Duffus Castle near Elgin

Written by Chris Thornton | 14th of February 2021
Updated: 18th of September 2022
Duffus Castle

There's something magical about this ancient ruin; jutting out of the flat Laich of Moray landscape, it is an imposing landmark reminding us of times long ago.

As a child, I lived just outside Lossiemouth near Duffus Castle, and we often visited the castle on bike rides for picnics. It's still a favourite place for me to take my young family, and we visit a few times per year.

A bridge to a typical Norman castle.
The bridge from the car park.

A motte and bailey castle

Duffus Castle is a prime example of a motte and bailey castle. It began as a wooden keep/fortification built on top of a steep man-made hill, with a connecting enclosed bailey or courtyard. This bailey would have contained additional timber buildings associated with the keep, including bakeries, workshops and stables protected by a wooden palisade. There is a perimeter moat that surrounds the castle grounds and bailey.

Seat of the Moray family.
Standing on the thick walls looking up towards the keep.

What are motte and bailey-style castles?

The motte and bailey castle design was extremely popular for 200 years due to its excellent defensive capabilities. The motte is the huge earth mound the castle is built upon and would have originally had a deep ditch at its base.

The bailey is a large curtain wall that was at least 30 feet high and protected a large area at the foot of the keep.

The stone keep replaces an earlier wooden castle.
Ruins of the castle kitchens and storerooms.

Imagine trying to attack a castle with a moat, 30-foot perimeter wall, a ditch at the base of the castle, then run up a very steep hill, all while being pelted with arrows and rocks. The motte and bailey design gave a supreme advantage to the castle defenders.

View from bailey.
Looking up to the keep from the large grassy interior of the bailey.
 
The bailey.
Grounds within the castle boundary.

Who built Duffus Castle?

The castle was built in the 1100s by a Flemish man named Hugh de Freskin, who was granted lands in Northern Scotland in return for loyalty to the crown of King David I of Scotland. This helped the King secure control of the area and lessened the possibility of uprisings. Freskin may also have been responsible for the building of Skelbo Castle.

Climbing up to the keep.
Ascending the motte to the castle keep.

The stone castle and curtain wall

The earlier wooden construction was upgraded sometime around 1270 to be the stone keep/stone castle fortification we see today (as shown in the photos). The castle passed to Sir Reginald Cheyne the Elder, Lord of Inverugie, who by the early 1300s had upgraded the castle to what we see today. He also built the boundary stone curtain wall around the bailey.

King Edward I of England granted Sir Reginald Cheyne 200 oaks from the royal forests at Darnaway and Longmorn - a very substantial project for the time. The wood was used for scaffolding, flooring and the roof of this mighty stone keep.

The stone walls are over 7ft thick in places, but in others, only 14 inches. The lord's hall was on the first floor, and the rooms below on the ground floor for the household staff and additional storage.

Kitchens and storerooms.
Looking down to the kitchens and storerooms.

The windows in the castle are small, some of the lancet style and some just square or rectangular; defence was always in mind in the design of this castle. Two of the windows look quite grand with stone surrounds, so aesthetically pleasing features must have been requested by Sir Cheyne too. I wonder if stone masons took inspiration from nearby Elgin Cathedral as the lancet windows are of a similar design.

The Cheyne family line ended with two heiresses, leading to the castle passing to the Sutherland family through marriage.

Duffus Castle was occupied for over 500 years until the 1700s. The castle was held by Lord Duffus but soon abandoned in favour of nearby Duffus House, which offered much more comfort and status to nobility at that time.

The car park from the castle.
The car park as seen from the castle walls.

Duffus Castle today

Time has not been kind to Duffus Castle as the north wall has begun to slip down the mound due to being built on unstable old earthworks, not suitable for the new castle, which could be the primary reason it was abandoned altogether. The oak roofs and flooring are also long gone, leaving an empty shell.

The extensive stone ruins are fantastic to explore, and Historic Scotland information boards and plaques can be found all over the site.

Steps to Duffus Castle keep.
Steps to the keep.

To the southeast of the castle grounds, you can find the original entrance to the castle with its small stone bridge crossing the encircling moat. The original cobbled causeway leads up to the castle.

The castle moat surrounds the entire site and is now a haven for wildlife, including frog spawn and dragonflies.

Two coins were found at the site in 1993 dating from 1292 to 1390: a John Balliol half penny and a Robert III half groat.

Duffus Castle interior.
Interior of the keep, showing posts where oak beams once existed to create floors.

My visit to Duffus Castle in 2022

Much has changed at Duffus Castle since my last visit a few years ago. It seems Duffus Estate has realised the value of this castle to tourism, and they have revamped the car park with a coffee hut (Kula Coffee) and a sheltered seating area directly next to it.

