The Castle of the isle of Banchory

The Castle of the isle of Banchory

This post is to follow on from the excavation report post a last week which can be read HERE. The excavation was primarily interested in what (if any) phases of activity could be identified that pre-dated the medieval tower house that sits atop the Loch of Leys Crannog. However, the tower house itself has a fascinating history. Remains of this structure are still visible on the this inaccessible island.

We don’t know precisely when the stone foundations of the castle or tower house were laid. It is clear from a charter dated 28 March 1324 that the ‘Castle of the Isle of Banchory’ was present on the former Loch of Leys from this time. In this charter, the island and the estate that belonged to it was taken from the Wauchope family and given to Alexander de Burnard (later Burnett) by Robert the Bruce for support in recent conflict. An earlier charter (1/7/326[RRS, iii, no. 319]) records King Alexander II giving Robert of Wauchope lands of Culter and Arbeck in 1247 which might include the Loch of Leys, but no specific mention of the Loch of Leys is made here, perhaps suggesting that the castle was yet to be built. If this is the case, then the initial construction of the stone tower house would be from the second half of the 13th century or the early part of the 14th century.

In any case, the Wauchopes were probably not in residence at the Loch of Leys for very long (from 1247-1323). It is clear that they had expended some considerable effort to build a castle on an artificial island and to lose it and the estate that went with it must have been a devastating event (perhaps doubly if they had to build the island in the first place, although radiocarbon dating samples from the excavation should reveal if this is the case). From the charter dated 1324 onwards, there is no recorded history of activity on the island in the Loch of Leys. It must be assumed though that the Burnetts continued to live there.

In the 1550s, another Alexander Burnett breaks ground on Crathes Castle, and this becomes the main residence of the Burnett family into the 20th century. What became of the former crannog castle in the 16th century is difficult to say. It is within the oral history of the Burnett family that stone from the crannog castle was used in the construction of the new Crathes Castle. This might suggest that the island residence was immediately abandoned more or less wholesale rather than used as something other than a primary residence for a time after Crathes was completed in 1596.

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All that is left today are 20-50cm high stone foundations. In 1850, the Loch of Leys was drained, and James H Burnett excavated the crannog. He made a plan of the stone foundations of the tower house, and these largely are still present today (see below). It also appears that in 1850, James H Burnett dug around the walls, chasing them to determine their full extent. This is indicated by the presence of two mounds of earth, which are probably the spoil heaps from these excavations.

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The Loch of Leys Crannog is now a scheduled monument protected by Historic Environment Scotland, and is difficult or dangerous to access with deep water and uneven boggy ground conditions. Access for the excavation was only possible by building a palette bridge which has since been removed. It was clear from the excavation that the organic preservation on the site is not as it was recorded 1850, but wood and other organic material is likely to survive buried in the mound.

If you wish to know more about the Burnetts and their history please see Bailey, E.A., Bryce, I.B., Burnett, C.J. and Burnett, J.C., 2000. Crannog to Castle: A History of the Burnett Family in Scotland. Banchory: Leys Publishing.

Further results from the excavation of the Loch of Leys Crannog will be published here in due course, please check back soon.

Finally, thanks again to the Leys Estate for permission to excavate, and many thanks to Thys Simpson the Leys Estate Ranger for help organising the palettes. I must thank the excavation team, Carly Ameen, Claire Christie, Margherita Zona, Lindsey Paskulin, Peter Lamont, and Gordon Noble. Funding for the excavation was provided by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

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