possession of the Keiths, the Earls Marischal, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families of the times whose principal seat was Dunnottar Castle. It was said that the Keiths could travel from the Borders to Caithness and always sleep in one of their own houses.

History and Benholm’s story move on, and by the Georgian period, circa 1714-1840, the castle’s defensive purpose had become redundant and ownership had passed to the Scott family, wealthy merchants who included David Scott, Treasurer of the Bank of Scotland.

Comfort Replaced Security

Comfort had replaced security as the dominant feature of country living by this time, and in 1760 David Scott built a classic three-storey Georgian mansion alongside the old castle.

Georgian architecture is characterised by symmetry and proportion and balance, and to live in such handsome surroundings was a clear declaration of prosperity and position.

In 1903 John Rust, city architect of Aberdeen, purchased the property and used his construction skills to build a dam on the stream running alongside the house and installed a generator to produce electricity.

Fell Into Disrepair

Reduced more to a store than a dwelling, the old keep fell into disrepair.

The First World War changed the whole social dynamic, and the concept of Scottish baronies became an anachronism.

In the Second World War the house suffered the fate of so many others, being requisitioned by the military and occupied by Polish soldiers. By the end of the war it was in poor condition and was last lived in about 1950.

Abandoned

Abandoned for forty years the castle and house were in a forlorn state when Roddy and Fiona Strachan purchased them in 1990.

Quite uninhabitable, they presented the sort of restoration challenge that the Strachans had dreamed of.

Converting a range of outbuildings which had been a game larder, scullery, wash house and store, Roddy, Fiona and their three daughters moved into their temporary home.

The urgent task was to secure the old tower, which had a noticeable crack in the north wall, but the deterioration had gone too far and events and the weather, conspired against them.

During a storm of high gales in 1993 the entire east wall, along with part of the north and south walls, collapsed.

The cost of restoration was prohibitive, but Roddy cleared the site, saving all the dressed stonework, in the hope that a change of fortune might enable him to rebuild sometime.

Restoring The Mansion


Restoration a success!

Putting this setback behind them, all their energies were channelled into restoring the Georgian mansion and creating a family home again. Almost everything worth removing had been stripped from the house.

There was no roof, and only three window frames remained. Fireplaces had been plundered and just the front door and two other damaged doors could be salvaged.

There were, however, sufficient scraps of skirtings, dado rails, plaster cornices and other architectural ornamentation for Roddy to be able to recreate the style of these artefacts and ensure the authenticity of the restoration.

Finally Moved In

The family were finally able to move into the mansion in 2008. It’s not entirely a recreation of Georgian living, when the first floor would have been the principal living floor as evidenced by the 12 foot high ceilings and large windows to capture as much natural light as possible. The kitchen is very much the heart of the house today. An aumbry and a fireplace dated 1618 were recovered from the rubble of the tower after it collapsed and have been incorporated into the modern room.

A circular glass plate fitted into the flagged kitchen floor, covers a well which is probably the original well for the castle.

Trapdoor

A trapdoor leads to a substantially constructed tunnel, which emerges a hundred feet beyond the house. Nigel Tranter, the Scottish historian and author, maintained it had something to do with monks, but there is no record of ecclesiastical connections with Benholm.

Fiona’s explanation is more romantic – it was a secret tunnel used by smugglers. Roddy is more prosaic; it was just a drain in his view.

Wedding Reception

Later this year [2012] one of Roddy and Fiona’s daughters will be married, and the reception will be held on the terrace of the old walled garden. Fiona took on the task of restoring this, using photographs dating back to 1912.

A wedding represents a new step forward for this ancient place where people have lived and worked for more than eight hundred years.

 

Strachan of Benholm Arms

Roddy was granted personal armorial bearings from Her Majesty's Lord Lyon King of Arms in May, 2013; and is an armiger of Clan Strachan.  Roddy is currently a member of the Clan Strachan Society, and is a Trustee on the Clan Strachan Charitable Trust.

Roddy and Fiona are the owners of Benholm Castle, which are reflected in Roddy's Armorial Letters Patent as a Feudal Barony, which sits on 14 beautiful acres.

When Roddy and Fiona first acquired the derelict castle, their daughters (mere children at the time) were very excited and asked their mum and dad if they were going to get to live in a castle?  Roddy and Fiona laughed and told them, "Yes.  But, after the restoration (they joked) we're going to be as poor as a church mouse."  It is for this reason Roddy incorporated a mouse in the crest of his armorial bearings, and if you are fortunate enough to visit Benholm be sure to look for a hidden church mouse located in each room of the mansion.  

Roddy and Fiona are the most unpretentious and friendly people, and today reside in what we believe is one of the most beautiful homes in the north-east. 

 

A Past Connection with Strachan - Sir Alexander Strachan of Thornton
The following is provided by Jim Strachan, FSA Scot.  

The name of Benholm Castle (pronounced: ben-um) may sound familiar to some Clan Strachan historians.

Sir Alexander Strachan of Thornton was favoured by King James, and this was bitterly resented (perhaps out of jealousy) by the Earl of Mar, and other noblemen. 

