History of the estate

Early photo showing Gordon CastleHistory of Gordon Castle Estate

The family of Gordon is an ancient clan whose lineage dates back to the reign of King Robert the Bruce in the 14th Century. A castle was first established on the site of the Estate in 1479 by George, Second Earl of Huntly, the great, great grandson of Sir Adam Gordon, who had fought with Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Inverury in 1308. The land it stood upon was known as the ‘Bog of Gight’ (the windy bog) and the subsequent chiefs of the clan took the title ‘Gudeman o’ the Bog, alongside the rather more triumphant and regal sounding ‘Cock o’ the North’, the title given to the Earls of Huntly. Back in the 15th Century Gordon Castle was a fortress, reached only by causeway and drawbridge, designed for defence not show. From this stronghold the Clan Gordon became one of the most powerful families of the Scottish Reformation period, the Estate at this time stretching from the Moray Firth to Ben Nevis.

In the late 18th Century Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon, set about transforming the fortress of Gordon Castle into a grand baronial mansion, a Scottish Versailles, designed for show not defence. A venture in which he succeeded. A visitor to the castle in 1868 recorded how the castle “now consists of a large central building of four storeys, to which have been added spacious wings… forming altogether a front of 568 feet…The gardens are on a scale of magnitude in keeping with the princely mansion and pleasure grounds.” It was, he suggested “a world of a house”, and in fact it was now one of the largest buildings in Scotland. Elegant certainly, but at a cost.

Unfortunately the same could be said of the 4th Duke’s management of the Estate, and his son George proved little better. When the 5th Duke of Gordon died in 1836 he owed the Royal Bank of Scotland £45,000 (over £2,000,000 in today’s money). The Estate now passed to George’s nephew, the Duke of Richmond, who took the ancient name of Gordon. So began a hundred year struggle to maintain the Georgian splendour of Gordon Castle in times of great social and political change.

During the Great War (1914-1918) the Castle, like the fictional Downton Abbey, was used as an Auxiliary Hospital for the treatment of wounded soldiers returning from the trenches. The inter-war years that followed were a period of decline for many of the great houses across the United Kingdom, and so it proved to be for Gordon Castle. In 1938, following crippling death duties, Frederick Gordon Lennox, 9th Duke of Richmond, 4th Duke of Gordon (in the 1836 creation), was forced to sell Gordon Castle and all his Scottish estates. The Castle now fell into disrepair.

Salvation came after the Second World War (1939-1945) when Lieutenant General Sir George Gordon Lennox, grandson of the 7th Duke of Richmond, brought back the Castle and began its renaissance from crumbling mansion into a more modest, if equally beautiful, family home. His son, Major General Bernard Gordon Lennox, continued the good work and today his grandson Angus and wife Zara are the successful guardians of Sir George’s fine legacy.

Gordon Castle and the Whisky industry

Barrels of maturing whisky at The Glenlivet.

Barrels of maturing whisky at The Glenlivet.

The Gordon Estates once stretched from Deeside to Speyside, encompassing lands and rivers where many of the most famous Scottish malt whisky distilleries are still to be found. It was the intervention of the 5th Duke of Gordon that first led to the legalisation of whisky distilling in the Highlands of Scotland. He informed Parliament that his tenants in Strathavon and Glenlivet could not be prevented from distilling whisky illicitly, so why not legalise the activity and collect the taxes?

Demonstrating a keen eye for business, when the subsequent Act of Parliament was passed in 1823, the 5th Duke immediately encouraged one of his tenants, George Smith, to take advantage of the new law and establish a ‘legal’ whisky still. George Smith started the first ever licensed distillery in Glenlivet in 1824 and in 1858 the 5th Duke provided George Smith with the land on which the present day Glenlivet distillery is sited.

