View of the Barra Castle from Blaeu's Atlas, 1654.
The Castle from Blaeu's Atlas c.1654.
© National Library of Scotland






Barra Castle, 19th century.
Barra Castle, late 19th century.






Details from Barra Castle, 2005.
Details from Barra Castle, 2005.
The Seton Collection © 2005






Barra Castle, from the entrance, 2002.
Barra Castle, from the entrance, 2002.
The Seton Collection © 2005

A History of Barra Castle

A prehistoric fort on Barra Hill, defended by three concentric earthworks, and long called ` Cumines Camp, ' is traditionally connected with the victory of Barra, gained in the Bruce Field near North Mains by King Robert Bruce over Comyn Earl of Buchan, the Englishman Sir John Mowbray, and Sir David de Brechin, 22 May 1308. Bruce at the time lay sick at Inverurie, but, roused by a foray of the Comyns from Old Meldrum, he demanded to be mounted; and his force of 700 men soon routed the enemy, 1000 strong, chasing them far and wide, then swept the lands of the Comyn, so wasting them with fire and sword that fifty years later men mourned the ` heirschip ' (harrying) of Buchan-Hill Burton, Hist. Scot., ed. 1876, vol. ii., p. 257.

The lands of Barra were once a possession of the Comyn family prior to the Wars of Independence, whereby they passed to the Family of King.  Barra Castle, or its predecessor was in 1247, and for more than two centuries after, the seat of the Kings (later of Dudwick in Ellon), who along with the Forbes Family, were long at feud with the Seton Family of Meldrum and the House of Gordon.  Nevertheless, Barra passed by purchase from the Blackhalls, to the Kings of Barra, to the Setonís of Meldrum in the 16th century. 

The first charter to George Seton, tutor of Meldrum, in which the erection of Barra into a free barony is mentioned, is dated January 26th, 1598-99 (Reg, Mag. Sig., Vol. VI., p. 276), but it is only in the charter of June 15th, 1615, to George Seton of Barra, Chancellor of Aberdeen, that the " fortalice of Barra " is ordained to be the chief seat of the free barony (Reg. Mag. Sig., Vol. VII., p. 460).

William Seton of Meldrum had three sons by his first wife Janet Gordon, daughter of James Gordon of Lesmoir.  His eldest son, Alexander inherited Meldrum and his second son was John Seton of Lumphard (Lumphart), Broomhill and Mounie (the first Setonís of Mounie who constructed Mounie castle and later sold Mounie to the Farquharís).  His third son was William Seton of Slattie.  From his second marriage, William Seton married Margaret Innes of Leuchars and had his 4th son George Seton of Barra, Chancellor of  Aberdeen (noted as Barha in the funeral of Alexander Seton, 1st Earl of Dunfermline and Chancellor of Scotland), and a 5th son James Seton of Bourtie and 1st of Pitmedden (ancestor of the Seton Baronetís of Pitmedden).

In 1548 there is a charter (Reg. Mag. Sig.) in which the property passes from William King, portioner of Barra, to his son James.  Among the witnesses to this transaction are his neighbours, William Seton of Meldrum and William Blackhall, his co-portioner of Barra, together with his son, Mr. Alexander Blackhall.  Circa 1590-91, a bond is registered about the same time by Alexander King, in which Sir Walter Ogilvy of Findletter becomes cautioner for Alexander King and other members of that Barra family, that Alexander Seton of Meldrum, William Strachan, apparent of Tippertie, and Alexander Blackhall of Barra, should be harmless of them.

Lastly, there was a bond signed on Feb. 8th, 1590-1 (Reg. Sec. Sig., 1590-91, p. 581-582), for Alexander Seton of Meldrum and others, including William Strachan, apparent of Tippertie, and for many other Setons, that William King of Barrauch, James King, burgess of Aberdeen ; Alexander King, Advocate in Edinburgh, and Elizabeth Gray, relict of James King, portioner of Barra, should not be molested by the persons named. Not only had the fuse been lighted at this time, but the bomb before referred to had burst, and we shall learn that, although property left both Blackhalls and Kings and gravitated towards the Setons, one of the splinters of this metaphorical bomb in the persons of dispossessed Kings of Barra and their friends, some time later slew Alexander Seton, the heir apparent to Meldrum. 

