Killearnan History

Killearnan Community Collage

Ross and Cromarty Heritage Society is grateful to Colin MacLeod for permission to reproduce Unearthing Redcastle's Hidden History and to Treasure Trove Scotland for permission to reproduce images which are Crown Copyright.

This book has been produced with the financial assistance of the Strathmartine Trust, which was established by the late Dr Ronald Cant, to encourage and support the study of all periods of Scottish History, continuing the work which he started in his lifetime.

It gives the author, Colin MacLeod, great pleasure to donate this book to Ross and Cromarty Heritage Society, ensuring Redcastle's place in recorded Scottish History.

Colin MacLeod
February 2007

I am indebted to the following for their invaluable help and assistance:
James Baillie (Owner, Redcastle), of Aigas, for his support and permission.
Ian Blois, for allowing me to metal detect and search the fields around Redcastle.
The "Treasure Trove Unit" (
John MacDonald, for his photographic assistance.
And to Roy MacLeod for his huge contribution on helping to put together this book.
I acknowledge permission to reproduce Crown Copyright images. Treasure Trove Secretariat -

This publication has been supported by financial assistance from The Strathmartine Trust.

Colin MacLeod
February 2007

 About the author ....

Over a number of years Colin Macleod has penned numerous illustrated features on historical subjects that have been published in Treasure Hunting, The Searcher and in Scottish Memories. He has been featured on BBC Radio Solent, describing the finds unearthed and research undertaken in relation to the tiny ancient hamlet of Bickton. BBC Radio Devon and Dorset invited him to talk in-depth about the customs and origins of Hogmanay.

Now a published poet, he appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Please in 1989, during which he recited McAllister danced before the King which was to become one of the most popular poems ever featured on the programme over a period of ten years, something included in the BBC publication Poetry Please, published in 1991.

Following this he compiled a book of humorous Scottish Poetry, reviving many poems either out of print or simply forgotten. The resultant book, Hoots Mon! was reviewed in The Scots Magazine, copies subsequently being distributed to seven different countries before it sold out - much to the author's surprise!

In past years the author has been lucky enough to have been able to assist a team of archaeologists on a Highland excavation site, through metal detecting, and managed to locate and to unearth a number of significant artefacts for the project.

Killearnan Archaeology

Carn Glas

In October 2015 a group of more than 50 people attended a ceremony at Carn Glas, a Neolithic chambered burial cairn at the Heights of Kilcoy. The cairn is regarded as one of the finest monuments in the area, dating back to c. 3600 BC.  

The first excavation was in 1906 by Lord Abercromby and discoveries then were a flint arrowhead and pottery.  In 1955-56, amateur archaeologist Dr Tony Woodham excavated the site and found a fine leaf-shaped quern, used for grinding grain and now in the possession of the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh.

The 60th anniversary of the second excavation was marked by the cutting of a tape at the cairn by Dr Woodham's son Colin as part of the 2015 Highland Archaeological Festival.

After 1956, Carn Glas became neglected and eventually became so covered in gorse and vegetation that the chamber could not be reached.

Funding from Archaeology Scotland allowed members of Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands, the North of Scotland Archaeological Society and North Kessock and District Local History Society to embark on a programme of clearing the site.

Press release regarding the Carn Glas site:

"Excavator’s son cuts tape after 60 year interval

"The restoration of Carn Glas, a Neolithic chambered burial cairn at the Heights of Kilcoy and one of the oldest known structures on the Black Isle, was recently celebrated as part of the 2015 Highland Archaeological Festival.  Over 50 people ventured to the site, high on the Millbuie ridge, to attend a ceremony marking the completion of a community project between three local heritage organisations – Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH), the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NoSAS) and the North Kessock & District Local History Society (NKandDLHS).

"The cairn has long been regarded as one of the finest archaeological monuments in the Moray Firth area.  It was first excavated by Lord Abercromby in 1906 who discovered a flint barbed and tanged arrowhead and sherds of beaker pottery, and was last excavated in 1955-56 by amateur archaeologist Dr Anthony Woodham who found a fine leaf-shaped arrowhead and a superb saddle quern, now in the possession of the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh.

"After 1956 Carn Glas was neglected and by the new millennium it had become so extensively covered in gorse and accreted vegetation that the chamber was almost impossible to reach.  Two years ago, the invading overgrowth prompted members of ARCH, NoSAS and NKandDLHS to take action to halt further deterioration and dilapidation of the structure.  Funds were obtained from Archaeology Scotland’s Adopt-a-Monument scheme for the joint community project that has now re-instated the burial chamber as an outstanding Neolithic monument and as a visitor attraction. 

