Aberdour Castle: picturesque and soaked in history

Dating from 1200 and one of the two oldest castles in Scotland (the other is Castle Sween in Argyll), Aberdour Castle has had a predictably eventful life, much of it while in the hands of the Douglas Earls of Morton. The current Earl, the 22nd, is John Stewart Sholto Douglas, father of Olympic rower Katherine Douglas. The heir apparent is his son, Lord Aberdour.

The earliest building on the site, which is adjacent to the Fife town’s picturesque railway station, was a hall house, a relatively modest dwelling. By the 1400s a fortified tower house had been built and this was extended over the following century. Much of the work was undertaken by the 4th Earl who, when he wasn’t busy with builders’ quotes and blueprints, enjoyed plotting and playing politics. Forced to flee to England after falling foul of Mary, Queen of Scots (he was involved in the murder of her favourite, David Rizzio) he only returned after being pardoned in 1567. He did become Regent of Scotland in 1572 during the early reign of Mary’s son, the infant King James VI, but was later implicated in the murder of Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley. In 1581 he was executed on James’s orders – guillotined on a contraption called ‘the Maiden’, currently held in the National Museum of Scotland. His head was placed on a spike on the north gable of the Old Tolbooth in Edinburgh.

In 1635 the 7th Earl, inspired by Hampton Court, built the more luxurious east wing in a Renaissance style. It’s the only part of the castle which still has a roof. Here the modern visitor will find a painted ceiling from the period decorated with images of fruits and foliage, and heraldic symbols. There’s also a gallery which would have been used for entertaining.

Two of the castle’s most notable exterior features are its terraced lawns and a beehive-shaped doocot which contained 600 separate nesting boxes and ingenious rat courses to prevent rodents climbing the walls. The terraces, four of them in an angled L shape, were created by the 4th Earl. Originally used as gardens they were planted with grass after the retaining walls were re-built following extensive archaeological excavations in the late 1970s, but in their heyday in the late 17th century they sported jasmine and figs supplied by Edinburgh’s Physic Garden. During the Second World War, pigs was kept there and the terraces were given over to a market garden.

The castle was badly damaged by fire twice, the second time during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 when government troops were stationed there. Today the site is run by Historic Environment Scotland and both castle and gardens are currently open to visitors.

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