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Digging up the Past: Excavations at Druminnor Castle

Druminnor Castle, the original Castle Forbes, was the center of the Forbes influence that dominated Aberdeenshire for over six centuries. The remaining hall house is now only a remnant of the large castle compound that once hummed with life. For over ten years starting in 2012, the Bennachie Landscapes Project has been delving into the surrounding land to determine the extent of the former baronial enclave. The Project is run jointly by the Bailies of Bennachie and the University of Aberdeen with the permission of the landowner, Alex Forbes, and with financial support for some specialized analysis provided by The Hunter Archaeological and Historical Trust and Aberdeenshire Council. The geophysical survey has been made possible through funding provided by the Castle Studies Trust. All excavation, site recording and most of the post-excavation processing has been carried out by local volunteers.

Druminnor Castle estate plans, National Records of Scotland

The series of excavations were spurred by the discovery of two estate plans from c.1771 that contained thumbnail plans of the castle. The plans indicated that the castle grounds were three times as large as originally believed. (Shepherd, C. 2020. “Penetrating the forgotten plan of Druminnor: GPR survey at Druminnor Castle, Aberdeenshire in 2019”, Medieval Archaeology, Volume 64, Issue 2.)

Druminor Castle thumbnail sketches, National Records of Scotland

The drawings clearly indicate a “great tower,” known to have been mostly demolished in 1800. The Project sought to establish the sites of this tower and other buildings in the complex. In September 2022, the Project released an “interim summary of findings” report with some fascinating discoveries.

The documented history of Druminnor Castle was the starting point for the excavations. According to Forbes legend, the land was claimed by Ochoncar Forbhasach in the eight century. However, the first written records indicate that “Duncan de Forbeys” was granted a royal charter for the lands of Forbes and Kearn in 1271 (or 1272 in the Gregorian Calendar.)

Druminnor Castle Hall House

Sometime in the 14th century, a tower was built that replaced the earlier fortifications on nearby Castlehill known as “Druminnor,” Gaelic for “ridge of the confluence” between the Kearn Burn and Bogie Water. In 1440, Alexander, 1st Lord Forbes, started building the current hall house and received a receipt for part payment for “makyn ye house of Drumynnour” from the 15th century architects, John Kamloke and Wilyhame of Ennerkype. While the “Great Hall” in the Old Tower remained the legal and ceremonial heart of the castle, the new building housed a much larger Hall.

The shape and scale of Druminnor changed over time as it endured many physical assaults and rebuilding. The castle was attacked by the Gordons in 1449; sacked by the Douglasses in 1452; refortified in 1456; captured and partly demolished by the Gordons in 1571-3; rebuilt in 1577; seized by the government in 1584; raided by Lord Forbes’s own sons in 1592; captured by Royalists and held against attacks by the Forbes from 1645 to 1647; repaired and remodeled in 1660-1; attacked by Jacobites in 1689-90; again besieged by them in 1746; partially burned by accident in the 1750s; sold to John Grant of Rothmaise in 1770; and largely demolished by Robert Grant in 1800. (Forbes, Alex. 2021. “Some Forbes Castles,” Scottish Castles Association Journal.)

Ground-penetrating sonar (GPS) at Druminnor Castle

In 1840 Druminnor was inherited by Eliza Grant, the eldest daughter of Robert Grant, and her husband, Alexander Foulerton Grant. They added a “mansion” designed by Archibald Simpson. This adjoined the present house at its north-west corner. In 1955, Margaret Forbes-Sempill, a daughter of Sir John Forbes of Craigievar, the 18th Lord Sempill, bought Druminnor. Between 1960 and 1965, she demolished the mansion and other additions and restored what was left of the original hall house.

The 1770 estate plans and sketches discovered in 2010, suggested a tower almost twice the height of the current hall house. They also indicated the general location of the tower. Armed with this information, the Bennachie Landscapes Project began crisscrossing the area with Ground-penetrating radar (GPR.)

Based on this geophysical survey, the researchers chose several sites for archaeological excavation. During these digs, the team revealed a grain-drying kiln containing charred oats and a burnt birch post. Radiocarbon 14 (C14) dating confirmed that the organic materials were from the mid-12th century. Another find was an impressive stone-lined well within the former Old Tower, which was likely to have originated in the late 13th century.

Mid-12th century grain-drying kiln at Druminnor Castle

The study notes that “Subsequent excavation as part of this project (Shepherd et al, 2015; in prep.) has demonstrated that the 18th-century plans are fairly accurate in their depiction of the castle with a main courtyard and appended, secondary court. The latter appears to have been added in the early 16th century, with the main courtyard being a product of the mid 15th century. (Shepherd, Colin, and Tanasie, Emil. 2019. “Druminnor Castle: Report on the Geophysical Survey, 2019.”)

The report concludes that “Druminnor can now demonstrably be seen to have been a sizable edifice appropriate to the political significance of the Forbes family in late medieval Scotland.” (Shepherd, Colon, et al. 2013. “Ecology and Landscape-use within the Pre-modern Lordship of Forbes: Interim Report on Excavations at Druminnor Castle, 2012 and 2013.”)

However, the study has yet to solve some mysteries. For example, an ancient sycamore tree called the “Bell Tree” sits on a slight, raised mound near the 18th century entrance to the courtyard. The GPS indicates some anomalies that persist down to lower depths and, as the study notes, “raises the interesting possibility that this tree marks what was once a significant topographical, raised - possibly circular - feature.” (Shepherd, Colin, and Tanasie, Emil. 2019. “Druminnor Castle: Report on the Geophysical Survey, 2019.”) Intriquingly, “this sycamore is one of only a handful of trees named on the 1st edition OS maps of Scotland; photos from the 1880s show it looking very similar to today. It was reported as one of ‘two venerable sycamores’ in the Second Statistical Account of 1840 and a planting date in the 1600s may not be unreasonable.” (Shepherd, C. 2020. “Penetrating the forgotten plan of Druminnor: GPR survey at Druminnor Castle, Aberdeenshire in 2019”, in Medieval Archaeology 64, 2.)

Perhaps more digging up the past may be needed.



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