"The new information board erected on the site features text written by Dr Alison Sheridon, Senior Neolithic Curator at the NMS, and a commissioned sketch by Eric Allan, President of Inverness Art Society, of how the cairn might have looked after it was built about 3600 BC.  The ceremony of cutting the tape was carried out by Colin Woodham of Muir of Ord, son of the 1950’s excavator, who returned to the cairn 60 years after he last saw it in the company of his father."

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Killearnan Archaeology

Unearthing Redcastle's Hidden History 

Redcastle is situated near the shore of the Beauly Firth some five miles north of Beauly

The two postcards reproduced above are by kind permission of Mr Brian Maclennan, Dingwall.


That excellent journalist, Bill Howatson, who penned so many fine articles in his time for the Aberdeen Press and Journal, wrote a memorable feature regarding the work involved in tracing and uncovering the local history of a chosen location. He stated in his feature something that was to constantly remain uppermost in my mind to this day:

"What is true of nearly every parish in Scotland when you dig down, is that there is much to be found."

I realised that he really meant examining in detail archive information, old reference books and accounts, but my searching was always destined to go much further than this.

Countless hours of metal detecting and field walking, carried out with determination and dedication, was, ultimately, to result in significant finds being unearthed - many being claimed under Scottish Treasure trove laws and ending up on display in museums.

It has of course to be recognised always that all archaeological finds in Scotland must be reported to the Crown to allow a decision to take place on whether they should be claimed or not. Also, the legal ownership of found items cannot be obtained unless they have been disclaimed by the Crown.

All of the finds, many illustrated in this book, plus research, have helped to provide some revealing and fascinating clues to the past life and times of Redcastle.

Redcastle is crumbling and will, inevitably, in the not too distant future be reduced to a pile of boulders. However, the author hopes that the reader will also be convinced that it deserves to be remembered and take its place in Scottish history, and that this book will help to ensure that this, ultimately, will happen.

Researching Redcastle's Historical Roots ....

However much time the field searcher might like to spend of his or her available time in the open air, searching for clues of the past, it is of paramount importance that a proper amount of time is taken to trace the history of the building and area you have selected, from whatever source you can.

It is pretty certain that after a few visits to your field walking or metal detecting area you will inevitably become immersed in its historical significance and potential.

This is enhanced ever further by how much history you actually uncover, and in time you really will FEEL the past life of the area around you like a cloak. Knowing its history will help to keep the searcher focussed and determined to unearth that significant artefact that will slot into its history like a finger in a glove.

There are times when conducting your researches when you are genuinely surprised to discover that historical figureheads of the past actually played a part, however small, in its history.

So it is with Redcastle ....

In my opinion we should really attribute the reasons for the building of what we now call Redcastle to a combination of 12th century unrest and rebellion in the highlands, and to King William the Lion who ordered it to be built!

After continued uprisings from 1174 onwards, led by the unruly Donald Bane MacWilliam, who claimed the Crown as both son of Duncan II and grandson of Malcolm III and Queen Ingiborg, and who secured for himself the Royal Castle of Dingwall, King William's patience finally ran out. Subsequently he led an army into Ross-shire in 1179, duly subdued the rebellions and made the decision to have two new castles built in this northern region, namely at Dunskaith (Nigg) and Redcastle.

Eddirdovar as it was then called was, of course, originally a fortalice and was built essentially for military purposes. It acted as a stronghold to help control the warlike clans and to also guard against invasion from the sea.

In the passing of time one of the reasons why King William again came north was the notorious Donald MacWilliam who was pursued, captured near Inverness and subsequently killed in 1187.

By 1230, the castle, now referred to as Edradour, was in keeping of Sir John de Bisset until it seems he blotted his copybook and was duly relieved of it by the Crown. The years progressed and by 1278 the new incumbents were Sir Andrew de Bosco and his wife Elizabeth Bisset. Edradour now became part of the Earldom of Ormond and was now also part of the Douglas dynasty, the Earl taking the title of Lord Edradour.

Around 1427, the Earl joined King James VI who then marched north to deal with the rebellious Alexander of the Isles who had sacked Inverness and burnt its castle down. Following a battle at Lochaber, Alexander surrendered and in turn was humiliated and imprisoned in Tantellon Castle.

In these turbulent times and following the ultimate defeat of the Douglas family, the ownership of Redcastle reverted to the Crown by 1455.

Warring times, sadly, continued, but it is recorded that in 1492 Redcastle was in the hands of Kenneth MacKenzie of Kintail (after it was relinquished by James Stewart, Royal Duke of Ross who became a Bishop!).

It would be nice to believe that a period of stability now took place, but records indicate that this was not the case. Meanwhile it is recorded that Redcastle actually had a visit from no less than Mary Queen of Scots in 1552.

By 1570 it is now recorded that the MacKenzies were firmly in control of Redcastle, this continuing to 1790. The MacKenzies were to become a powerful branch of the Seaforths and supporters of the Royal House of Stuart.

