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Tolquon Castle drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. H. Le Keux. Left: Entrance Gateway. Right: Part of the Court Yard Source: The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by the Artist

Passing from the princely towers of Fyvie to the next adjoining parish, the searcher after obscure architectural remains will find his way to the humbler ruin of Tolquhon. They stand in as strong contrast with each other as two buildings of the same age, and of the same style of architecture, can assume; but perhaps the ruder edifice, so strikingly characteristic of the old Scottish laird's fortified mansion, is not the less interesting of the two. If the rich baron, or the high officer of state, could afford to employ a French artist in the erection of his chateau, his neighbours would probably content themselves with such modifications of the architecture of their gorgeous protectors and allies, as native talent could reproduce, and moderate fortunes purchase. Among the latter class of structures, we may safely count the grotesque mansion of Tolquhon; and its date, 1586, shows how early this turreted style had taken deep root in the northern districts of Scotland. Firm and massive as a Scottish fortalice required to be in those troubled days, it grotesquely associates with its rude strength, the fantastic ornaments of a more fanciful and civilised people, and stands a type of what the French alliance must often have produced among the gentlemen of the age — the rugged nature of the Scot decorated with the style and manners of the mercurial Frank.

The ruins surround a square courtyard, of which the accompanying plate represents the opening. Though in a style which is generally tall and full of perpendicular lines, they are somewhat conspicuous for massive squatness. The round towers are suspiciously pierced by numerous shot-holes, and the effect of the whole mass of buildings is that of sturdy and repelling strength. The mouldings and other decorations are, at the same time, far more profuse than they are generally to be found in the secondary country mansions; but what at once rivets the eye and attention of the visitor to this desolate hall, is the extent and variety of uncouth statuary in which the architect, at the bidding of his own wild fancy, or by the desire of the eccentric owner, seems positivly to have revelled. One of these strange figures, being that of a man in armour, has but one leg. Whether the deficiency has been accidental, or was part of the sculptor's design, it were hard to say: but it is associated with a wild tradition of the spot, about a spectre whose motions through the adjoining swamps are traced by the hissing of his red-hot steel boot in the water. A more melancholy place, or one better fitted for the residence of an unearthly guest, cannot well be conceived. Neglected, stagnant waters accumulate about decaying wood, and through some scattered trees appear the long-neglected fragments of pleasure-grounds. The ruins themselves are made fruitful by the soil deposited on them by rotting timber. They are in that most melancholy state of transition from a habitable condition to a mere mass of bare walls, which is always the saddest grade of a decaying building, because it reminds one more distinctly of occupation and desertion, than the bare unencumbered walls of a ruin on which the wind has blown for centuries. Doors with their huge iron-knobbed locks, still swing on their fantastic curling hinges; and not many years ago, in one of the upper rooms, stood the almost architectural fragments of a gigantic carved bed.

Tolquhon tells its own history with unusual but most satisfactory frankness, by the following inscription in front— "All this warke, excep the avld tovr, was begvn be William Fokbes, 15 Aprile 1584, and endit be him 20 October 1589." This William founded an hospital" for four poor men, who were to eat and lye here, and to have each a peck of meal, and three shillings, a penny, and two-sixths of a penny Scots, weekly; also some meal, peats,"&c ( Collections for the Shires of Aberdeen and Banff, 300). Arthur Johnson, the celebrated Latin poet, in a eulogistic epigram on the Laird of Tolquhon, after speaking of the hospital, of which all trace and remembrance has disappeared, as tecta mortali non violanda manu, thus addresses the honoured mansion of its founder,

Nee procul his domini surgunt palatia, Regis
Non semel hospitio nobilitata sui.

A William Forbes of Tolquhon, probably the builder of the castle, or his father, obtained a curious license in 1582, under the sign-manual, "to eat flesh with three or four with him in company in the forbidden time;" and to be absent from weaponshaws, juries, and the like, because "he is so vexit, and hes bene thir mony yeiris bypast, twyiss or thryiss at the leist everie yeir, with ane dolour and diseaiss in his ene, proceiding be ane distellatioun out of the heid" (Collections, 353).

The Forbeses acquired Tolquhon in the year 1420 (New Statistical Account. Aberdeen, 669). They were a distinguished race in their day, and were the stock whence sprung the Forbeses of Culloden, and several other considerable families in the north. Of him who was the laird during the civil wars it is said —

Sir Alexander at Worcester commanded a troop of horse, raised by himself; and when the king's horse was shot under him, he defended him by his troop; and while General Leslie seemed unconcerned, with his cloak muffled up to his chin, and beheld the rout of the king's troops, he kept the enemy at bay, mounted the king on his own horse, put his soldier's coat and a bloody handkerchief about him, and, sending him safe off the field, he kept the enemy still engaged, till he was shot through both the calves of the legs.

The fortunes of the house, like those of many another Scottish family, were probably consumed by the fever of the Darien scheme, in which Alexander Forbes of Tolquhon appears to have embarked beyond his means, the stock he held (£500) having been judicially attached (Darien MSS. Adv. Lib.).

R. W. B.


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 19 October 2018