UK Travel Guide


Blair Castle

Description: Blair Castle has been the ancient home and fortress of the Earls and Dukes of Atholl for over 725 years. Situated in the wide Strath of Garry, it commands a strategic position on the main route through the Central Scottish Highlands. Like most very old houses, Blair Castle has been transformed a number of times by successive generations, and it is now quite difficult for visitors - especially from the inside - to tell when each part was built. In fact, there have been three main stages of development: medieval, Georgian and Victorian. Records begin in 1269 when the Earl of the day retured from the crusades to find that he had acquired a squatter. He wrote to the king complaining that a neighbour, John Cumming of Badenoch, had moved on to his land in his absence and started building a tower. Today, seven hundred years later, Cumming's Tower still stands and is the oldest and tallest part of the Castle. In 1530, the 3rd Earl extended the building south from Cumming's Tower with a Great Hall (now the Dining Room) built over a series of vaulted chambers. The next major change was begun in 1740 by the 2nd Duke and continued after the interruption of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, during which the Castle was occupied by Hanoverian troops and besieged by the Duke's brother, Lord George Murray, who put seven cannonballs through the roof. James Winter, architect, removed the turrets and castellations and remodelled the Castle as a Georgian mansion with pitched roofs, chimney stacks, and fine interiors by the stuccoist Thomas Clayton of Edinburgh. In the 1870's, influenced by Queen Victoria's love of Scotland and the dawning of the age of the Scottish baronial pile, the 7th Duke commissioned Edinburgh architect David Bryce to remodel the Castle. The towers and crenellations removed during the Georgian remodelling were put back, a new entrance hall and front gates were added, as well as a splendid Ballroom. The present family's connection with Blair Castle began in 1457 when King James II rewarded his half brother, Sir John Stewart of Balvenie, with the vacant Earldom of Atholl. The service rendered for this reward was to quell the troublesome Macdonalds of the Isles. For several generations, the family lived uneventfully. In the 16th century, the 3rd Earl built the Great Hall. His son, the 4th Earl, received Mary Queen of Scots there in 1564. When the 5th Earl died without sons in 1595, his grandson, John, eventually inherited the title in 1629. His mother, Dorothea, had married Sir William Murray of Tullibardine, Thus, John became the first Murray Earl of Atholl, and the title has remained in the Murray family ever since. Following King James VI of Scotland's accession to the English throne in 1603, it was hard even for Highlanders to ignore events in England. During the Civil War, both the 1st Earl and his son, the 2nd Earl, were staunch supporters of the monarchy and King Charles I. Together with its strategic location on the road north to Inverness, this made Blair Castle a prime target for Cromwell's forces. They captured the Castle in 1652 and held it until the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. For his loyalty to the crown, the 2nd Earl was created a marquis in 1676. The 2nd Marquis continued to support the monarch, by now in the person of Queen Anne, and was created 1st Duke of Atholl in 1703. The new Duke, however, was not prepared to lend his support to the Act of Union of 1707. Many of the members of the Scottish Parliament accepted English bribes to support the Union, so it was very much to his credit that he held firm and pressed for better terms for Scotland. His obstinacy resulted him being placed under house arrest at Blair Castle for several months in 1708. The Jacobite cause saw the Murray family divided. In the 1715 Rising, the 1st Duke and his second son, James, supported the government, while his eldest and youngest sons, William and George, followed the Stuart cause. When the Rising failed, William was stripped of his title and lands and exiled to France. In his absence, James became 2nd Duke on their father's death in 1724. George was pardoned in 1725.When Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed in Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on 24th July 1745, William Murray was one of the Seven Men of Moidart who landed with him. Shortly after raising his standard at Glenfinnan the Prince and his small but growing Jacobite army entered the lands of Atholl, compelling Duke James, still loyal to the Hanoverian cause, to flee. The Prince stayed at Blair Castle for a few days and enjoyed William's hospitality there. William's youngest brother, Lord George Murray, joined the Jacobite army at Perth, and was pivotal to the campaign from that moment. However, his relationship with Charles was soured by frequent rows. When the Jacobite army reached Derby, it was Lord George who led the support for the retreat to Scotland instead of marching on to London. It was that fateful decision, taken on false intelligences regarding the strenth of the government forces, which led the Jacobites north to Culloden Moor. On 15th March 1746, Lord George returned with the Atholl Brigade to the lands of Atholl. In a series of early morning raids he captured thirty military blockhouses without the loss of a single Highlander. He then laid siege to Blair Castle, which was occupied by Hanoverian troops, but had insufficient time to capture it before he had to rejoin the main Jacobite army near Culloden.The Battle of Culloden, on 16th April 1746, saw the end of the Jacobite dream. The Highland army was routed and massacred. In the aftermath, Charles lived as a fugitive for five months before he escaped to France. William was captured and died in the Tower of London in July. Lord George escaped and lived in exile in Holland until his death in 1760. The most famous of the Murrays of Atholl, he was never Duke himself, but his son, John, became 3rd Duke on the death of James in 1764. James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl inherited the sovereignty of the Isle of Man through his grandmother, Lady Amelia Stanley. The resulting income from rents and patronage was put to good use when he returned to Blair Castle after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and completed its conversion into a grand Georgian mansion. Having no sons, James was obliged to marry off his second daughter to her first cousin, John Murray, son of the exiled Lord George Murray. John duly became 3rd Duke in 1764. He almost immediately sold the Manx sovereignty to the government for 70,000.The 4th Duke sold the remaining properties and privileges in 1828 for the then astronomical sum of 417,000. In 1844, Queen Victoria stayed at Blair Castle for a three-week holiday. In appreciation of the vigilence of the Athollmen who attended her, she granted the 5th Duke and his men her colours and the right to bear arms. This was how the Atholl Highlanders came into being, and today they are the only remaining private army in Europe. During the First War, the Castle was used as a hospital. In the Second, it became home to a prep school and Glasgow evacuees. When the 9th Duke died childless in 1957, the title passed sideways to Iain Murray, a direct descendant of the 3rd Duke.
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Notes: The castle is open to the public from April 1 to 26 October daily 10.00 am to 6.00 pm. Last admission 5.00 pm. Winter opening by arrangement. Telephone 01796 481207 for more details.