Castle Menzies can be found on the north side of the Appin of Dull, the broad valley formed by the River Tay, a little west of the small village of Weem and a little over a mile north-west of the centre of Aberfeldy. For centuries it served as the stronghold of the Chiefs of Clan Menzies, and today it is owned by the Menzies Charitable Trust and serves as the headquarters of the clan, attracting visitors from wherever the Scots diaspora settled and put down roots, and from closer at hand. Scotland has no shortage of castles and many are better known. But Castle Menzies is a particularly fine and interesting example (even if your name is not "Menzies") and is very well worth a visit. The castle served as a real defensive structure, was occupied by various passing armies, and has undergone a near continuous series of alterations that have left a truly fascinating structure for visitors to enjoy today.
The origins of the "Menzies" name probably date back to one of the many Normans granted Scottish land and titles by King David I in the second quarter of the 1100s, in this case probably a "Mayeris" or "Manners" originating from Mesniers near Rouen. It seems the family were first granted lands in the Lothians, but quickly expanded their landholdings and interests into Perthshire. The family built or owned a number of castles in this area, most notably Comrie Castle, now a ruin some four miles west of Castle Menzies.
Comrie Castle was destroyed by fire in 1487. Sir Robert Menzies, 11th Baron Menzies, chose a new location for its replacement and in 1488 work began on a fortified mansion known as "The Place of Weem". This was in turn destroyed when it was attacked in 1502 by a near neighbour, Nigel Stewart of Garth. Stewart imprisoned Sir Robert Menzies in Garth Castle and tried to coerce him into signing away his lands. Stewart was brought to justice and nearly executed, later himself being imprisoned at Garth Castle on suspicion of murdering his wife. With neighbours like that...
Some time later, and no-one is sure exactly when, Castle Menzies was built. It seems likely that it incorporated the remains of the earlier place of Weem into the eastern end of what became the main block of the new castle. The new structure was clearly built on a much grander scale than the mansion it had replaced, and it forms a very fine example of a Scottish Z-plan tower house. What this means is that the main oblong block has offset wings on opposite corners, in this case on the north-east and south-west corners of the building. This design offers considerable additional accommodation, but its true benefit comes in terms of defence, because the corner wings allow defensive fire to be directed along all four walls of the main block.
Partial documentary evidence suggests that the rebuilding of Castle Menzies might have begun in 1557, and it is clear that it was standing by 1571. This is often given as the date of building, as it is the date on a marriage escutcheon above the original entrance to the castle, bearing the initials of James Menzies and his wife Barbara Stewart, daughter of the Earl of Atholl.
In 1577 a series of changes were made to the castle, especially to the upper floor. These seem to have removed some roof-level defensive features (perhaps wall walks between the turrets) and introduced the rather fine stone dormer windows you can see today. It was presumably thought that in a time of relative peace, style and decoration were of more importance than functional defences. This turned out to be a misguided supposition. Castle Menzies saw conflict again in 1644 when the Clan Chief, Sir Alexander Menzies of Menzies opposed the Royalists during the Wars of the Covenant and attacked the passing army of James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose (see our Historical Timeline). In 1651 the castle was occupied by General George Monck's Parliamentary Army.
During the 1715 Jacobite uprising Jacobite forces captured and occupied Castle Menzies, and during the 1745 uprising they did so again. On 4 and 5 February, part of the Jacobite army, under the command of Charles Edward Stewart or "Bonnie Prince Charlie" halted here on route to Inverness and their final defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Prince Charles spent two nights in Castle Menzies, and the room he slept in is now known as Prince Charlie's Room. Four days later the castle was occupied and garrisoned by Government troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland.
Some time in the first half of the 1700s Castle Menzies saw a major expansion, with a new block being built along the north side of the existing main block, filling in the corner between it and the north-east wing. This provided new public rooms, as well as additional bedrooms, bathrooms and a grand wooden staircase, plus new service accommodation to the rear of the castle. At the same time the castle's main entrance was relocated from the angle with the south-west wing to its current central position on the south side of the main block. The existing castle was extensively altered to allow easy access between the main block and new additions.