It is said that during the Civil War against Charles I, Redcastle was in fact the last place in Scotland to hold out against the troops of Cromwell, and that it is stated on an old manuscript that the ill-fated Earl of Montrose was encamped nearby when he heard the news of the execution of Charles I in January 1649.

He was, of course, later betrayed, captured and taken to Edinburgh where he was duly executed.

In Margaret Ogg's fine book Killearnan, the Story of the Parish she writes that in 1745 none other than Charles Stuart, 'Bonnie Prince Charles' himself stayed at the castle. It was a relief to read that he did so "without danger to himself or anyone else!"

It was reported back in the 17th century that Redcastle had sometime been burnt down but that nevertheless it continued to be inhabited into the 18th century when it was rebuilt, extended, updated and upgraded.

This continued apace until by the early 19th century the castle itself had improved so much that it was referred to in the Statistical Accounts as "a place for genteel living".

The fortunes of families do not last forever, and Redcastle was sold to the Grants of Shewglie, but its owner, having fallen out with his eldest son, left it in turn to Fettes College.

It is recorded that in 1838 Redcastle was sold to Colonel H D Baillie for £120,000. Sadly his three sons were to predecease him and the castle and estates passed on to the present owners, the Burtons of the Dochfour branch of the family.

During the Second World War years it was requisitioned by the army and it is said that its decline accelerated, the castle being finally vacated and later part stripped in the early 1950s.

Redcastle .... the building and its location

I feel it would be quite remiss of me not to include some excerpts from a most excellent description of Redcastle's construction and location, Mike Salter's book Castles of Western and Northern Scotland.

In my opinion when you find yourself looking at a castle that is rapidly becoming a ruin, along with your natural feelings of sadness at the situation, there is a certain curiosity. One wonders what it was like in its heyday, and about its original state and evolution. This is particularly the case when a castle such as Redcastle is made inaccessible and 'caged off' for safety and security reasons. To have the benefit of Mike Salter's detailed and investigative description of the castle is a bonus indeed.

He describes the castle site as being triangular with the sides sloping on one side down to a fast flowing stream. Also at the base of the slope is an extremely boggy area. The opposite slope contains a variety of trees and rises up eventually near the actual main entrance to the castle.

This contrasts with the ground on the eastern side, which is level, before sloping down to the once beautiful tree-lined garden area and onward to the road and nearby Beauly firth.

On this same eastern side of the castle the masonry is some 2.2 metres thick (!) as it is in the north and eastern walls, continuing as far as the cellar vaults.

Mike Salter also suggests that here may be the remains of a 13th century courtyard about 23 metres wide.

The western walls are 1.9 metres thick above a plinth which he suggests was probably part of a tower house, some 8.6 metres wide and 13.4 metres in length.

At the south-east corner is a polygonal stair turret with a square cap house, whilst yet another turret can be identified on the north-east corner. The stair in the castle would have provided direct access to a private room above the courtyard. The tower itself was actually altered to provide a pair of rooms on each of four storeys which include round bartizans on the southern corner. There is also a square barbizan on the north-west corner whilst the main body of the building now has a square tower rising high above the rest of the castle itself and which provides a fine lookout platform, perfect for monitoring movement on the nearby firth.

Another fine book which includes references to the building changes that took place at Redcastle is Margaret Ogg's Killearnan, The Story of the Parish. In it we read that "Roderick MacKenzie, younger son of the 10th Earl of Seaforth, ordered the rebuilding and exstension of the old keep in the 17th century (1642)". Red (as in Redcastle!) or Devonian sandstone was quarried locally to build the new fortified castle, which unsurprisingly was then known as Redcastle.

Although it was recorded that during the 17th century Redcastle was burnt down, it is also true that it continued to be inhabited, so probably (and more accurately) only a section was actually burned.

It seems clear that through the centuries additions and changes to the building continually took place.

Certainly in 1840 a William Burn further updated the living quarters making it a more comfortable place to live in.

There is one thing beyond doubt and that is, that before the castle was finally vacated in the 1950s it had, despite all the numerous changes and additions through the centuries, acquired both a stylish and stately appearance.

It is claimed with some pride that until it was vacated Redcastle had the distinction of being the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland.

Seeking our more Invaluable Information ....

Armed now with a knowledgeof the building evolution of Redcastle, the next quest is to gain as much knowledge and information about the busiest periods in the castle's history, so that when we are searching the fields trying to unearth significant clues of the past we have some idea of what we might find.

One of the best ways to find out how many people were about, what they did for a living, how they lived and what major or minor environmental changes took place at this important time is to examine the Statistical Accounts of the time. These accounts certainly hold a good many facts that do help to create a clearer picture in the mind of how things were in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

It occurred to me that perhaps the best way to appreciate the contents of the statistical accounts more fully was to extricate the facts and try to effectively re-write the accounts in a more up to date way and also, arguably, make them more interesting and readable!

