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Cairnbulg Castle, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire.

Cairnbulg Castle
Formerly Philorth Castle, seat of the Frasers of Philorth, Lords Saltoun.

Cairnbulg Castle (formerly Philorth)

Cairnbulg Castle is of interest for three reasons. It is one of the oldest buildings in Aberdeenshire still to be inhabited by the family who built it, whose home it is. It is of great interest to students of mediaeval Castles and architecture, for there are many gaps in our knowledge of its history, and so much scope for study and speculation. Finally, it contains a collection of family portraits which is rare in Scotland, not because most of them are by painters of any distinction, for they are not, but because there is a portrait of every laird since 1570, and in many cases of their wives, brothers, sisters or in-laws, and this is very unusual.


In the years before 1308-9, the Comyns, Earls of Buchan, held all the land in this part of Aberdeenshire which is still known as Buchan. Before the defeat of the Norse at the battle of Largs in 1263 and the death of King Haakon in the following year, the coast of Buchan was exposed to their invasions. The Earls of Buchan were responsible for coastal defence and built a number of Castles round the coast of which the first stone Castle here was probably one.

Although the site does not nowadays appear to be near enough to the coast to be much use for coastal defence, there are strong reasons for supposing that at the time it was built, it was actually right on the estuary of the Water of Philorth, and its old name, Philorth, actually means "Pool of the river Orth". The site may not have been dissimilar to that of Red Castle at Lunan Bay, just south of Montrose. On this particular stretch of coast, the sea has been receding over the last few hundred years. The soils, levels, stones, etc., in the fields on the seaward side of the Castle mound show every sign of having been the bed of a tidal river, if not the sea shore itself. An old print shows a ship beached on the shore and boats drawn up along it, not far from the foot of the mound. The sand dunes between Fraserburgh and Cairnbulg Point probably only grew up during the 19th and 20th centuries. The author remembers that in her childhood there was a large expanse of flat sand with no dunes at all from a point opposite Philorth Bridge right to the present mouth of the river, and the river itself was still changing course. It only settled finally in its present course in the late 1930s, and the dunes opposite the castle have grown up since 1940. Until then it was possible to see the sea from ground floor level.


In the Wars of Independence, the Comyns sided with the English against Robert I (the Bruce), and after he had defeated them at the battle of Barra Hill in the winter of 1308-1309, he carried out an operation known as the Harrying of Buchan, in which he destroyed all the Castles of the Earldom, so that they could never again be held against him, and he forfeited the Earldom and divided it up among various of his supporters. The Earl of Ross, who had eventually joined Bruce, received this part of Buchan and the ruins of the first castle.

Rebuilt by Frasers

In 1375 the daughter and co-heiress of the 5th Earl of Ross, Joanna, married Sir Alexander Fraser of Cowie, whose grandfather had been Sir Alexander Fraser, Bruce's Chamberlain, married to his sister Mary, widow of Sir Neil Campbell of Lochow (Lochawe). The Ross lands in Buchan were Joanna's tocher ( English: dowry ), and probably c. 1380 they restored the Castle, at least the main tower appears to date from that time. Either then or later were added a courtyard and outbuildings to the east of the tower, where there are still foundations of buildings underground. Note the foundations of the tower which are just huge stones placed on the clay mound which forms the site, and which can be seen outside.

At some stage, possibly not much later, the staircase tower was added and a wing running east from it, and probably later still, possibly at the time of the war of the Rough Wooing when Henry VIII tried to marry his son Edward to the young Mary Queen of Scots in 1545, the round tower was built and also the part of the castle now comprising the front hall and the room above it. The exact dates when any part of the Castle was built are a matter of speculation. What we do know from the masonry and various pictures of it when a ruin, is that it has been altered a number of times. At the foot of the round tower the old gun loops are still to be seen, one designed to fire north along the east face of the courtyard wall, covering the entrance gateway which was at the north-east corner of the east wall of the court-yard; one to fire south-east where the only dry ground was; and one to fire west along the south face of the range between the two towers, which was narrower than the present house; and one at first floor level above the latter.