Gordon Castle and the Gordon Highlanders

The Duchess Jean recruiting

The Duchess Jean recruiting

That most iconic of Scottish regiments, The Gordon Highlanders, was raised on 10th February 1794 by the 4th Duke of Gordon, gamely assisted by his wife, the celebrated Duchess Jean, who rode to country fairs in Highland bonnet and regimental jacket to aid the recruitment drive. Legend has it that the Duchess would place a golden guinea between her lips and offer a kiss to any man who would take the King’s shilling. On one occasion, a certain blacksmith, renowned for his strength and good looks, who had previously spurned the offer of joining the regiment, took the kiss and the guinea, then threw the guinea into the crowd to demonstrate the true cause of his ‘rush to the colours’.

The Gordon Highlanders were recruited mainly from the large Gordon estates in Badenoch, Lochaber and Strathspey, and also from the counties of Aberdeen, Banff and Moray. At first the regiment was numbered the 100th Regiment of Foot, but the title of the Gordon Highlanders was used along with the number. Then, in 1798, they became the 92nd and it was under this banner that the regiment won countless battle honours and played a gallant role in the final victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

In 1881 the 92nd merged with the 75th Regiment as part of the Childers Reforms. In this guise they went on to serve in various foreign campaigns including the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) and both world wars. Between 1914 and 1918 The Gordon Highlanders raised a total of twenty one battalions and was awarded fifty seven battle honours, four Victoria Crosses and lost 8,870 men during the course of the conflict. Between 1939 and 1945 The Gordon Highlanders were involved in every theatre of war, serving with particular distinction with the 8th Army {Desert Rats} in North Africa and with the 15th Scottish Division during the D-Day Landings.

Charles Gordon-Lewis served with the Gordon Highlanders during the Boer War and was part of the small British Expeditionary Force that landed in Belgium in 1914, losing his life at the First Battle of Ypres. He is buried at Zillebeke Cemetery and a stain glass window In Gordon Chapel is dedicated to his memory. Lieutenant General Sir George Gordon Lennox was the Colonel of The Gordon Highlanders between 1965 and 1978 and the proud association with the Regiment continues to this day: the current Estate Factor, Lieutenant Colonel David Duncan, joining The Gordon Highlanders as a Junior Leader in 1969 and enjoying an illustrious thirty nine year career.

Robert Burns Tribute to Gordon Castle

Robert Burns Gordon Castle

Whilst staying as a guest of the Duke and Duchess in 1787 Rabbie Burns penned a famous tribute to Gordon Castle. It begins with…

Castle Gordon

Streams that glide in orient plains,
Never bound by Winter’s chains;
Glowing here on golden sands,
There immixed with foulest stains
From Tyranny’s empurpled hands:
These, their richly gleaming waves,
I leave to tyrants and their slaves;
Give me the stream that sweetly laves
The banks by Castle Gordon.

To read in full and to hear it spoken click here.

The Gordon Castle Ash – over 250 years old

Gordon Castle Ash treeThe mighty ash (Fraxinus excelsior) which stood on the lawns to the front of Gordon Castle presented an imposing figure, the girth of its trunk measuring a staggering twenty five feet and seven inches. It is probable that the tree dated from the time of the 4th Duke of Gordon’s expansion of the Estate in the 1780s – making the ash over 250 years old. Sadly the tree was badly damaged by a heavy storm in 2010 and had to be felled.

However, every part of this once grand ash was salvaged and used throughout the estate, including the ongoing restoration of the eight acre Walled Garden. Cuttings were also taken from the ash by our team of dedicated gardeners and we are pleased to announced that a new ash now grows close by the site of the Gordon Castle Ash.


Gordon Castle and Gordon Setters

The Gordon Setter

Gordon Castle Gordon Setters

Although history suggests the existence of black and tan setters as far back as the 16th century, Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon, is credited with establishing the breed we know today as the Gordon Setter. To begin with they were bred purely for their ability as hunting dogs and it was only later, through cross breeding with other setters, that the characteristic ‘black and tan’ coat became a sought after strain of the breed.

History has it that the 4th Duke of Gordon would not shoot over his setters until they were five years old, as they were known for being unruly when young and slow in maturing. Most breeders and Gordon owners would say the breed remains unchanged in this respect, but beauty, brains and bird sense are certainly the outstanding qualities of the mature Gordon Setter


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