In 1840 yet another major extension was added. This time it was in the form of a new west wing, now known as the Victorian wing. This was designed by the architect William Burn and used stone from the same quarry to the south of Loch Tay used when the original castle was built. The new west wing aligned and connected with the early 1700s additions on the north side of the main block, so when viewed from the south appears slightly set back from the main block.
Castle Menzies remained the family home of the Menzies of Weem until the death of the 8th Baronet, Sir Neil Menzies, without heirs in 1910. The castle and contents were sold in 1914, and the clan archives and papers were sold in lots to many different buyers. The castle subsequently passed through various hands, before being used by the Polish Army in Scotland as a medical stores depot during World War Two.
The title of Clan Chief of Clan Menzies was resurrected in 1957 by Ronald Steuart Menzies of Culdares and Arndilly. In 1957 the by now very ruinous Castle Menzies was purchased by the newly formed Clan Menzies Society for less than £300. During the 1960s some roof repairs took place, and a number of outhouses to the east of the castle were removed. In 1972 funds were secured to tackle the widespread dry rot throughout the building.
During the years that followed the original 1500s castle was made structurally sound, though it turned out that the northern additions made in the early 1700s were beyond rescue, and they were demolished. The aim of the restoration has been to retain whatever is sound, from any period in the castle's history, and where nothing sound can be found to restore the structure in the style of the original 1500s castle.
In 1990 work began to restore the Victorian wing at the west end of the castle, now disconnected from the demolished northern extension to the main building. The Menzies Charitable Trust was established in 1993 and ownership of the Castle was transferred to it, along with the castle's walled garden, which had been purchased in 1984, and the Old Kirk of Weem, home to the Menzies Mausoleum.
This history of repeated expansion and more recent consolidation has left a truly fascinating building. Some of the oddities are best viewed from the north side of the castle where you can find the Charles II Gate and a Polish Army war memorial. The rear of the main block and west side of the north-east tower are a patchwork of filled-in windows and doors. Some of these are windows in the original castle filled in during the building of the northern extension in the early 1700s, and it is hoped that these will eventually be reconstructed. Other patches are infilling of doors that suddenly led nowhere when the northern extension was removed in relatively recent times. The removal of the northern extension also had the effect of disconnecting the Victorian wing from the rest of the castle, and this was overcome by building a new connecting passage.
From a visitor's point of view, your exploration of Castle Menzies begins in the reception and shop that lies just beyond the main door. To one side of this area is a large kitchen (with a huge fireplace) and a larder. Moving in the other direction takes you along an atmospheric corridor past vaulted store rooms. The projecting south-west wing is home to the original main entrance complete with its iron grille or yett, and two guardrooms. The main stair is built on an impressive scale, and continues all the way up through the upper floors of the castle.
Your arrival on the first floor is a surprise, as you enter the beautifully restored Great Hall, now often known as the Pink Room and looking for all the world like the finest of reception rooms from a large mansion. Beyond it is the Withdrawing Room, plus an ante-room and an intramural chamber. Between first and second floors the staircase passes paired bedchambers, each with a servant's room. This also brings you to Prince Charlie's Room.
The second floor is home to the Main Living Room, part of the private apartments that once occupied the whole of this floor. These may also be explored, along with a room in which you find exhibitions dedicated to the influence of Menzies across the world. The main room on the third floor reveals the original layout from the 1500s, plus the new roof it was necessary to fit during restoration. Access to the angle turrets is obvious, as are the defensive pistol holes. One of the rooms in the south tower has been decorated and furnished as a Victorian bedroom, which recreates its last known use.
Back on the ground floor, visitors can follow the new linking passage to the Dewar Room, on the first floor of the Victorian Wing. This is a stunning room, and it is easy to see why Castle Menzies is popular for weddings.
A little to the north-east of the castle, on a steeply sloping south-facing site, is the walled garden. This may best be described as a work in progress, but is nonetheless well worth visiting. Also well worth visiting is the Old Kirk of Weem, now the Menzies Mausoleum. The key for this is held at the castle reception.