You know I love a good ruin, and Findlater Castle (pronounced FIN-dla-ter) on the northern edge of Aberdeenshire/Banffshire is a special one for me. Findlater isn’t far away from where a dear friend lives and I enjoy walking there from his house. The first time, I nearly missed it. If I didn’t know it was there I think I could have easily walked right by. As I approached, knowing I was getting near, I was a bit confused to not be seeing ruins rising out of the flat landscape around me. This section of coastal path is flat and meandering, looking down on a maze of coves and inlets, past a Doocot/Dovecot (pictured in the rapeseed field).
Suddenly, there it was and its strange appearance stopped me in my tracks. Visually, it takes the mind a moment to understand what its seeing in the ruins. It helps to know that you’re looking at the remains of the vaulted basement. Scroll through the photos for some renditions of what the castle may have looked like, to help your mind fill in this strange and disorienting visual.
It takes a bit of sure footedness to get down to - especially if its been wet at all. You’ll be faced with a muddy steep path down, and quite possibly end up on your bum once or twice. But if you’re not up for the trip down there is a great view from the main trail and a bench with an informative sign about the castle.
Now, a word of strong caution: while there is a path down to the castle, and entry is not blocked, this should only be approached with extreme caution. The sign on the path says, “The castle promontory is dangerous, please do not take any unnecessary risks.” Translation: proceed at your own risk. This is not a place for little kids running around, or for hanging out of the windows etc. It is only a matter of time before this ruin crumbles into the sea, and if you are behaving carelessly you face great risk to your life. Anyway, back to the fun stuff:
I came across 3 different translations of Findlater:
1. Gaelic: “fionn leitir” meaning white cliff or steep slope. 3. Norse: “fin lietr“ meaning white cliff. 3. French: “fin-la-terre” meaning the land’s end.
Which one is correct in relation to this castle? I can’t be sure, but I did see a compelling argument against the French translation in an 1873 book (“Ruined Castles Monuments of Former Men in Vicinity of Banff” By James Spence) saying that the timeline didn’t add up to be of French origin. It seems it was named Findlater before the Sinclair’s (French) came onto the scene. Additionally he noted that there was a contemporary Findlater place name elsewhere in Aberdeenshire that would have had no French context whatsoever. As for the Gaelic or Norse, both sound similar and both make sense, so I’m not going to assert either one. The Aberdeenshire Council sign at the Castle doesn’t commit to one or the other.
In a time when every day was controlled by the fear of who might attack you, or try to take your stuff, you would view the landscape from a defensive perspective. Its easy to see why this location suits that mindset! I’ve read that the Vikings were the first people known to have used this promontory as a defensive post. It has its own little protected cove, theres a cave, and of course that great bit of land on which to put a castle.
In 1578 Leslie, Bishop of Ross described Findlater as “a castle so fortified by the nature of its situation as to seem impregnable.” While the ruins you see today likely date to the 15th Century, the first reference to a fortification was in the 1200s. A castle at Findlater is first mentioned in the Exchequor Rolls in 1246, and then likely repaired by King Alexander in preparation for Viking attacks under King Haakon of Norway in 1263. Those darn pesky Vikings still managed to take control of Findlater and occupied it for awhile. This was after the Battle of Largs, which was not a clear cut victory for either side but most agree it marked beginning of the end of Viking power in Scotland.
It seem widely accepted that the Sinclairs were the first family at Findlater, until eventually a marriage brought the Ogilvys into the picture. In 1455 Walter Ogilvy was granted permission from King James II to “fortify his castle at Findlater.” About a century later, drama descends upon Findlater.
Much like my story about Duchal Castle, Findlater has its own tale of naughty nobles falling out with royalty. But this time the royalty was Mary Queen of Scots. Lets break down the cast of this bit of noble drama:
* Mary Queen of Scots * James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, Mary’s half brother and captain of her army * George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly * John Gordon, George’s son * Alexander Ogilvy, * James Ogilvy, Alexander’s son, Mary’s Head of Household * Supporting actors: Various clans deciding their loyalties in real time as events played out
The drama started in 1545 when Alexander Ogilvy disinherited his son James Ogilvy, who was Master of Household for Mary QoS in France. I’m not sure there is much on record that explains why father and son fell out, but Alexander being married to a Gordon may offer a clue. Whatever the reason, Alexander’s favour went to Sir John Gordon instead. John was son of the Earl of Huntly, and a suitor for the Queen’s hand. The suitor status was probably by default of his family position, as opposed to a passionate tale of romance but regardless, what played out was not very suitor-like behavior. The disinheritance gave rise to a feud, and feuds always make for interesting stories. Gordon beat up Ogilvy in Edinburgh, and was tossed in jail for it. But, you guessed it, he broke out of jail, and ended up back at Findlater, married to his benefactor’s widow and cozy in his new post as Earl of Findlater. It is said that Queen Mary was not allowed to enter. This, understandably, didn’t go over well and she demanded the keys be handed over. They were not. This also didn’t go over well, so Mary sent the new Earl of Moray to Findlater to seize it from John Gordon, but her efforts were thwarted when Gordon surprised them in the night at Cullen and inflicted casualties.
