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Down Memory Lane: Ruins underline how idyllic Highland spot was not always peaceful

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Bill McAllister recounts the history of Redcastle on the Black Isle.

The charming shoreside hamlet of Redcastle, overlooking the Beauly Firth, lies six-and-a-half miles from Inverness. A wander inland, over the burn, through the trees and up a wee brae brings you to the sudden sight of the spectacular ruined castle from which it takes its name.

Redcastle is a bracing walk from North Kessock, with Invernessians much given to strolling, cycling, running or birdwatching there. It even has a Victorian postbox set in a wall and still in use. The ruins, however, underline that this place was not always peaceful.

The present battlements of the Black Isle fortress are 380 years old this year – but there was a castle of sorts there more than 400 years before.

The local red sandstone hewn there was of high quality and in the 12th century was taken by boat to build Beauly Priory. Cromwell’s Citadel at Inverness Harbour in the 17th century also used Redcastle stone, as did Inverness Harbour a century later.

Then in the 19th century, massive amounts were quarried to provide the walls of the Caledonian Canal.

The village of Milton of Redcastle, beside the fortress, once boasted a mill, an inn, a shop and a smiddy. At low tide, the remains of an Iron Age crannog can be seen from the shore.

In 1179 King William I, who had annexed lands north of the Beauly Firth into his kingdom, led troops to build a series of forts. He wanted to safeguard the prosperous Royal estates in Moray from the rebellious MacWilliams and MacBeths from Orkney and Caithness, who were partial to a spot of pillaging.

One of these earth and timber forts was at ‘Ederdour’, at what is now Redcastle, and in 1212, Sir John Bisset of The Aird was awarded custody of this fort by a king grateful for his quelling these northern uprisings.

The barony of Ardmanach – the old name for the Black Isle – was held by the Bissets and passed to the Frasers before ownership was taken in the 14th century by the Earls of Ross – known as the ‘Black Douglases’ – whose base was Ormonde Castle, near Avoch.

‘Ederdour’ was by this time known as ‘Reidcastell’ and by the 1450s it belonged to Hugh Douglas, only for the monarch to seize castle and estate and retain them for the Crown, with Lord Darnley being given responsibility for overseeing them.

After the abdication of Mary Queen of Scots in 1567, land and castle were granted to Kenneth Mackenzie, 10th Baron of Kintail. It was a building by that time, with a tower and courtyard, but Mackenzie undertook significant enhancement, completed in 1641, with a stone embedded in the external north-east wall with the initials RM – Rory Mackenzie – and the year.

The castlewas looted and burned by Cromwell’s forces eight years later as revenge for Rory Mackenzie’s support for the Crown.

Redcastle, however, remained in Mackenzie hands, enabling a rebuilding to take place in 1655.

It is said that Prince Charles Edward Stuart visited Redcastle in 1745 to try to persuade the Mackenzies to rally to his banner, but they could not be coaxed.

In 1790 came the end of Mackenzie control when bankruptcy saw James Grant of Glen Urquhart take ownership and he soon made selling quarry stone a significant income earner.

Sir William Fettes was the next owner in 1825 but after his death 11 years later, the estate was sold to Colonel Hugh Baillie of neighbouring Tarradale estate, one of the Baillies of Dochfour.

In 1840 architect William Burn, noted for his country house projects,converted Redcastle to less of a defensive tower and more of a baronial mansion. Eight years earlier Burn had built the sheriff courthouse at Inverness Castle.

The Baillie family occupied Redcastle until the start of World War II, when RAF personnel used it to store munitions. Afterwards, it was in a poor state and suffered dry rot. The roof was removed to avoid paying taxes and this indignity led to further deterioration.

The old ‘reidcastell’ still looks imposing, its colour striking, and if major investment could be conjured up,you feel perhaps it might return to former glories, perhaps as an exclusive boutique hotel.The Baillies still hold ownership, but have been unable to attract the kind of wealthy American who could restore Redcastle.

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