Coffee hut at Duffus Castle
Kula Coffee at Duffus Castle.

The castle itself now has temporary fencing erected around it. It seems footfall and sledging in winter have damaged the castle mound. Large areas at the base of the north side are no longer accessible, which is a real shame, but understandable if the castle itself was at risk from further erosion of the earthworks.

Don't worry about accessing the castle, though; all areas are still available to explore, including the keep's interior.

The broken part of Duffus Castle.
The north part of the tower that has slipped down the hill.
 
Duffus Castle walls.
Part of the 7ft thick wall.
 
Duffus Castle
South side.
 
West wall at Duffus Castle.
The west wall of the tower and bailey wall.
 
Duffus Castle window frame.
One of the fancier looking window frames at Duffus Castle.
 
Coffee hut at Duffus Castle
Within the keep, showing multiple levels.

Cabin by the Castle

The Duffus family have also built an eco cabin looking out directly onto the castle. If you're looking for a unique place to spend the night at Duffus Castle, why not consider this cabin beside Old Duffus Farmhouse? Only one bedroom is available, but it looks very modern and comfortable.

RAF Lossiemouth plane spotting

If you like military aircraft, Duffus Castle and its hilly prominence is a great place to view planes taking off and landing at nearby RAF Lossiemouth. In the past, I have seen Tornado GR4s, Eurofighter Typhoons and Poseidon MRA1s.

RAF Poseidon P8 at RAF Lossiemouth.
RAF Poseidon P8. Image by Alan Butterfield.

St Peters Kirk, Old Duffus

Near Duffus Castle is a very old church also linked to Freskin de Moray, the builder of the first Castle at Duffus. Seen as existing in a charter from 1190, this 800-year-old church was badly damaged in the Scottish wars of independence in the 1300s.

This church has one of the few surviving medieval mercat crosses, still in its original position at an impressive 4 metres tall.

St Peters Kirk, Old Duffus.
St Peter's Kirk, linked to Duffus Castle.

How to get to Duffus Castle?

The best way to get to the castle is from Elgin along the A941. Then turn left onto B9135. Follow the brown tourist sign with a left turn. Follow straight on past Drainie Road, and keep an eye open for another left turn with another brown tourist sign. You should see the castle at this point. Park at the car park on the right, then enter by foot via the gate/bridge.

The Castle is roughly 3 miles from Elgin or 3 miles from Lossiemouth.

Please click this link to see the location of the castle on Google maps.

Is there a car park at Duffus Castle?

Yes, there is a medium-sized car park at the castle, and now a coffee hut with seating directly next to it.

The car park seen from the castle tower.
View of the car park and coffee hut from the castle tower.

Is Duffus Castle free to enter?

Yes, admission is free.

Are there toilets at Duffus Castle?

No, the nearest public toilets are on the promenade at nearby Lossiemouth.

Who owns Duffus Castle?

Duffus Castle and the Duffus Estate are currently owned by Sir Edward Dunbar, the 12th baronet but managed by Historic Environment Scotland.

Interior Photos

Duffus Castle interior.
Interior photo showing the different levels.
 
Duffus Castle interior 2.
Looking up into what would have been part of the Lord's chambers.
 
Door to keep.
Door leading to the interior areas and the middle of the tower.

Castle Grounds

Duffus Castle on the north east coast.
Duffus Castle is a fantastic ruin to explore.
 
Old entrance.
The old cobbled path to Duffus Castle.
 
The old bridge.
The old bridge crossing the castle moat.
 
View looking towards the bailey wall. Scotland Duffus Castle.
View towards the bailey wall.
 
Duffus Castle from the west.
Alternative view from the west..
 
West view of Duffus Castle.
Another view from the west showing cracks and damage to windows.
 
Another angle from the west side of Duffus Castle.
Another angle of the castle.

Videos of Duffus Castle

Here are a few short video clips from the castle.

Inside the tower.
 
Within the interior of the castle.
 
From the castle tower looking back into the grounds.
 
360 taken from the centre of the bailey.

Conclusion

Duffus Castle is a great ruin to visit and should definitely be on your list of attractions to see in Moray; not as grand as Edinburgh Castle in Scotland's capital, but it's a lovely place to visit while in Moray, and now you can grab a coffee there too!

The castle is a fantastic subject for photographers; in the summer months, bright yellow rapeseed oil flowers can give a stunning foreground, or in winter, the Aurora Borealis is a breathtaking backdrop.

Spynie Palace is a short distance south east of Duffus Castle and worth a visit while exploring the area.

Please see my article on Dunrobin Castle for my second favourite castle in Scotland!

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