Built to replace an earlier motte-and-bailey fortification, Huntly Castle served as the family seat of the Gordons. By the sixteenth century the castle had evolved into a magnificent palace but the family's adherence to the Catholic faith and involvement in the Civil War saw it reduced to ruin.
Strathbogie, the original name for Huntly, was granted by King William the Lion to Duncan, Earl of Fife around 1190 as a reward for his support in crushing a rebellion in Moray, an area which had strongly resisted Royal efforts to reform Scottish politics. It was probably Duncan who built the first castle in the form of an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. Such structures had become commonplace in parts of Scotland due to Norman and Flemish immigration although Duncan himself was a native Scot. The castle, which became known as the Peel of Strathbogie, controlled an important crossing over the Rivers Bogie and Deveron. The motte was built over a natural mound and would have been topped by a timber tower and/or palisade. The bailey, located to the east of the motte, housed the Great Hall and ancillary buildings. In 1204 the castle passed to one of Duncan's younger sons, David de Strathbogie, who made it his administrative centre.
The Peel of Strathbogie continued to be owned by the family throughout the thirteenth century. In 1264 the then owner, David de Strathbogie, became Earl of Atholl through marriage. His son, John de Strathbogie, inherited in 1270 but his support of Robert the Bruce in 1306 saw him arrested and executed by the English. He was followed by David de Strathbogie who hosted Robert the Bruce in the castle in 1307. However, in early 1314 he changed sides to support the English. His timing could not have been worse as later that year the English army was routed at the Battle of Bannockburn leaving Robert the Bruce in undisputed control of the country. David de Strathbogie was stripped of his lands which were then granted to Sir Adam Gordon de Huntly.
The Gordon family were extensive landowners but their estates were concentrated in South East Scotland and they spent little time at Strathbogie especially as they took such an active part in border warfare. Sir Adam Gordon was killed at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333) and was followed by his son, Alexander, who was killed at the Battle of Neville's Cross (1346). His successor, John, died at the Battle of Otterburn (1388) and he was followed by Adam who was killed at the Battle of Homildon Hill (1402). With such high fatalities it is perhaps not unsurprising the male line of the family failed in 1408 and Strathbogie passed through marriage to Sir Alexander Seton.
Sir Alexander Seton was created Lord Gordon by James I in 1437 and he chose Strathbogie to make a statement of his new status. He abandoned the lordly residence on top of the motte and replaced it with an L-plan tower house constructed within the bailey of the castle. This was probably the first masonry structure on the site and would have consisted of a vaulted store on the ground floor, Great Hall on the first floor and accommodation on the levels above.
Alexander died in 1441 and was followed by his son, also called Alexander, who took Gordon as his surname. He was created Earl of Huntly in 1445 and became the King's chief lieutenant in North East Scotland responsible for fighting the Black Douglases. This prompted an attack on Huntly Castle by Archibald Douglas, Earl of Moray who burnt the castle causing significant damage. However, by 1455 the Black Douglases were broken leaving the Earl of Huntly as undisputed master of the north-east. This was reflected in the castle with construction starting on the southern range which would eventually become the main Palace. The design was inspired from the continent and there was possibly some link with Suscinio Castle in Brittany which closely resembles the design of Huntly Castle.
In 1506 James IV granted a charter formally changing the name of the site to Huntly Castle in order to synchronise with the Earldom. In the decades that followed further upgrades were made to the castle with the southern range evolving into a Palace as a direct replacement for the accommodation in the Tower House. However, by the mid-sixteenth century the wealth of the Earl of Huntly was starting to been seen as a threat by the Government and opportunities were sought to limit his power. An opportunity arose through the Scottish Reformation which saw the suppression of the Catholic faith. George Gordon, Fourth Earl of Huntly remained a staunch Catholic and continued to hear the mass despite its ban by the Reformation Act (1560). In October 1562 a Royal army was sent north to deal with the Earl and, following a short action at Corrichie, he was captured. He died in an accident on his way south to Edinburgh to answer for his actions but, not to be denied a court hearing, the Government put his embalmed corpse on trial for treason. He was convicted and Huntly Castle was raided. This revealed spectacular wealth including the treasures of Aberdeen Cathedral which had been sent to the castle for safe keeping as the reformation got underway.
Despite the fate of the fourth Earl, the Gordons remained in control of the castle and also continued their support for the Catholic cause. George Gordon, Fifth Earl of Huntly supported the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots in the civil war of 1568. Although the Protestants triumphed, George was able to retain his estates and died peacefully at the castle in 1576. However his son, also called George, participated in the 1592 Spanish Blanks plot, an attempt to seek foreign support to counter the effects of the Scottish Reformation. This was too much for James VI who moved against the Earl forcing him to flee to France. Huntly Castle was attacked by Royal forces and badly damaged including the destruction of the fifteenth century Tower House by gunpowder. The King and Earl were reconciled in 1597 though and two years later George Gordon was created Marquis of Huntly. To mark his new found status the Marquis substantially enhanced the appearance of Huntly Castle restyling the south range to include oriel windows and the prominent inscription.
The final rebuilding of Huntly Castle took place under the supervision of George Gordon, Second Marquis of Huntly. He added the Loggia and also started work on the East Range. However, his work was never completed for he became embroiled in the Wars of Three Kingdoms. Throughout he supported Charles I resulting in Huntly Castle being occupied, and subsequently vandalised, by Covenanter forces in 1640. It was briefly taken by Royalist forces during the campaign of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose in late 1644 but was soon abandoned. In 1647 it was held against a Covenanter army under General David Leslie but the garrison was starved out and brutally murdered. Undeterred the Marquis continued to support the Royalist cause but in 1649 was arrested, tried and executed by the Covenanters.
The death of the Marquis meant the unfinished work at Huntly Castle was never completed whilst the rest of the structure never recovered from damage it suffered during the Civil Wars. It was sufficiently intact to be used as a garrison for Government troops following the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion but thereafter it drifted into ruin. It was placed into State care in 1923 by Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, Duke of Richmond and Gordon.
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Huntly Castle consists of the ruins of a magnificence Palace that evolved from an earlier motte-and-bailey fortification. The Palace is now an empty, roofless shell but the interior still reveals elaborate carvings. Also visible are the remains of the ancillary buildings, the foundations of the Tower House and the motte of the original castle.
Huntly Castle Layout. The castle started as a motte-and-bailey fortification in the twelfth century. The L-plan Tower House was added in the fifteenth century but this was later replaced by an elaborate Palace.
Motte. The motte of the original twelfth century castle survives. This would originally have been topped by a timber palisade and tower. The construction of the Tower House in 1437 rendered the motte superfluous but the mound was not destroyed as its presence reminded all visitors of the ancient lineage of the Gordon family.
Tower House. The Tower House was blown up by James VI in 1594 although it may have stood as a tall ruin for many years thereafter. Today only foundations remain but its layout is clearly visible.
East Range. The East Range was the last part of the castle to be built and may never have been completed due to work coming to a halt following the execution of the Second Marquis of Huntly.
Inscription. The inscription on the castle was added by George Huntly, Marquis of Huntly in 1602 and proclaims the Marquis and Marchioness of Huntly as the owners.
Loggia. The Loggia, a covered arcade with huge columns, was added in the 1630s and would have been a hugely impressive feature. It looked out onto formal gardens.
Frontispiece. As part of the rebuilding of the South Range into a Palace in the mid-sixteenth century, this elaborate frontispiece was added. It bears the Coat of Arms of George Gordon, Fourth Earl of Huntly and would have originally have been gilded and brightly painted.