Blog post by Sally Pentecost, Medieval History undergraduate at The University of Edinburgh.
As an aspiring historical blogger and self-confessed castle-lover, I was delighted to shadow the Registers of Scotland’s video and social media team for their #RoS400 series, which celebrates 400 years of the world’s oldest land register. Using their digital system, Registers Direct, the RoS team have been able to chart the life of some of Scotland’s most precious and enigmatic buildings found within the General Register of Sasines. Today we come to the final destination on our tour and take a peek into the dramatic history of Huntingtower Castle in Perthshire.
Parts of the lands and barony of Huntingtower with the castle tower, garden and orchard…
General Register of Sasines, 1879
This is Huntingtower’s first appearance in the Register of Sasines, when in 1879 the estate is described as comprising the castle tower, garden and an orchard which sadly no longer exists. The site is built on an ancient Roman settlement, but the medieval structure which remains was begun in the fifteenth century by William, the first Lord Ruthven. Huntingtower today looks like a single building, but originally it consisted of two fine tower houses standing just three meters apart.
The story goes that these towers were built by William for each of his two warring sons and would later be joined together by the next inhabitants of the castle, the Murray family, in the late 1600s. The towers feature heavily in another of the castle’s legends which tells of a young noblewoman, Dorothea, who travelled from her bedroom in the west tower to the servants’ quarters in the east tower to meet clandestinely with her lover. One night, hearing her mother approaching on the stairs, Dorothea leapt the three metres from the roof of the east tower to the west tower and returned to her bed just in time to be discovered by her confused mother. The following day, the young lovers eloped and were never seen or heard from again.
The Superiority of parts of the lands and Barony of Huntingtower…
General Register of Sasines, 1929
The most turbulent era in the castle’s history was arguably when it was occupied by the Ruthvens, the founders of the castle, whose coat of arms can still be seen in the west tower. The Ruthvens were a noble family who served Scottish royalty and because of their princely connections, Huntingtower Castle has hosted many notable visitors, including Mary Queen of Scots, who stayed at the fortress in 1565 while on honeymoon with her new husband Lord Darnley. It was here that the royal couple saw off the rebellion known as the Chaseabout raid, led by Mary’s half-brother, who was afraid that the Queen’s new marriage would bring about a revival of the Catholic religion in a Scotland which was becoming increasingly Protestant.
The Ruthvens’ downfall came in 1582 when a conspiracy was carried out at the castle. Presbyterian lords led by William, fourth Lord Ruthven, lured Mary’s sixteen-year-old son King James VI into the castle after a hunting trip and held him captive for ten months. Known as the Raid of Ruthven, this unsuccessful power grab led to disaster for the family; James ordered the conspirators to be executed and the castle was handed over to the Murrays of Tullibardine and renamed Huntingtower.
Disp. by Irene Mercer, widow of Major Laurence Walter Mercer… to Minister of Works…
General Register of Sasines, 1951
The building continued to go through many transformations after its lordly inhabitants left. The sasine register tells us that in 1805, the third Duke of Atholl sold the castle to James Buchan, owner of a cloth printing factory who used it to house his workers. And in 1929 it took an important step in its history when its proprietor, Major William Lindsay Mercer, gave guardianship of the castle to Her Majesty’s department of Works and Public Buildings. The register also records how the castle finally passed into state care in 1952 when it was sold for just £200, or around £5,000 in today’s money. This date marked the end of human habitation in the castle, but Major Mercer and his family were not the last tenants; Huntingtower is now home to three species of bats, including the rare Natterer’s variety.
The castle’s latest entry in the record shows that in 2000 Huntingtower was included in the Schedule of Monuments ‘to be of national importance’. This entry recognises how, remarkably, far from being met by a ruin, the twenty-first century visitor to Huntingtower can still marvel at elements of William Ruthven’s original fifteenth-century design. The two intact towers include one of the oldest painted ceilings surviving in Scotland and fragments of wall frescoes which once adorned the walls of this noble residence. Historic Environment Scotland are responsible for maintaining this slice of Scotland’s heritage for future generations.
As RoS work towards completing Scotland’s land register by 2024, we’re going to see many more iconic and lesser-known historic properties pass onto the electronic Land Register. This is an important step in unearthing the histories of some of Scotland’s oldest properties, like Huntingtower, and making Scottish heritage more accessible to the public.