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Thornton Castle and Estate

In 1348, Sir James Strachan of Monboddo married Agnete, heiress of the Barony of Thornton, which had been granted to her father Valentine de Thornetounby Robert Iin 1309.  Upon this marriage, Sir James Strachan became the 4th Laird of Thornton, and ushered in a new era for Clan Strachan.

From thenceforth, the Strachans of Thornton and the Strachans of Glenkindiebecame the two principal Houses of the Strachan family. 

Thornton Castle and the Baronetcy of Nova Scotia was succeeded by collateral succession in 1659 by an extremely remote relative, James Strachan of Inchtuthill.   In 1683, he sold the castle and lands of Thornton to his wife's father, Robert Forbes, for £13,934 14s 8d and James resigned his own interest in favour of his wife (Barbara Forbes).

There is some debate on the reason Sir James sold Thornton.  Some argue that it was financially over-encumbered. While others suggest that due to his remote claim on Thornton Sir James sold the estate before a challenge could be made.  The latter is proved true, as we do know, based on Letters Patent of Sir William Strachan (1756), that there was an immediate primogeniture male heir that could have made a priority claim on Thornton, and the Baronetcy of Nova Scotia.  In fact, these Letters Patent (1756) recognized Sir William as baronet, and thus removed (albeit temporarily) the Inchtuthill line from the Baronetcy.

Situated between Laurencekirk and Fettercairn, in the Howe of the Mearns, Thornton Castle is located immediately off the B9120 (off the A90).  A must see for all Strachan clansmen, this castle is beautifully maintained.

A visitor approaching the north-west front of the castle by this avenue will see on the left a squat round tower carrying the arms of the Strachans of Thornton and shot holes commanding the front elevation; the base of this tower, constructed of great whin-stone boulders, is a survival of an earlier building which stood on the site and extended over part of the gravel forecourt in the 14th century.

Strachan of Thornton – Coat of arms

To the right is a four storey keep dating from 1531, though earlier work is incorporated.  Nigel Tranter, who writes so knowledgeably about Scottish castles, describes Thornton ("The Fortified House in Scotland" Vol. IV, published by Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh, 1966) as "a fairly small but excellently well-preserved example of a fortalice of the late 15th or early 16th century," and the keep as "an L-shaped structure of main block and stair wing, rising four stories to a crenellated parapet with open rounds at the angles, carried on a chequered corbel table.  The parapet walk, drained by the usual cannon-like spouts, continues around the building, and projects as a half-round to give access past a free-standing chimney-stack on the east front."

On the 1st floor of this keep the stone walls of the former great hall, now oak paneled, carried some ancient mural paintings and in one of the deep window recesses a small hinged panel can be opened to disclose a tempera portrait with the inscription "Dame Elizabeth, Lady of Thornton." This was Elizabeth Forbes, wife of Sir James Strachan of Thornton, to whose memory there was an elaborate memorial in the Thornton aisle in the Marykirk parish church and who died in childbirth in her 25th year in 1661.

The ‘Strachan Fireplace'

A window lintel above the present entrance bears the date 1662 but a stone achievement below this was added by Sir Alexander Strachan soon after his appointment as one of the 3 original baronets of Nova Scotia in 1625. That the lower part of this middle section of the castle (which is formed of barrel-vaulted apartments supporting the living rooms above), is of an earlier date,

was confirmed when in 1974, the work of conversion of a former butler's pantry for use as an Estate Office revealed the wide stone hearth and fireplace of the kitchen which served the great hall in the 16th century keep (known as the ‘Strachan Fireplace’).

The garden front, with its square tower, is a mid 19th century addition and the large room at the base of the keep and the stained glass windows on the south-east front were added by Sir Thomas Thornton, great grandfather of the present laird.


Stained Glass, added by Sir Thomas Thornton

Early photographs show that the exterior of the castle, with the exception of the battlements and corbelling and the massive buttresses, was at one time faced in white. Today the stonework, with its blue and grey mountain boulders and the contrasting pink of the sandstone, can be seen in the warmth of its original texture.

The parks in front of the castle and the gardens, now much reduced in size, are studded with fine old trees notable among which are two ancient yews reputed to be over 600 years old, and planted by the Strachans of Thornton.

The yew trees, like the ones seen here, were used in the manufacture of long bows, due to the strength of the wood.

As mentioned previously, the castle was remodeled in the 19th century.  However, further alterations and additions were made later.  The basement is vaulted, the turnpike stair wide for the period.  The Hall, on the first floor is now paneled but bears traces of tempera painting behind.

Thornton Castle - weather-vane bears the date of 1680

A weather-vane bears the date of 1680, and sits atop the newer square tower.

Small Statue located in the garden
of Thornton Castle


After the Strachans, the property would eventually pass from the Forbes to the Fullartons for three generations, then to Lord Gardenstone, and in the 19th century to the Crombies, who did much alteration. In 1893 the late Sir Thomas Thorntonbrought the name back to the property, by purchase.

Thornton Castle is today located on approximately 1700 acres.  The estate is absolutely beautiful, and contains a lovely daffodil field.

The above picture was taken from atop the square tower, and the daffodils of the Thornton estate can be seen in the distance.


Like many castles and estates in Scotland, the current front entrance to the castle used to be the rear, and visa versa.  The following picture was taken in the now ‘backyard’ of the home, and shows what the entry to the keep used to look like.  If you notice, the branches of the old Strachan yew trees are visible at the top of the picture.


Pictured here is the NE rear of Thornton Castle.  Against the back wall, you’ll notice a square foundation.  These are the foundations of the old green house, which was used (and perhaps built) by the Strachans of Thornton.  They were recently discovered, and subsequently un-covered by the Thornton-Kemsleys.



Alexander Crombie's son and his heir the fourth Alexander Crombie of Thornton, known as 'Joe' to his friends, and Joe's younger brother Francis rests the credit of introducing to Scotland the game of Rugby football which they had learnt at Durham School in 1852-53 six years after the codification of the laws of the game as played at Rugby.

It was the Crombies who created the cricket park - still so called though long since farmed - between the Black Burn and the East Drive and built the fine pavilion which, used initially for country house cricket, has been the scene of many family festivities and tenantry parties, accommodated families of evacuees during the second World War and more recently, a children's play ground (pictured above).

On this ground in August 1882 Colonel H.W. Renny-Tailyour of Newmanwalls, a Scot who played cricket for Kent and the Gentlemen of England, scored 140 runs in a record second wicket partnership of 370. 

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Special thanks to Griselda Thornton-Kemsley and the entire Thornton-Kemsley family for their hospitality in welcoming us to Thornton, and providing a personal tour of Thornton Castle.



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