The family continued here at the Castle, the old Manor Place of Philorth, until the late 16th century. In the last quarter of that century, Sir Alexander Fraser, 8th of Philorth, built the town of Fraserburgh, improved the Harbour and founded a University there and built another Castle to which he moved and which was until recently the Kinnaird Head Lighthouse. As a result he got heavily into debt and in 1613 was obliged to sell this Castle and a great deal of land. The Castle was sold to Alexander Fraser of Durris on condition that should he or his descendants ever wish to sell it, they would first offer it to Sir Alexander or his descendants. The agreement was not honoured and the Castle passed from one family to another. From 1613 to 1631 or 1637 it belonged to Fraser of Durris, then until 1703 to Fraser of Muchalls (created Lord Fraser), then until 1739 to Thomas Buchan of Auchmacoy and his son, then until 1775 to Alexander Aberdein and his son. From 1775 to 1801 it belonged to George, 3rd Earl of Aberdeen, who vandalised it to build and improve other houses in the district in which he kept his mistresses. By 1780 both towers were in a ruinous condition, and the building in between a ruin. After him it belonged to his illegitimate son John Gordon. In 1863 the ruin was bought by Mr. Duthie of the Aberdeen shipbuilding firm who built and owned the famous tea clippers. In 1896 his nephew, Sir John Duthie, restored the Castle using granite which was his wife's tocher from her father who was a stone merchant. Their initials and motto are over the present front door. He died in 1923 .

Back in the family

In 1934 the late Lord Saltoun, 11th in descent from the 8th Laird, bought it back and modernised it. From 1966 to 1997 it belonged to Lady Saltoun, who did further modernisation in 1966. In 1989-90 extensive repairs were done and both towers, the staircase tower and the west face were re-harled. Since 1997 it has belonged to The Hon. Mrs. Nicolson, Lady Saltoun's eldest daughter. THE CASTLE IS OPEN TO THE PUBLIC BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. To make an appointment, write to her at Cairnbulg Castle, Fraserburgh, AB43 8TN.

Kinnaird Head Lighthouse
Fraserburgh Castle
The first major lighthouse in Scotland, lit in 1787.
Fraserburgh Castle

Fraserburgh Castle (above), built in 1570 by Sir Alexander Fraser, 8th laird of Philorth. A powerful lantern was added to the top floor in 1787, when it became the Northern Lighthouse Board's first lighthouse, and a lightkeeper was hired. A fitting monument to Scotland's lighthouse service, it now forms part of the Lighthouse Museum, which is near by. Open to the public from April 1st to the end of September, the crowning glory of any visit to the museum is a guided tour to the very top of the lighthouse. To the left is the Wine tower.

Wine Tower, Fraserburgh.
Wine Tower
Photo: Louise Nicolson.

The Wine Tower

The Wine Tower (above) is an old three storey quadrangular building standing on top of a cave, rising from a rock which overhangs the sea, about 50 yards east of Fraserburgh Castle. The only entrance is to the second floor by ladder. The second floor is a vaulted chamber with interesting heraldic bosses. Little is known of the history of the tower, and its age is uncertain. There is legend related in verse which deals with a sad tale of two young lovers.

A brief history of Fraserburgh Harbour

Early in the 16th century, Sir William Fraser, 6th laird of Philorth, purchased the lands of Faithlie from Sir Henry Mercer of Aldie. In 1542, his son Alexander Fraser, 7th of Philorth, received from King James V a charter of the whole fishings opposite his lands and he constructed a convenient harbour. As a result, he received a royal charter erecting Faithlie into a Burgh of Barony.

His grandson and successor, Sir Alexander Fraser, 8th of Philorth, known in the family as "The Founder", carried on his work ( which included enlarging and beautifying Faithlie; founding a University; and building the Castle which until recently was the Kinnaird Head Lighthouse, the first lighthouse in Scotland, and now the only Lighthouse Museum - well worth a visit! ), and laid the first stone of a new harbour on 9th March 1576. This harbour was bounded by a north breakwater, where the North Pier is to-day; and a south pier, which formes the landward leg of the Middle Jetty. In 1588 he obtained a charter erecting Faithlie into a Free Port and Burgh of Barony and in 1592 he obtained a grant of novodamus, creating Faithlie a Burgh of Regality with a Free Port and ordaining that it should in all time coming be called the Burgh and Port de Fraser. Thus was the port of Fraserburgh born.

No major changes to the harbour took place until the early 19th century. In 1809-1810 a new North Pier was completed at a cost of £11,332-17-3d. 1815 saw the start of the Herring Curing Industry in Fraserburgh, and after bumper catches in 1815-17, the construction of the South Pier was started in 1818, and the first direct local Harbour Authority, as constituted by Act of Parliament, met for the first time - the first Fraserburgh Harbour Commissioners.

The first election of Harbour Commissioners did not take place until 1879. Until 1892, the Chairman of the Harbour Board was Lord Saltoun's Factor. After the passing of the Burgh Police Act that year, the Chairman was the Provost of Fraserburgh until Town Councils themselves disappeared in 1975.

