Ten miles from the centre of Aberdeen is one of the most beautiful castles of Royal Deeside. It is a living building, the story of which is packed with historical incident and personal drama. As a castle, it is special because it combines a medieval keep, a Jacobean mansion house and a Victorian extension in a uniquely pure form. It is a living building, the story of which is packed with historical incident and personal drama. In the grounds are a 16thcenturychapel and a formal 18thcenturygarden. The Old Wood of Drum, part of the royal forest whose upkeep Robert the Bruce entrusted to William de Irwin, produced timber that was thought to have been used in the roof of St. Macher’s Cathedral in Aberdeen in 1435 and to build a large ship there in 1606. For nearly all of its seven centuries the castle has been occupied by one family, theIrvines; it has the qualities of a family home, lived in through times good and bad by twenty-four generations.
Its occupants may often have been warlike, but with one notable exception it was rarely cruel; it was talented, vigorous, never quite at the top, but in nearly every generation contributed solid service to Crown, country and community.For nearly all of its seven centuries it was the home of one family, the Irvines; it has the qualities of a family home, lived in through times good and bad by twenty-four generations. This family may often have been warlike, but with one notable exception it was rarely cruel; it was talented, vigorous, never quite at the top, but in nearly every generation contributed solid service to Crown, country and community.
Today the Castle and its grounds are maintained by The National Trust for Scotland. One of Royal Deeside’s top tourist attractions, the Castle, Chapel and Historic Garden are open to the public throughout the summer and most weekends during the winter. The Irvine Room in the Castle contains an exhibition co-sponsored by the Association.
In February 1323 King Robert the Bruce granted William de Irwin a feudal charter of much of the royal forest of Drum, which lies 10 miles west of Aberdeen. With this came the office of forester. The king confirmed this charter six months later, adding the Barony of Drum, giving William power ‘of pit and gallows’ – to drown or hang local wrongdoers.
It is generally accepted that William de Irwin received other grants of land and was Clerk of the Rolls and later Deputy Chamberlain in the courts of King Robert and his son King David. However there is less consensus on William’s origin. A long-standing tradition, recorded by Dr. Christopher Irvin about 1680, claims he was a son of William of Bonshaw who accompanied the Bruce throughout his times of adversity and became his secretary and, some say, his armour bearer. But in the 1990s it was suggested that William may have come from Kilwinning in Ayrshire as a young protégé of the Bruce’s Chancellor Bernard of Arbroath, a witness to the 1323 charters. DNA evidence has since cast further doubt on the Bonshaw link with Drum.
William is thought to have died in 1332 or soon after. His son Alexander obtained the lands of Forglen in Banffshire after the forfeiture of Henry de Monimusk, lands which were long associated with the custody and office the Brecbennach, a prestigious hereditary role that remained with the lairds of Drum till the 17th century.
Click for a Pedigree Chart of
Alexander died before 1381 and it was probably during his lifetime that a feud arose with near neighbours the Keiths, hereditary Marshals of Scotland. Legend has it that the Irvines burned down Halforest Castle, stronghold of the Keiths, in revenge for their burning to death in the fields one of the Irvine children. There was also a pitched battle at Keiths’ Muir, near the Dee, in which many of the Keiths were drowned at a place called Keiths’ Pot. One was cut down while clinging to a stone which occasionally still appears above the water and is known as Keiths’ Stone.
The 3rd laird, Alexander, was on record in 1382, 1387, 1389 (when he received the lands of the Park of Drum) and 1404. He died in 1410, leaving two sons. The elder, also Alexander, supported the Earl of Mar, the Stewart General, and followed him to the French wars, where he was a commander in the successful but bloody capture of Liege in 1408. On the eve of the battle, Alexander was knighted and later given additional lands by Mar. On succeeding to Drum, he became the 4th laird, but to preserve the long-established numbering given by previous historians, who had believed Sir Alexander to be the 3rd laird, it is necessary to designate him IVA and his younger brother Robert, who succeeded him, IVB.
Three years later, ‘the gude Sir Alexander’ was to serve his master for the last time. Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, appeared on the mainland with a large army to challenge the royal authority. After razing Inverness, he headed towards Aberdeen to do the same. Mar was deputed to defend the city with a small local force - prominent amongst his officers was Sir Alexander Irvine. It is said that midway between Drum and Harlaw, Irvine stopped at a place now called Drumstone and, foreseeing death in combat, made his final will.
So, in 1411, the two Irvines came to the Battle of Harlaw, a mere twenty miles north of Drum, one of Scotland’s bloodiest ever acts of civil war and a desperate battle between the rising power of the Western Islands and the stolid, more settled world of the East Coast. One of the Islanders’ senior chiefs was Maclean of Duart, Red Hector of the Battles, and at some point in the battle he met Sir Alexander Irvine. The two great warriors locked in single combat; neither would yield and in the end both died still fighting each other.
Robert Irvine survived the battle, changed his name to Alexander and, as 4th laird of Drum, married Elizabeth Keith, thus ending the feud of their forefathers. He is also believed to have exchanged swords with the son of Red Hector in token of peace between their families. This Alexander was also an important figure in the London negotiations to ransom the young King James I of Scotland, who had been held captive there by the English for eighteen years. He was knighted by the grateful king after his eventual release and attended him at the Inverness parliament.
The fact that he was arrested there and briefly held by the king, along with many other barons, need not be regarded as too sinister; it was part of a general trawl for traitors. When the somewhat intolerant king was eventually murdered in Perth it was Alexander who was chosen to be governor of Aberdeen during the period of crisis. In his later years he built St. Ninian’s Chantry in St. Nicholas’ Church, Aberdeen, and in 1457 was buried there with his wife in Drum’s Aisle. Part of his carved tomb was subsequently moved to the Chapel at Drum, but the couple’s stone effigies and their memorial brass, a most unusual feature in Scotland at this date, can still be seen at St. Nicholas’ Church.