Regardless, Alexander's grandfather married Lady Isobel Keith, a daughter of the fourth Earl Marischal.  One of his boyhood companions in many foolish escapades was his younger cousin, James Keith at Benholm.  It was here at Benholm that Alexander found himself attracted to James' mother, the Earl Marischal's second wife (Margaret Ogilvy) who was 30 years younger than her husband.  According to the book, Bonnet Lairds, there was a "fyre of divisioun" between young James Keith, and his father:

When Margaret was little more than a girl her family arranged for her a marriage with George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal, then Lieutenant of the North and one of the most powerful and cultured men of his day.  Unfortunately for Margaret, George was some 30 years her senior, and a widower with two adult children.  (Note: This age difference was considered a bit strange, even back in the day.)

The young Margaret Ogilvy, his second wife, bore the Earl a son whom they named James after her father.  James was a quarrelsome and undisciplined young man, and his conduct caused a rift in the Dunnottar household becoming a cause of friction between his parents.  His mother taking the side of her son, and his aging father becoming increasingly intolerant of the boy’s youthful escapades.”

Sir Alexander readily believed the Earl had behaved badly toward his son James, and had mistreated Margaret.  This led him to regard the Earl as his "mortal enemy", which Strachan himself used in later extenuation of his conduct in the presence of King Charles I at Whitehall.

On 16 October 1622, James Keith  with “Strauchane of Thornetoun” and others, all armed, came about “the glowmeing” to the Earl’s lands and mains of Fetteresso, where the ploughs were going, and threatened his servants with death if they were found tilling the lands.  They then loosed the ploughs and broke them in pieces, and took away 37 oxen to Benholm  (the residence of James Keith ).

The following year, early 1623, while the Earl Marischal, then age 70, was away from his castle of Dunnottar, his Countess, her son James and Sir Alexander Strachan – in secret and cover of darkness – carried the whole furnishings and valuables from Benholm Castle and Dunnottarto Thornton, where the Countess went to live with the laird while the Earl Marishcal was still alive. 

Again, Alexander, Margaret and James not only absconded with the contents of Dunnottar, but that of Benholm, and the contents of the Earl’s house in Fetteresso (which had previously been moved to Benholm).  Much included a virtual treasure trove of property!

It is highly unlikely they expected to simply get away with this pillage, and it is probable they together hoped to disgrace and dishonor the Earl Marischal for what they judged to be wicked behavior.

The Earl Marischal died 2nd April, 1623.  In March the following year, charges filed against the Countess by her step-son William, then 6th Earl Marischal.  The charge claimed Sir Alexander Strachan of Thornton, his kinsman Dr. Robert Strachan  (a Doctor of Physics), and James Keith of Benholm as accomplices.  The case created widespread interest throughout Scotland.

A counter claim was filed by Sir Alexander Strachan of Thornton and his new wife against the new Earl Marischal.

After some legal banter back and forth, a settlement was agreed upon by the parties.  The Countess Marischal, now married to Strachan, had to yield up the heirlooms but she was permitted to retain her share of the jewelry and a large proportion of the plenishings.  The lands and barony of Benholm were conveyed by James Keith to his stepfather Sir Alexander Strachan who then surrendered them to the new Earl Marischal.

Though a cleverly contrived settlement out of Court enabled Sir Alexander and his Countess to avoid public censure, it did not stop the continuing and justifiable condemnation of a notorious scandal.  The favor he had obtained with King Charles I definitely swayed temporarily, as Sir Alexander Strachan was removed from the Privy Council following this event.  However, the king still held Thornton in high regard.

According to statements made by the Earl of Mar, he [the Earl] appears to have continued his adversarial relationship with Sir Alexander Strachan, although Alexander seemed to have retained at least some favor with the king, as well as office in government.  According to the Manuscripts, the Earl of Mar states:

“Sir Alexander Strachan of Thornton, had lately been the object of the Council's attention in another aspect, having been placed on trial before them and dealt with by them on charges of theft and more heinous crimes.

When, therefore, the King, in sending down his new Commission of Council, included his name, the whole Council received it with horror, and one and all remonstrated at so infamous a man coming in among them. The King brought up his case in conference, somewhat unfortunately for Strachan, as it gave occasion to him to try to justify himself by accusing his accusers, and made them reveal his misdeeds to the King, though the recital does not appear to have affected the estimation in which he was held by Charles.”

Sir Alexander was not without supporters; however, the Earl of Mar seems to have trivialized and condemned his adversary’s associates.  In this case, he states… 

“Sir John Scot of Scotstarvet [whom the Earl had previously referred to as “a busy-body”], had an ambition well known to his fellow-councillors, which he ever hoped but ever failed to satisfy. He tried it in many ways, and the course he now took of endeavouring to ingratiate himself with the King at the expense of his fellow-councillors provoked their indignation, to which they freely gave expression.”

King James VI of Scotland [also I of England] was succeeded by his son, King Charles I in 1625.  The earlier escapades with the Earl Marischal of Keith’s wife did not dampen King Charles favour of Thornton.   

Despite strongly worded remonstrances both from the Convention of Estates and leading members of the Council, the young King adhered tenaciously to the prior proposals influenced by Strachan.  Like his father before him, King Charles I (1600-1649) seems to have been greatly taken with the then Baron of Thornton, Sir Alexander Strachan.  In 1625, the year of his accessions to the thrones of England and Scotland, he made Alexander a Baronet of Nova Scotia.  In the following year he made him a member of the Commission of Grievances, a member of the Commission of the Exchequer, and a member of the Privy Council.

 


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