History 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

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

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 Highlandersas a Junior Leader in 1969 and enjoying an illustrious thirty nine year career.

Robert Burns Tribute to 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

The 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 4thDuke 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

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

House of Gordon 

Gordon Castle is the spiritual home to the House of Gordon and we are proud to work with and support the organisation. Find out about it here.

Gordon Castle during the Great War

On November 26th 1914 the normal ebb and flow of country life at Gordon Castle came to an end. On this day, at the behest of the Duke himself, the Castle and grounds were given over to the Red Cross for the duration of the war and became Gordon Castle Volunteer Auxiliary Defence (VAD) Hospital. Over the next four-and-a-half years thousands of badly wounded soldiers from across the British Empire, men who had served in the mud sodden and shell torn trenches of France and Belgium, would find a safe haven here. Staffed only by a small body of dedicated professionals, the great deeds achieved by Gordon Castle VAD Hospital in repairing the lives and limbs of these war worn and shattered men depended heavily upon the generosity and support of the Gordon-Lennox family and the people of Moray and Banffshire. Mirrored across the land, it was this voluntary effort and spirit of self-sacrifice that ‘kept the home fires burning’ during the darkest days of ‘the war to end all wars’.

The running of the Hospital was in the hands of a small band of professionals. Administration was the responsibility of the Medical Officer, the first MO being Dr Mann of Fochabers who, along with the Duke and his daughter, organised the original transformation of Gordon Castle into a VAD Hospital. A succession of able Matrons ensured that the highest standards of care were maintained: two of them, Miss Ethel Burgess and Miss E.B. Davidson were later awarded the Royal Red Cross in recognition of their invaluable war service. Two Sisters made up the full compliment of professional staff; Sister Macbeath and Sister Buchan fulfilling this vital role during the hectic last eighteen months of the Hospital’s life when the wards were never less than full. But look beyond these fine professionals and we find that the entire general nursing staff was comprised entirely from local volunteers. Women young and old came from every Speyside parish, from Elgin, from Lhanbryde and from Lossiemouth, to offer sick and wounded men – men who had seen the worst that Man can do – the comfort and care needed to nurse them back to health.Forty rooms of the Castle were given over to the purposes of the Hospital. One hundred beds, spread over fifteen wards, were housed within the west-wing. Administration was handled in the central sections of the Castle. Nurses accommodation was provided for in the east-wing. The surgery was fitted out, at the personal expense of the Duke, with some of the latest equipment then available to medical science, including an up to date sterilisation unit. On each floor new washrooms were installed for the use of the patients. The kitchens, always the engine room of any stately home, were turned over to the business of mass catering, and with some style: game, venison and salmon were a regular feature of the weekly menu and the Castle gardens provided fresh vegetables daily. The ‘Circle’, thus named because of its appearance and shape, and airy and bright thanks to its glass roof, became the favoured place for soldier’s recreations. The majority of the Hospital’s wards were located off the ‘Circle’, which allowed even the most serious of cases to feel part of the entertainments therein, and every soldier was given free reign of the manicured gardens, woodlands and moorlands that formed the Gordon Estate.In the era of the Great War the spirit of noblesse oblige still held sway. With privilege and wealth came responsibilities and duties. A cradle to grave welfare state was still a distant dream in 1914 and much of what we now expect the state to provide was catered for by private charities. In this respect, caring for the casualties of war was no different. Under the agencies of the Red Cross, Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) were raised from across the country for service both at home and overseas. On the home front the VADs were deployed to staff and run the thousands of civilian buildings then being requisitions as military hospitals. Amongst these were many of the country seats of Britain’s landed gentry: given freely in the spirit of noblesse oblige, their size, setting and comforts making them ideal places for recuperation. The Duke’s own daughter, the Duchess of Northumberland, was at this time President of the County branch of the Scottish Red Cross Society, and the Duke needed little encouragement in handing over the keys of Gordon Castle. Very soon it was to become one of the largest VAD Hospitals in the country.The Gordon-Lennox family’s unwavering commitment to the war effort was the latest chapter in a long tradition of military service. The previous century had seen both Gordons and Lennoxs serve with honour on the battlefields of Waterloo and Inkerman, while the Duke himself, along with his three sons, had all fought with the Brigade of Guards during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. Now beyond the age of military service, the Duke, in his capacity as President of the Territorial Associations of Banffshire and Moray, took a leading role in the recruitment of volunteers for Lord Kitchener’s New Army. He did so with a heavy heart, knowing only to well of the sacrifice that lay ahead. By November 1914 the war had already taken the life of his youngest son, Lord Bernard, killed during the First Battle of Ypres.

The first beneficiaries of this care were twenty four men who had landed in Belgium and France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1914: that small band of professional soldiers described by the German Kaiser as a “contemptible little army”. They arrived by train at Fochabers’ little terminus station, having embarked from hospitals in Glasgow and Aberdeen, and completed their journey by private motor cars courtesy of the Duke and other wealthy locals. Their wounds were multifarious and many were ‘cot cases’; the rather euphemistic term then employed to describe the seriously wounded. Most would stay between one and two months before being discharged. Over the next four-and-a-half years 2718 non-commissioned officers and men drawn from every part of the British Empire would make this same journey: from the hell of the Somme and Passchendaele to the tranquillity of Speyside. In these years the Castle and its grounds would become synonymous with the familiar blue of the soldier-patients, bandaged limbs, broken bodies on the mend, all smoking the inevitable ‘gasper’, now only the rattle of the gamekeeper’s gun to disturb the peace.

Asides the best of medical care, Gordon Castle VAD Hospital laid on a plethora of sports and entertainments to help their soldier-patients along this long road to recovery. The Recreation Room was cosily furnished and always warm, with a piano in one corner, gramophone in the other, a generous stock of books and magazines and plenty of popular board games such as bagatelle, chess and draughts on hand. The bright and airy ‘Circle’ was the regular venue for concerts; the music and entertainments often provided by the staff and men themselves, complimented on occasions by the Fochabers Concert Company and other well known performers. As was the tradition during their rest times in France and Belgium, the men themselves would often stage concert parties where they were the stars: a rare chance to dress up and sing a few ribald ditties. Then there were the dance parties, the Duke making the magnificent ducal dining room available and fitting it out with a stage and all the accoutrements of the concert hall.

Outdoor activities were equally popular. The ducal motorcar was often requisitioned to take parties of men out for a picnic at by the sea at Lossie, Garmouth or Spey Bay. Sports were ubiquitous. There were old favourites like football, cricket and golf. Others, such as quoits, croquet and boating offered NCOs and men the chance to sample sports more normally favoured by the officer class. And of course, their was always the opportunity to try your hand at fly-fishing on the Spey.

A great favourite of the soldier-patients, staff and the local community were the annual summer fêtes held in the grounds of Gordon Castle. These philanthropic and entertaining events provided a chance for everyone to gather together, to raise money for charity, and to bring back a little of the simple joy and colour of the life that had existed before, as Foreign Secretary Earl Grey had put it, “the lights went out across Europe”. These joyous occasions would live long in the memory of all who were there.

Now those memories themselves have passed from the living. On May 19th 1919 Gordon Castle VAD Hospital closed its doors to its last soldier-patient. All that is left to show that the flag Royal Red Cross Society once flew above Gordon Castle is a plaque on the north-west gate which reads:

To record the use of this dwelling as an Auxiliary Hospital during the Great War, and thanks of the Scottish Red Cross Society, to the generous donor – April 1919

Click here to download the full history.