Well, that was the plan ....

The Statistical Accounts Examined

The Statistical Accounts of the parish of Killearnan were written by the Reverend John Kennedy. This was in keeping with the practice of all statistical accounts being written by ministers of their respective parishes at the time.

Our statistical accounts were concluded around 1831 but they include references that can be attributed to the mid 18th century when life at Redcastle was arguably at its busiest, most productive and most prosperous. It enables us to have a reasonably clear picture of many aspects of life at Redcastle at this time - exactly what we want and need!

Touching on the topography of the area we read that the clay on the shore was used as building mortar, and it appears, too, that there was quite a variety in the composition of the soil. Some soil is described as 'light loam' whilst some might also include quantities of gravel or even red or blue clay.

Many fields, we learn, were thickly covered in small stones (still are in places!), and that even when removed prior to the field being sown, the same stone removal process had to be repeated the next time the land was to be put under the plough. What a thankless task this must have been for those who had to do it - year after year! There must have been a few aching limbs and sore backs at the end of some days! However, it also seems that any fields 'untended' say for three years were by that time covered by broom. Seems you couldn't win if you chose to let the back-breaking practice stop!

To all intents and purposes the soil rested on red stone which had been continuously quarried, Inverness principally being supplied with quantities of it for its buildings. The stone was also used in the building of the Caledonian Canal's locks. It is reported that the stone had been quarried in the same locations for literally hundreds of years. In later years, of course, the pier (figs 1 and 2) was used constantly to ship the red stone to Inverness by boat.

From additional small quarries the red stone extracted was used in the building of local farmhouses and houses.

In and around Redcastle, it stated in the accounts (and somewhat surprisingly), the prevailing rain and winds came in from the east coast as opposed from the west.

Whatever the truth is about the weather there were by all accounts some hardy souls about with one man reaching the magnificent age of 106 and who, according to the Rev. Kennedy, attended Church until his 103rd year! It is also recorded that there were several in the parish in their eighties - a good age indeed for this period in history.

Generally speaking it seems that apart from diseases such as measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, typhus and asthma, the local inhabitants were "generally healthy". Could their simple diet be one reason for this? It is reported that "mussels and whelks were plentiful" along this part of the Beauly Firth, and whilst they were used by the fishers along the coast at Avoch for bait, for the local folk at Redcastle it was "part of their diet"!

Regarding farming we're told that there were different species of cattle reared. Horses, cows and hogs were raised though the same could not be said for sheep!

Around 1831 we are informed that there were 1565 acres or arable land and 577 acres of pastureland. Incidentally it is an interesting (and not well-known fact) that any artefact dropped on pastureland that is allowed to stay so, will actually drop through the soil one inch per hundred years. This is something I have checked - finding a 14th century groat buried some six inches down. I was able to check the depth through markings on my trowel and also found that, depending on the soil composition, artefacts unearthed in pastureland are often in good condition. In arable land that has been sown, ploughed and harvested for centuries these finds are normally numerous, but because of the constant ploughing etc. their condition quite often is understandably not good. Nevertheless, in truth, the greater the volume of finds unearthed, the more clues of the past will be revealed.

We are told within the report that trees covered 1652 acres. The Rev. Kennedy tells us that the population in Redcastle was 1479. This included "strangers expelled from various parts of the Highlands" who were also accommodated in the Kilcoy region. They were allowed to keep "a horse, a cow with a follower and a few sheep".

It is of interest to read about the employment situation for males in Killearnan and Redcastle and what the female population did and were expected to do.

The breakdown was as follows:

Farmers 15; Cottars 119; Labourers 64; Employed in agriculture 155; In trade and manufacture 60; Auctioneer (or appraiser) 1; Blacksmith 6; Masons 5; Carpenters 7; Wheelwright (above eighty years of age, still found working at his turning-loom) 1; Sawers 6; Millers 2; Innkeepers 6 (retailers of beer and whisky); Shoe and Brogue makers 16; Shopkeepers 2; Tailors 8; Weavers 170.

On the female scene we are informed:

"There were 52 female servants in constant service. The other female members of the parish are employed to work from time to time in the fields; otherwise they would be expected to be employed in the home industries of flax or wool spinning or to simply stay at home - carrying out domestic duties."

So there you have it! When we look at the Redcastle and Killearnan area of today it is contrastingly (and unrecognisably) different. This is why the unearthing of artefacts of all kinds is to me so important, since they will always be the tangible reminders of an age well and truly gone but saved for people in years to come to both look at and enjoy seeing.

Continued in Page 2
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