In the termination of the direct male-line of the Seton's of Meldrum, it was a long-standing feud which brought about the Seton of Meldrum line demise.  The Kings of Barra were long at feud with the Seton's of Meldrum, which feud might have been expected to come to a close towards the end of the 16th century when James King sold Barra to the Seton's.  But no; as late as 1615, Elizabeth Seton pursued at law James King "sumtyme of Barra' and others for being art and part in the slaughter of her father, Alexander, fiar of Meldrum, 'with schottis of hagbuttis and muscattis, commited upon the landis of Barra...' (the Braes of Bourtie). 

What was the cause of this enmity? The passing of the castle of Barra to the Seton's being the catalyst for the murder of Alexander Seton of Meldrum.  Although the correspondence, litigation and documents preceding yet affecting the forfeiture of the Kings and of the Blackhalls of Barra are lost, or hidden in forgotten archives, the fact of the forfeiture is abundantly proved after the event, by documentary evidence, and the earliest indication of it to hand, concerns the Kings of Barra.

On the 24th of March, 1590, and in the 24th year of his reign (that is, a few months before Alexander Blackhall of Barra completed his negotiation with the Aberdonian Alexander Blackhall of that Ilk), James VI. granted for good service to Sir James Sandilands of Slamannan and his heirs and assigns half the lands of Barroch, Westerhous, Phillas, Aschenheid, Fuyrdailhous, sixth part of Petgovny, half the Mill of Bourty, with the superiority of Muretoun, &c., the inheritance of which (quarum hereditatem) James King, the fiar of Barra, resigned, as did William King, his father, his life rent. Whatever destiny awaited the Blackballs, whose case might require closer investigation, it was apparently evident to the advisers of James VI. that the Kings had forfeited their right to Barra. Hence they appear to have been the first sufferers, in this example of the feudal short-sightedness of those whom fate had marked out for a more historic forfeiture a little later.

After the forfeiture of the Blackhalls of Barra, and their co-portioners, the Kings, passed into the possession of George Seton of the Meldrum family, and the dates on the building indicate that it was  altered and repaired and rebuilt during his tenure, and that of his immediate successors. Portions of the building, however, seem very old ; exactly how old cannot be determined. There is a tradition, indeed, that Robert the Bruce once slept in some portion of it, but this cannot be regarded as having historical value.  on June I5th, 1615, James VI granted and gave anew to George Seton, Chancellor of Aberdeen, all the lands of Barra, which Seton had resigned into the King's hands, for incorporation as the free barony of Barra when Barra Castle was ordained to be its chief seat. (Reg. Mag. Sig.).

Following these activities, an attack upon the Blackballs nevertheless appears to have been opened on the 14th of February, 1634:"Among those included in the charge with old Alexander Blackball of that Ilk, his grandson, John Blackhall, still a minor, and the mother of the latter Elizabeth (called Marjorie) Strachan, and designed a life renter, were a Robert Blackhall, son of the late William Blackhall, burgess of Aberdeen, John Garmuke in Daviot, Sir Alexander Strachan of Thornton, George Moresone, burgess of Aberdeen, and William Forsythe of Dyikis. All these, with the exception of the Blackhall family proper, were probably interested as bondholders".

The mention of the name of George Morison in this connection has a certain interest, inasmuch as either then, or soon afterwards, he became possessed of Barra, which was granted, as we have learned, to the Setons on the forfeiture of the Blackhalls and Kings, and at this trial William Seton of Meldrum produced, among other writs, certain charters setting forth the manner in which the Setons gained possession of Barra.

Produced for the part of William Seytoun of Meldrum,
among other writs, the following, viz. :

Item ane confirmatioun of Williame Blakhall his charter givin to Mr. Alexander
Blackball his sone of the saidis landis of Bourtie, &c., under the Great Seill
daittit the 20 of Februar 1547.

Item ane seasing following on ane Precept grantit be the said Williame to the
said Mr. Alexander Quhairby the said Mr. Alexander is infeft in the saidis landis,
daittit the secund of Merche 1547 notar thairto Olipher Lambie.

Item ane Instrument of Resignation quhair the said Mr. Alexander be his
procuratorie resignes the saidis lands in the Kinges handis, ffor new infeftment to
be givin to Alexander Blakhall his sone daittit the thrid of September 1574 notar,
Patrik Faydler.

Item ane charter following upon the said resignatioune under the great seill
givin to the said Alexander Blakhall of the saidis landis, daittit 3 September 1574-

Item ane Precept of Seasing following thairupon of the samyn dait.

