by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)
NOSAS members carried out a measured survey of a site at Kinbeachie on the Black Isle using planetables at the beginning of March, the project also included photographing the site using an aerial drone fly-over. The site is known as “Kinbeachie Castle”; it includes not only the amorphous linear banks thought to be the castle but also a farmstead of 4 buildings and a horse-gang. The remains of the farmstead were obvious, but our initial investigations of Canmore and the HC Historic Environment Record indicated that there was also a typical 18th century “lairds house” there; see photo below, taken in 1959. So was there a castle or a house at the site?
The small estate of Kinbeachie, amounting to “a half davoch”, is located in the northwest part of the Black Isle overlooking the Cromarty Firth. Today it is productive arable land but in the 16th century there are references to “the King (James IV) hunting in the woodland along the Kinbeakie Burn”. The area of Kinbeachie has almost certainly been associated with the Urquhart family of Cromarty from this time and the family of Urquhart of Kinbeachie itself from the mid-17th century. Research into this family was to be part of the project.
Brief Description of the site
The site covers an area, 70m x 50m, of rough grassland in the corner of a field. It comprises 2 parts;
- The central part thought to be the site of the castle; the remains here are most substantial in the NW part where the footings of two walls up to 1m in height are at right angles to one another. To the SE there are two indistinct parallel banks which terminate in linear stone settings
- The farmstead comprises the footings of 4 (possibly 5) rectangular buildings, a horse gang and a semi-circular yard. The buildings have turf covered stone walls up to 0.5-0.7m height and measure between 10-14m x 4m internally. The horse gang platform is 11.5m diameter. The semi-circular yard is 50m NW-SE x 25m NE-SW and bounded on its curving SW side by a discontinuous sloping retaining wall which has stone facing in places and is generally 0.7m in height.
The evidence for a castle:
- The Robert Gordon map of 1636-52 (below) based on Timothy Ponts map of c1589 has a substantial building marked “Kynbeachy”
- the first mention of a castle in the documents is not until 1876 on the 1st Edition map. The OS Name Book has 3 local people verifying that the building was known as “Kinbeachie Castle”.
- a carved stone with the date of 1546 (right and below) above a fireplace in the gable end of the lairds house on the photograph of 1959. But was the carved stone moved to Kinbeachie from elsewhere?
Another stone – the magnificent Cromarty Stone (below), sometimes known as the Kinbeachie Stone, was moved here probably in 1818. It was carved for Sir Thomas Urquhart in 1651 and originally above a fireplace in Cromarty Castle but was re-used at Kinbeachie as a chimneypiece. The stone is seen here in a pre1890 photograph most probably “in the porch of a nearby farm cottage”. The stone was later transfered to the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh in 1923 (Level 1 Ref H.KG96).
The evidence for a lairds house:
- photographs taken by the RCAHMS in 1959 show the almost complete gable of a building. The 2 storey gable with “crow steps” is typical of a lairds house.
- a vignette on a 1769 estate plan (below, traced from a copy of the plan in Inverness Archives) of neighbouring Findon Estate with the annotation “Kinbeachies House”.
- research into the family of “Urquhart of Kinbeachie” on the https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/ website produced a will of Thomas Urquhart of Kinbeachie (died 1840) which included an inventory and valuation of contents of “the Dwelling House at Kinbeachie”; the house is described as having a parlour, 3 bedrooms and a kitchen with servant’s bed above, typical of a lairds house.
- A list of those paying window tax in the 18th century on the http://www.scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/ website included Thomas Urquhart of Kinbeachie paying for 8 windows from 1762 to 1778.
This evidence was all very convincing for a “lairds house” but where were the remains of the house?
Results and Conclusions
The main outcomes were the plan and processed aerial photograph below
There has been significant destruction and stone robbing at the site, but after studying what remains there, and the documentary, photographic and map evidence it was possible to arrive at a reasonably confident conclusion.
The buildings of the farmstead were not difficult to identify. They are roofed on the 1st Edition OS map and may have been built as part of the improvements that John Urquhart carried out before at the end of the 18th or early 19th century; the sasines of March 1818 in the transfer of land from John have “Thomas Urquhart (his heir), Broker, London seised – in Kinbeachie principal Dwelling House, Office houses, and Mill and Mill lands thereof……..” (it is probable that the “office houses” here are the farmstead)
By 1840 and the New Statistical Account The NSA of 1836 has: “(Kinbeachie) the property of Thomas Urquhart Esq, who has much improved the lands”
After a careful study of the surface remains at the site, the 1959 photographs and the 1st and 2nd edition OS maps we came to the conclusion that the “lairds house” was the building seen on the 1st and 2nd edition OS maps of 1876 and 1904 as a ruin to the east of the site. There are no traces of it today, the land has been ploughed over and the building has disappeared completely. The building was on a slightly higher piece of ground; the OS maps of 1876, 1904 and 1937-60 (1:25,000) have a ruined building, but there is nothing on the current OS map. The building footings were however still extant in 1966 when the Canmore entry has “the remains of Kinbeachie Castle (ie. the Lairds House) comprise the SE wall and the foundations of the NE, NW and SW walls. The SE wall 1.2m in width is extant to a maximum height of 1.7m and total length of 6.6m externally. It is rubble masonry but the E and S angles have been constructed of dressed stones. The inside wall is obscured in a mass of tumble”. No such remains are seen at the site today.
We are left, then, with the substantial remains in the central area of the site; this surely must be what remains of the old castle, much altered and re-used as one might expect. The two walls at right-angles to one another suggest the foundations of a small medieval tower house which is circa10.5m x 7-8m. Newmore Castle, near Alness, is similar in size at 10.9m x 7.3m and has a date stone of 1625 although it is said to have existed from 1580. Fairburn Tower too has an even smaller ground plan but is 5 storeys high; it is reported as having been built in the 1540s.
It is not unreasonable to think that the old castle would have been used as a byre for animals after it had been deserted; hence the additional remains to the south of the building.
So the answer to the original question “is it a castle or a lairds house?” is both! A report on the project with fuller historical background to the site and the Urquhart family of Kinbeachie has now been produced – read here.
David Alston, 1999 – Ross and Cromarty – A Historical Guide,
David Alston, 2006 – My Little Town of Cromarty.
Elizabeth Beaton, 1992 – Ross and Cromarty – An Architectural Guide,
W MacGill, 1909 – Old Ross-shire and Scotland as seen in the Tain and Balnagown Documents,
Charles Fraser MacIntosh, 1913 – Antiquarian Notes,
Mary Midgley – The Owl of Minerva – A Memoir
Ian Mowat 2003 – Easter Ross 1750-1850 – The Double Frontier,
Henrietta Taylor 1946 – History of the family of Urquhart