A History of Barra
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
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
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
be givin to Alexander Blakhall his sone daittit the thrid of September 1574
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.