Fyvie Castle drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. H. Le Keux. Source: Edinburgh (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by the Artist

FEW parts of Scotland are less known to the traveller than the gently sloping vale of the Ythan, in the centre of the Lowlands of Aberdeenshire. It is not near any great highway of communication, nor does it boast of the striking scenery which tourists hunt for. Its rich alluvial acres are well prized by sagacious farmers, but farther its fame does not spread. The river Ythan, little broader than a large brook, which curls round the pleasure-grounds of Fyvie Castle, is still and sedgy. Along with this feature, the grounds, so park-like and carefully laid out-the meadows and broad trees, and the swans sailing in wide lake-er ponds, remind one of English park-scenery. The goed preservation of the castle itself would harmonise with the association, but there is no such edifice in England. It is indeed one of the noblest and most beautiful specimens of that rich architecture which the Scottish barons of the days of King James VI. obtained from France. 115 three princer towers, with their luxuriant coronet of coned turrets, sharp gables, tall roofs and chimneys, canopied dormer windows, and rude statuary, present a sky outline at once graceful, rich, and massive, and in these qualities exceeding even the far-famed Glammis. The form of the central tower is peculiar and striking. It consists in appearance of two semiround towers, with a deep curtain between them, retired within a round-arched recess of peculiar height and depth. The minor departments of the building are profilser decorated with mouldings, crockets, canopies, and statuary. The interior is in the same fine keeping with the exterior. One may question the goodness of the taste which has inlaid both ends of the hall with looking-glasses, that, multiplying its reflection, give it the appearance of almost indefinite length. But the great stair represented in the accompanying engraving is an architectural triumph such as few Scottish mansions can exhibit; and it is so broad and so gently graduated as to justify a traditional boast that the laird’s horse used to ascend it.

It is probable that, though the ornamental portions of the edifice are not very old, they have been raised on works in the common Scottish square form, of great antiquity. A charter of the year 1397 mentions the castle of Fyvie, which, along with the lands, it transfers from Thomas Colvil, son of the lord of Oxinhame, to Henry de Preston, in return for a hundred pounds sterling, which he had advanced to Colvil in his need (Collections on the Shires of Aberdeen and Banff, 501). The estate passed from the family of Preston into that of Meldrum, and was purchased in 1596 by Alexander Seton, sixth son of George lord Seton, whowas created Lord Fyvie two years afterwards, made Lord Chancellor in 1604, and created Earl of Dunfermline in 1606 (New Statistical Account of Scotland, (Aberdeen, 823-24). He was a legal statesman of great influence and practical ability. A member of a strictly Roman Catholic family, he was educated in Italy, where, according to some of his contemporaries, he took orders. He was the godson of the unfortunate Queen Mary, and early in life became a favourite at her son’s court. The family biographer says, “Shortly after that he came to Scotland he made his public lesson of the law before King James the VI., the senators of the College of Justice and advocates present, in the chapel royal of Holyrood-house, in his lawer gown and four-nooked cape, as lawers use to pass their tryalls in the universities abroad, to the great applause of the king and all present” (Kingston’s Continuation of Maitland's House of Seytoun, 63). He passed up to the chancellorship through several grades of legal office. He was among the unpopular councillors with whom James, to satisfy the fears of the Presbyterian party, obliged himself not to meet in council, “at least when the cause of religion and matters of the church are treated.” But those historians who had least sympathy with his Catholic religion praise his impartiality. He was made preceptor to Prince Charles, before the death of his elder brother made him apparent heir to the throne — a circumstance which does not appear to have been noticed by those who have attacked the Catholic tendencies of King Charles I.

Drawn by Robert William Billings and engraved by J. H. Le Keux. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The powerful statesman, whose foreign education induced him to make his first appearance in the French square-topped cap, probably employed an architect from France to adorn the rude towers of his new domain. Though a taste for the fine arts was then deemed far beneath the true dignity of a statesman, he seems not to have been ashamed to acknowledge such a weakness. “Chancellor Seaton,” says Craufurd, “ was esteemed one of the most eminent lawyers of his time, and one of the wisest men the nation then had, a great virtuoso and a fine poet” (Lives of the Otiìcers of State, p. 156), and Lord Kingston, in the family history already cited, says he “was well versed in the mathematics, and had great skill in architecture.”

The castle and domain are now in possession of the family of Gordon. Fyvie Castle was distant from any ofthe great fields of Scottish contention, and no more important warlike incident is connected with it than that Montrose spent a night beneath its roof. It holds a humble but popular place in poetry, as associated with the loves of its valiant trumpeter and “Mill o’ Tiftie’s Annie.” The well-known ballad tells us that

He hied him to the head o' the house,
To the house-top o' Fyvie;
He blew his trumpet loud and shrill,
’Twas heard at Mill o’ Tiftie.

Her father locked the door at night,
Laid by the keys fu’ canny;
And when he heard the trumpet sound,
Said, “Your cow is lowing, Annie.”

Faithful tothis poetic legend, the figure of the trumpeter, starting in stone from the peak of a turret, points his constant but silent trumpet towards the dwelling of the inexorable miller. His daughter was no imaginary personage; her tombstone is in Fyvie kirkyard, and documents show that her father was owner of the mill in 1672 (New Statistical Account, Aberdeen, 325.).

R. W. B.

[These images may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose without prior permission as long as you credit the Hathitrust Digital Archive and the University of California library and link to the the Victorian Web in a web document or cite it in a print one — George P. Landow ]


The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland illustrated by Robert William Billings, architect, in four volumes.. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Son, 1852. Hathitrust Digital Archive version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 10 October 2018.

Last modified 11 October 2018