The Gordon’s, seated at Huntly Castle were a very powerful family in this volatile time in Scottish history. Queen Mary ventured to the north east to face the strengthening Gordons, accompanied by James Ogilvy, disinherited heir to Findlater. In 1562 the clan launched the Gordon Rebellion. My understanding is that this was fuelled by the fact that The Earl of Huntly lost his earldom of Moray, to Mary’s half brother James. This didn’t do anything to improve relations.
The rebellion didn’t last long, culminating at the Battle of Corrichie in October 1562. Mary was on the move with her army, and the Gordons lay in wait. Mary was tipped off, however, and met the Gordon Clan with members of the Forbes and Leslie Clans. The rebellion was short lived and ultimately cost 2 generations of Gordons their lives. George Gordon, the Earl of Huntly seems to have made it through the battle but at the end after being captured he “died of apoplexy.” What this means exactly is probably up for a lot of interpretation, but we know he lost his life at Corrichie. His son John Gordon met his fate just three days later by decapitation in Aberdeen - in front of the Queen. So much for being a suitor….
Re-enter James Ogilvy, who was restored to favor by the Queen and reclaimed his rightful inheritance to the lands of Findlater. The castle was abandoned a few decades later, as the family took up residence at Cullen House and let the castle go to ruin. Why did they leave Findlater?
< Sensitive Content Warning: Loss of a child >
Some say the relocation was simply a matter of wanting to live in a more upscale and less isolated, exposed place. But another story has been whispered through the centuries that the infant son of the Ogilvys was playing on the castle wall with the family nurse and he fell, lost forever to the waves. It is also said that the nurse went in after him and perished as well. After this, the story goes that the Ogilvys left the castle and its memories behind. There are a couple of heart wrenching poems that relate to this event, which literally brought me to tears.
Did this actually happen? I can’t say for sure. I found a reference from 1844 that says “I am not aware that there are any authenticated accounts of the legend of the nurse and the child, but almost every one in the neighbourhood is acquainted with the tradition; and that such an event should have happened is not at all improbable. Those more acquainted with the locality of the castle, still point out particular spots in some way or other connected with the sad tale, such as the Nurse’s Craig, etc.”
Whatever the reason for moving to Cullen, so ended the inhabitation of Findlater Castle. Whether it happened or not, the concept of mortality, the passage of time, etc always strikes me at a ruin. Whether croft or castle, nothing is impervious to the passing of time. I will sometimes sit quietly for a while and let those feelings wash over me - we spend a lot of our lives running away from these feelings, from sitting with the awareness of our transience. I have found that allowing myself to feel these things in certain settings helps to compartmentalise them as opposed to festering in a deep dark corner of my heart. Letting things see the light from time to time is healthy for the soul and mind. But thats not to say I find ruins depressing - quite the opposite. I find these experiences to be cleansing, and of course maddeningly intriguing as I try to imagine all the footsteps that came before mine. Twisting my neck to look up to towering sections of rubble, or leaning as far as I dare to peer down into a hole or passageway. A ruined or abandoned place, no matter what secrets it holds, is a vivid playground for the imagination, and its good to let it run wild sometimes!
Some believe Findlater is haunted by the spirits of the child and nurse. But those aren’t the only storied spirits at the ruin. They just might be in the company of an ill fated roof layer, too skilled for his own good. A retelling of this tale in 1873 describes how a roof layer working at the castle was the first to create a slate roof. After finishing his work, he was pushed off the battlements of the castle so the secrets of the invention of slate roof laying would stay with Findlater. The poor man swam to a rock after falling into the ocean, and was shot at until killed. In 1873 it was said that there still existed a rock called The Slater’s Rock. While this sounds like a product of late night campfire story telling, you never know - keep your wits about you if a roof builder approaches you on the Moray Coast Trail!
You can view my video of the ruins on my YouTube channel here (and subscribe while you’re there if you’re so inclined!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPjmI9JfxbQ
As always, I do my best to gather a variety of written and oral accounts and weave these together as accurately as I can. I particularly enjoyed this process with Findlater, and look forward to returning again. Thanks for reading, and here are a few photos from various visits!