On another day trip from Aviemore, we decided to go and see Highland Folk Museum, but then realised we hadn't checked COVID restrictions and might need to book first. We decided to stop off at Ruthven Barracks instead as it wasn't that far away, I hadn't been there since I was very young and I was keen to explore the ruin again. With the kids instructed to see who could be the first one to spot Ruthven Barracks... or simply "the castle", we changed direction.
With Ruthven Barracks duly discovered, we pulled into the car park and took in the spectacular vista before us.
The site of Ruthven Barracks
About a mile and a half from Kingussie in the Highlands, Ruthven Barracks sits upon a large alluvial mound made of sand and gravel, likely deposited by glaciers at the end of the ice age over 14,000 years ago in the Strathspey great valley. The river Spey passes nearby. It is a great spot offering 360-degree views of the landscape, it's easy to see why fortifications have been built here for the last 800 years. The original castle would have been visible for miles in all directions and commanded the entire valley. The steep sides of the mound must have made it very hard to attack.
The A9 main road still passes through this valley and is still the main route from the south to Inverness, the Strathspey great glen had great strategic importance throughout Scottish history.
Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve - one of Europe's most important wetlands - lies to the east.
A brief history of the fortifications at Ruthven
The Comyn Castle - Early 1200s
As far back as the 1200s, a timber earlier castle was built at Ruthven by the Comyn family/clan who lorded over Badenoch and the passage through the great glen.
In 1306 Robert the Bruce killed John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch triggering a civil war that lasted until 1308.
Wolf of Badenoch -1371
Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan or more widely known as the Wolf of Badenoch came into ownership of the Castle in 1371. Alexander Stewart is famous for his destruction of Forres and then later Elgin, including Elgin Cathedral.
One tale from Scottish folklore is that in July 1394 the Wolf of Badenoch was challenged to a game of Chess by the Devil at Ruthven Castle, and by that morning all in the castle were dead... I guess he lost!
Earl of Huntly - 1451
Alexander Gordon the Earl of Huntly was in control of the castle, it was attacked and destroyed by the Black Douglases in 1451. A new tower was built on the site in 1459 by Alexander Gordon, in the same style as his own fortification in Huntly.
Siege by Clan Campbell - 1594
The castle was attacked by Clan Campbell in 1594, but repelled by the Clan Mackintosh defenders. However, the castle would go on to be taken by General Leslie in 1647 and then by Mackenzie of Pluscardine in 1649. A permanent garrison was stationed here by parliament.
Jacobite forces attack - 1689
At the time of the first Jacobite rebellion, Ruthven Castle was still laid siege by Viscount 'Bonnie' Dundee and burned down.
Ruthven Barracks is built - 1719 to 1721
The original more ancient medieval castle remains at Ruthven were demolished and a new garrison barracks were built by the Hanoverian government to police the area after the 1715 Jacobite rising. In 1734, a stable block was added for horses of Dragoons patrolling General Wade's new military road from Fort Augustus to the west. The new Ruthven Barracks could house 120 soldiers and 28 horses. These troops were commanded to enforce the Disarming Act of 1716 and "to preserve the peace and quiet of the country" by keeping the Highland clans under control.
Four infantry barracks were also built at strategic locations at Ruthven, Kilcumeon, Bernera, and Inversnaid to police north Britain.
Another Jacobite uprising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie - 1745
In 1745, a 200 strong Jacobite army led by Bonnie Prince Charlie attacked Ruthven Barracks. Only 12 men were stationed at the barracks at this time, led by Sergeant Terrence Molloy. Amazingly they were able to defend the barracks with only one casualty, who raised his head too high over the battlements. The Jacobites lost 2 men, and many more were wounded.
Only a year later Sergeant Molloy was forced to surrender when the Jacobites again attacked the barracks, but this time with artillery.
Retreat from the Battle of Culloden - 1746
Upon the defeat of the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden, around 3000 Jacobites fled to Ruthven Barracks to regroup and plan their next move. The Jacobites were bitterly disappointed when they received orders from Charles that simply said "let every man seek his own safety in the best way he can" finally putting an end to the Jacobite rebellion once and for all. Charles never returned to Scotland and lived out the rest of his days in exile.
The departing Jacobites destroyed Ruthven Barracks, leaving the ruin we see today.
Ruthven Barracks layout
The Barracks has a simple layout of two large multi-level barrack blocks, separated by a courtyard / parade ground area. Each barrack block could accommodate 60 men, 10 to a room sleeping in double beds. The men would cook in provided fireplaces that would also heat the block. Stores of food and weapons were kept in the lofts and basements of each block.
There was also a bakehouse and brewhouse on-site with bread and beer being produced. The men at the barracks could purchase alcohol if they wished.
Beer - 6 pence / gallon. Whisky - 1 pence / gill. Rum - 3 pence / half pint. Porter - 2 pence / bottle.
Officers had private quarters at the opposite corners of the building.
The ruin is just a shell of a structure, none of the internal elements survive, such as staircases and floors/ceilings and roofs. You can see indents in the interior walls where wooden beams would have been placed to create the floors in each troop block.
Outside the main structure of the fortified barracks lies the stables, the roof of which was used as a hayloft for the animals.
Historic Environment Scotland
Ruthven Barracks is currently under the care of Historic Scotland a Scottish charity. The site is well maintained and it looked like there was some work being done on the east side of the barracks wall when we were there. Historic Environment Scotland has also placed many boards and plaques around the site so you can learn more as you explore the ruin.
Quick FAQs on Ruthven Barracks:
Does Ruthven Barracks have a car park?
Yes, there is a reasonably sized car park that can also accommodate buses.
How much does it cost to visit Ruthven Barracks?
Entry is free. Why not give Historic Scotland a donation?
What else can I do in the area after visiting Ruthven Barracks?
Highland Wildlife Park and Highland Folk Museum are both close to Ruthven Barracks but are worthy of spending a day each there too.
Can I go inside Ruthven Barracks ruin?
Yes, the ruin is fully open and all areas can be explored.
How do I get to Ruthven Barracks?
It can be accessed not far from the A9 on B970 from Kingussie. Please the map below and the main Live Breathe Scotland map.
It will probably only about an hour to see everything and take in the surroundings, it would be easy to stay longer, soaking in the atmosphere of the place.
Ruthven Barracks is a fantastic ruin to visit on your journey around Scotland. Steeped in Scotland's history and with panoramic views of the spectacular countryside, it's a must-visit on your trip around the Highlands.