Item the said Alexander Blackball his seasing following thairupon daittit
the 26 Aprile 1575 Williame Bruce notar.

Item ane Charter under the Great Seill of the sony halffe landis of Barra,
halffe landis of Westirhous, halff landis of Fillaw, halff landis of Eschinheid,
halffe landis of Fuird, halff landis of Fuirdailhous, halffe landis of Bourtie, sext
pairt landis of Petgeveny, halff landis of Muirtoune and utheris landis therein
specified following upon the Resignatioun of James Seytoun and Alexander
Blackball grantit to Mr. George Seytoun daittit the 26 of Januar 1598.

Item ane Precept of Seasing following thairupon of the samen dait.

Item ane Instrument of Seasing following thairupon daittit the sevint of
Aprile 1599. Mr. Williame Andersone notar.


Alexander Blackhall of that Ilk, late of Barra, was conjoint with some members of the Udny family (who had a blood-connection with the Seton's) in resigning certain rights to John Seton of Auquhorthies in 1610, Chamberlain to the 1st Earl of Dunfermline at Fyvie Castle.  William Blackhall's claim to Barra was made after the second forfeiture and the grant of Blackhall and the honours to Alexander Burnet of Leys.

The castle of Barra, as it at present stands, forms three sides of a shallow oblong, has a crow-step gable in parts and round towers at the angles capped by sharply conical roofs, and shows corbelling at one point.  The oblong or courtyard is closed in front by a simple and pretty facade, ornamented by carved stone urns, and still more so by the moss and houseleek which grow abundantly in the crevices of the masonry. To the south lies a terraced garden with time-worn and moss-grown flights of steps, and near the house there is an ancient dove cot reminiscent of the seigncurial droit colombier. Altogether, it is a beautiful old place, and well worthy of being, as it was in the time of the Setons, the seat of a free barony.

In its present form, Barra is chiefly the work of George Seton who's father William had acquired the estate and it then granted to George and James in 1598.  The relevant Charter for Barra names George Seton and James Seton, both, "Portioners of Barra".  The Castle however, was George's chief residence and so it was Chancellor George Seton who enlarged the Castle and added the conical towers. His emblems of three entwined crescents, over-top of the windows, can be seen outside the Castle still to this day.  His work was completed in two stages: 1st in 1614 and 2nd in 1618.  Although Barra is assuredly one of the most attractive of the lesser castles of Aberdeenshire, it was never fully completed to George Seton's original plan and there is still an incomplete turret which lies at the north end of the main block, which housed the oven.

George Seton maintained it until his death in 1627, when the Castle passed to his nephew, William Seton last of the Seton's of Meldrum.  William held the Castle for three years until 1630 when he sold it to James Reid, who's grandson was created a baronet in 1703, and who's family kept Barra until 1753, before it passed to the Ramsay family.  The Ramsayís held Barra in the 18th century, when it passed again by marriage to the Forbes-Irvine family of Drum. 

Francis Hugh Forbes-Irvine, the 21st Laird of Drum (third son of Alexander Forbes-Irvine, 20th Laird of Drum), married Mary Ramsay, only child of Col. John Ramsay of Bourtie, Barra and Straloch and Susan Innes (who married as her second husband, William Henry Nares - Commander RN (1786-1867) ) and these two estates were to pass to the junior line of the Irvines of Drum.

In design Barra Castle is an intricate and singular variation of the L plan type, the main block lying north/south with a circular tower at the south west. At the south east a D plan tower. An 18th century addition by the Forbes-Irvine family runs eastward from the north end of the main block forming a square court closed on the east side by a wall containing the entrance. The original basement of the main block is vaulted.

In recent times Barra came to be associated with the Nicholas Bogdan, the renowned archaeologist who was educated at Gordonstoun. His Russian emigrť father, Andrew Bogdanovich, was a doctor at London's Great Ormond Street hospital, who altered his surname after anti-Russian attention. After Gordonstoun, Bogdan read archaeology at Queen's University, Belfast, later undertaking postgraduate research on the origins of Scottish castles at St Andrews. Castellated architecture was in his blood, for his grandmother, who married into the family of Straloch and Barra, became a major force in the restoration of Barra Castle in Aberdeenshire, his home throughout his life until his sudden passing away in 2002.

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