Balvenie Castle near Dufftown
Near the small burgh of Dufftown in Moray lies Balvenie Castle, formerly known as Mortlach Castle and Belveny Castle. It is an impressive ruin built in the 13th century as a stronghold of Alexander 'Black' Comyn the Earl of Buchan between 1244 and 1289.
Balvenie Castle is well placed, guarding the routes to Elgin, Keith, Cullen and Huntly, as well as commanding the glens of Glen Rinnes and Glen Fiddich. In its time it was surely a strong stamp of authority in the area.
Below the castle lies the River Fiddich.
The Design of Castle Balvenie
The castle is an enclosed quadrangular castle with a single round tower. There is a large central courtyard with a well in the middle. The enclosure and curtain wall still exist (at over 2 metres thick and over 10 metres tall, made of solid stone) and is a fantastic example of 13th-century military architecture. Balvenie Castle was added to significantly in the 15th and 16th centuries.
A huge ditch surrounds the castle on three sides making it a daunting castle to invade.
The Kitchen Complex
On the west side of the castle lies a large kitchen complex that would have been responsible for cooking, baking, and brewing. In medieval times the Earl of Atholl would have taken payments in kind for his rents, not the local currency, so there was always a great stock of food to roast at the fireplace. Joints of meat, fish, and fowl would be roasted on a spit and turned by the cook-boy or 'Turnbrochie'.
Bread was a major staple of this time and most of the Earl's household would have consumed as many as two loaves per day! The bread baked at the Balvenie kitchen would have been made from barley and oats grown on the castle estate, yeast was provided by the brewhouse also within the castle.
The brewhouse would have produced a great deal of beer and ale with many of the castle inhabitants drinking as much as one gallon each per day. The Earl of Atholl however had finer tastes and imported wines from Europe.
In the 1500's an early renaissance house was built within the protection of the Castle. It was no longer fashionable to live in a castle so the house was built into the Castle to suit the Earl's needs. Part of the great curtain wall was destroyed to make way for the round tower you can see in the photographs on the northeast corner.
Atholl Lodging was three stories high which would have included a private apartment for the Earl and accommodation for household staff.
A Brief History of Balvenie Castle
There is so much history at Balvenie Castle, it's hard to list everything, but here is a very brief overview of what happened over 800 years at the castle.
1200's - Balvenie Castle was built by the Comyn family - the Black Comyns - specifically Wiliam or Alexander Comyn.
1304 - The castle is visited by Edward I of England.
1306 - John II Comyn (the Red Comyn) was killed by Robert the Bruce. The Comyns lost their power and the castle was significantly damaged by Bruce's forces in 1308. Sir James Douglas was granted the Castle by Bruce. The Douglas family (also known as the Black Douglases) significantly added to the castle adding the bakehouse and brewhouse at the south curtain wall.
1389-1394 - Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch visits the castle sometime within these dates.
1452 - William Douglas was killed by James II at Stirling Castle for refusing to break a league with Alexander Lindsay, 4th Earl of Crawford. His brother James Douglas succeeded him.
1455 - James Douglas was killed after rebelling against King James II, all of the Douglas estates and lands were taken by the crown.
1455 - The Castle passed to John Stewart, who went on to become the first Earl of Atholl.
1550 - Part of the curtain wall was demolished to make way for the new renaissance wing - Atholl Lodging.
1562 - In September, Mary Queen of Scots visited Castle Balvenie.
1579 - The Earl of Athol dies and leaves his estate to his four daughters.
1715 - William Duff successfully holds the castle against Jacobite attack.
1615 - Robert Innes of Innernarkie becomes the owner of the castle.
1644 - The castle is used by the Marquis of Montrose against the Covenanters.
1649 - The Innes families mounting debts lead to attacks from neighbouring families.
1658 - The Innes family debt forces sale of the castle to Colonel Sutherland of Kinminity.
1687 - Arther Forbes is now the owner of Balvenie Castle, but history repeats itself again and mounting debts lead to a new owner - Alexander Duff of the Duffs of Braco.
1689 - The Jacobites hold the castle after a decisive win at the Battle of Killicrankie.
1695 - The castle is owned by the Earl of Fife.
1715 - William Duff bolsters defences of the castle to hold it against the Jacobites.
1718 - William Duff ends his own life in the castle.
1724 - At his stage, the castle has fallen into disrepair and no longer has a roof. The castle is still used in the Jacobite rebellions.
1746 - The castle is held by Hanoverian forces led by the Duke of Cumberland after the Battle of Culloden.
1998 - The title "Baron of Balvenie" was purchased by an American named Charles Beck Harman Nicholson. He died in 2009 and the title, along with ownership of Balvenie Castle passed to Jeremy Duncan Nicholson, his nephew.
2021 - Although the castle is privately owned, it is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland.
How much does it cost to visit Balvenie Castle?
Historic Scotland currently cares for the castle and asks an admission fee to explore Balvenie Castle. Adults - £4.50, Children - £2.70 or a concession for £3.60.
What are Balvenie Castle's opening times?
It is open between April and September, between 9.30 AM and 17.30 PM. It is closed for lunch between 12.30 and 13.30.
Are those Highland Cows?
Right next to Balvenie Castle is a field containing Highland Cows, if you haven't seen one before this is a fine chance to view one of these magnificent beasts.
Is there anything else to see near Balvenie Castle?
Glenfiddich and Balvenie Whisky distilleries are a short distance from the castle, it would be a great idea to tour these before or after your visit to Balvenie Castle. Dufftown is a great wee village to walk around and grab a coffee at the "Coffee Pot".
Other nearby Castles include Auchindoun Castle and Drummuir Castle. Huntly Castle is further to the east, funnily enough in Huntly. To the north, coastal castles such as Duffus Castle, Findlater Castle, Spynie Palace and Boyne Castle are great to explore. Ballindalloch Castle lies west, and there is the pretty Bridge of Avon and gatehouse nearby.
Steeped in history and legend, Balvenie Castle is a fantastic ruin to explore on your trip around Moray and north east Scotland and a perfect day out when combined with a Scottish whisky distillery tour.
All photos provided by Adam Rhys Chisolm, please see his youtube channel here.