The National Trust for Scotland owns a series of superb properties across Aberdeenshire which together draw large numbers of people to North East Scotland. Leith Hall is the least well known of them, which is a little unfair given its tremendous charm and the range of attractions it has to offer. Leith Hall closed to the public at the end of the 2008 season, and reopened after refurbishment in July 2013. The description and images on this page pre-date the refurbishment.
Leith Hall may be a little further west than the NTS's other properties in Aberdeenshire, and it may lack the magic word "castle" in its title. But Leith Hall really is a gem, and anyone in the North East interested in historical buildings, gardens, or ancient monuments should make a point of visiting.
A visit to Leith Hall offers three main elements. Most obvious is the hall itself. This started life as a tower house built in about 1650 and continuously developed over the following centuries. It remained home to the Leith and Leith-Hay families until gifted to the NTS in 1945. Surrounding Leith Hall are 286 acres of grounds. These extend to include open parkland and wooded areas, plus a landscaped pond, a churchyard and extensive gardens.
Little today remains of the formal gardens that would have surrounded Leith Hall in the 1700s. What you can enjoy, however, are nearly 6 acres of largely walled gardens that extend westwards from the semi-circular stables north of the hall itself which were developed in 1906. Here you find extensive herbaceous borders; a catmint border; a large rock garden; a kitchen garden; and much more that you would expect in a garden of this sort.
You also find some more unusual elements less commonly found in large gardens. The most striking is the large mown grass spiral found near the stables. In an obvious reference to the stone circles that are common across Aberdeenshire, the spiral forms part of a modern stone circle.
Rather less obvious but even more impressive is a brick-built roofed structure built into the slope near the northern edge of the garden. This is home to a diverse collection of stone artefacts. These range from grindstones and boot scrapers to stack saddles, mustard grinders and a bannock toaster. But among the objects on show are two Pictish symbol stones that make a visit to Leith Hall worthwhile in their own right.
The Percylieu Stone was found a few miles south of Leith Hall at Clatt, and is thought to date back to the 600s. It was dug up in about 1840, then trimmed to allow it to be used as a paving slab in a byre. Even more spectacular is the Wolf Stone, found at Leslie in Aberdeenshire in 1842, before being uses to help construct a wall. Despite this you can still clearly see the very unusual carving of a wolf on the stone, together with the more common mirror-and-comb symbols.
The story of Leith Hall itself is rather more clear-cut than you often find with buildings of its age. It started life in about 1650 as a large tower house of three storeys plus attic and with bartizans projecting from the corners. This formed the north range of a square complex, which also had one and two storey ranges on the east and south sides, and a defensive wall completing the west side of the square, which also carried the main gate.
From 1756 the east range was significantly increased in stature, and two storey blocks were added in the north west and south west corners of the complex, framing the defensive wall and gateway. In 1797 work began to increase the size of the south range to balance the scale of the existing north range, complete with matching bartizans. At the same time an additional storey was added to the east range.
Leith Hall as you see it today only came to completion in the years from 1868. The missing side of the square was filled in with a new west range similar in size to those already existing on the other three sides. At the same time the existing bartizans were complemented and emphasised by the addition of circular, conical-roofed turrets at the north west and south west corners of the hall, and a new entrance, complete with more conical-roofed turrets was inserted into the middle of the east range of the hall. It had taken a little over 300 years, but the transformation of Leith Hall from Scottish tower house to French château was complete.
Today's visitors enter Leith Hall through the front door in the east range, and then do a tour of all four ranges of the hall at first floor level, experiencing the very different types of rooms that emerged from different the different periods of construction. The result is fascinating. Because older parts of the hall were allowed to retain something of their original character when later parts were added, the contrasts are striking. The idea of something called a "hall" may somehow feel intrinsically less romantic than something called a "castle": but no-one visiting Leith Hall can come away other than hugely impressed by the sense of moving through several centuries of building styles, or by the sheer charm of this lovely house.
At the end of the tour of the first floor, visitor have returned to the main staircase and have the option of exploring the exhibition on the second floor of the east range. This is entitled "For Crown and Country" and reflects the many military links of those who lived in Leith Hall during the centuries it has stood here. Visitors can also take advantage of an excellent tea room accessible from the courtyard.
The tower house around which Leith Hall grew was built from 1650 by James Leith, apparently a member of a family that until then was better known in Midlothian. The next three lairds of Leith Hall were all called John Leith. The second of these married Mary Hay, daughter of Charles Hay of Rannes, forging a connection that was to become important a couple of generations down the line.
The Fifth Laird of Leith Hall was Alexander Leith. When the last of the Hays of Rannes expired without heirs at the end of the 1700s, the Hay family estates were left to Alexander Leith, on condition he also take on the Hay name. Alexander Leith therefore became Alexander Leith-Hay of Rannes and Leith Hall (though where Rannes was is unclear): and he also found himself able to afford the 1797 expansion of Leith Hall.
During World War I, Leith Hall was used as a hospital treating men from Scottish regiments returning wounded from the front. After the war the Leith-Hay family once more took up residence. The last Laird of Rannes and Leith Hall was Charles Arthur O’Neill Leith-Hay, who inherited the estate on his father's death in May 1939. In September 1939 Charles was en route to join his Army regiment at Otterburn in Northumberland when he was killed in a road accident. In 1945 Charles' mother, Mrs Hennrietta O’Neill Leith-Hay, gave Leith Hall to the National Trust for Scotland.
Today the family retain use of part of the accommodation at Leith Hall, but there are said to be other resident as well. Guests staying at Leith Hall in 1968 reported an apparition in their bedroom, and others have reported sounds of people laughing and partying when no one was there. It is also said that the ghost of a man with a bandaged head has been seen at Leith Hall. This is thought to be the second John Leith, who was shot and killed on Christmas Day, 1763. Other apparitions have included a woman apparently from the Victorian era, and a young child.