In 1850, the construction was begun of a new North Breakwater, called, ever since the Crimean war, the Balaclava Pier. By 1873 the prosperity generated by the boom in the Herring Fishing combined with the coming of the Railway in 1865 had made farther enlargement of the harbour a matter of urgency. In 1875, thanks to the vigourous efforts of Sir Alexander Anderson, 17th Lord Saltoun's Commissioner and representative on the Harbour Board, in planning and in obtaining finance, the foundation stone of a new Breakwater was laid (by Lord Saltoun, on 23rd October).

From then on until Sir Alexander Anderson's death in 1887, extensive improvements were made to the Balaclava and North Harbours, including the provision of a Lifeboat slip. Between 1894 and 1896, the Balaclava Harbour was deepened. It was deepened for the second time in 1977 along with the main entrance channel, and the Inner Balaclava Harbour was deepened again in 1997. A new dry dock was built in 1992, and in 2000 a hydraulic ship lift was installed as well.

In 1908 work started on the construction of the Faithlie Harbour, and storm gates across the entrance to it. These were swept away shortly after completion in 1914, and from then until 1963 the use of the Faithlie Harbour was severely restricted in bad weather. A Slipway at the Faithlie basin was built by 1931. This was replaced by a new Hydraulic Slipway in 1981.

The first Fishmarket was situated in what is now Cross Street, but was until 1870 called the Fish Cross. The first Fishmarket at the Harbour was built many years ago, but in 1959 a new market was built on the Walker Quay in the Faithlie Basin. In 1987 a new Fishmarket was erected alonside the existing one, and in 1989 the one on the Walker Quay was replaced by a new one. Both have the most up to date chilling facilities.
These are the highlights of the history of Fraserburgh Harbour. In between the story is one of continual maintenance and smaller improvements. (Financing the major improvements has been the chief problem since the beginning of the 19th century. In 1894-6 the deepening of the Balaclava Harbour, the erection of jetties and the building of the South Breakwater cost £87, 535.

In the 1992 the deepening and building of the Dry-dock cost £1.7 million!). Until 2001, Lord Saltoun, as Superior of Fraserburgh, was automatically a Harbour Commissioner. I was for many years, and when I handed over Cairnbulg Castle and the superiority of Fraserburgh to my daughter Kate in 1997, she became a Harbour Commissioner in my place. We customarily appointed the Factor for the estate to attend the meetings on our behalf. When large scale improvements to the harbour were planned, it was usually necessary to obtain Government funding, and for that purpose a Private Act of Parliament was often necessary.

I have been in the House of Lords when a Fraserburgh Harbour Bill was required, and been able to see the Minister to explain its importance and persuade him to introduce it with the least possible delay. Now, since Devolution, the financing of Harbour improvements falls to the Scottish Parliament, of which I am not a member, so that I can no longer help them. It is determined to abolish Feudal Superiorities, and one of the conditions of the last Harbour Bill was that the Superior should no longer have a seat on the Board, and so Kate ceased to be a Harbour Commissioner. In February 2002, the Harbour Board gave Kate and me and our representative on the Board a dinner to mark the end of the family connection, and presented us each with a lovely painting of the Harbour. It was a memorable and moving occasion.

Fraserburgh Harbour was built by the energy and enterprise of public men of the past. We hope that their spirit will live on in the Harbour Commissioners to-day, and will ensure it a prosperous future, in spite of the very real problems facing the fishing industry, with the demands of conservation threatening its whole future.

Fraserburgh Heritage Centre

This is next door to the Lighthouse Museum and is well worth a visit. For more information, see


The ruins of Beauly Priory are well worth a visit. Among the lands acquired by the Lovat Frasers, the prominent ones were in Stratherrick, which was very dear to the hearts of the Lovat Chiefs, the church lands of Beauly Priory in Inverness-shire, part of the south shore of the Beauly Firth, and the whole of Glenstrathfarrer. Beauly was founded in about 1230 by John Byset, who also built Lovat Castle.

Beaufort Castle

Until recently the home of Lord Lovat. It was sold in 1995 to Mrs. Anne Gloag. Destroyed by fire in 1938 and rebuilt, it incorporates the remains of Castle Downie. Unfortunately many family portraits and treasures were also destroyed in the fire.

Castle Fraser

In 1976 Castle Fraser was placed in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. The Castle, which has been faithfully restored, is one of the Trust's most popular tourist attractions, and is open daily from April to October, with the grounds and garden being open all the year.

Further information on Castle Fraser can be found on the National Trust for Scotland website:

Castle Fraser.
Castle Fraser
Photograph produced with permission of The National Trust for Scotland.

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