Aberdeenshire is home to many superb castles, often in good repair and complete with fixtures and furnishings. A visitor to the area is therefore spoiled for choice, and this may be why Tolquhon Castle is so easily overlooked. Which is a shame, because just about anywhere else in the country, Tolquhon would be much better appreciated for what it is, a remarkably complete courtyard castle built in the 1580s.
You reach Tolquhon Castle via a minor road that turns west off the B999 approximately mid way between Tarves and Pitmedden. This leads you uphill then along a ridge for a mile in total to the castle carpark.
Tolquhon Castle itself is strangely retiring in its location, and as you approach the outer gate you gain little clue to its real nature. Entrance is via the Historic Environment Scotland visitor centre next to the outer gate, and it is only when you pass beyond it that you get your first real view of the castle itself. You emerge from the visitor centre into a grassy elongated outer courtyard largely surrounded by a nearly complete stone wall. In many places this outer wall would have been the first feature removed so its building stone could be reused, and this is your first clue that Tolquhon Castle remains remarkably complete.
Facing you at the far end of the outer courtyard is the north range of the castle. As it is the north range, it is likely to be in shadow when seen from this side on a sunny day. But despite this it still makes a considerable first impression, especially with the upper parts of the rest of the castle rising above and behind it.
The left hand or east end of the north range comprises the angular bulk of Preston's Tower, the earliest surviving part of the castle and the only substantial part to predate the 1580s. This is balanced at the west end of the north range by a circular tower, while between them is the elaborate gatehouse. This still carries some of the crests and statuary that help mark it out as a structure primarily intended to impress visitors rather than defend its occupants against determined attackers. The drum towers projecting either side of the entrance itself are pierced by a spectacular selection of gun loops, but these are as much for decoration as defence.
Above the main entrance itself are two armorial panels. The badly eroded lower of the two bears the arms of the castle's builder, William Forbes, while above it are the arms of James VI, who visited the castle shortly after its completion in 1589. Just off to one side of the armorial panels is a statue believed to be that of William Forbes himself, largely because of the likeness between it and a surviving depiction of him on his tomb in the churchyard in the village of Tarves.
The gatehouse is also home to an inscribed panel which tells us about the building of the castle: "Al this warke excep the auld tour was begun be William Forbes 15 Aprile 1584 and endit be him 20 Ocober 1589."
Passing through the main gate in the gate house brings you, as it would have done visitors after its completion in 1589, face to face with the chief glory of Tolquhon Castle, the main house, which occupies a large part of the south range on the far side of the courtyard. This extends to three storeys high, compared with the two storeys of the rest of the castle, and its importance is emphasised by the presence of a central drum tower projecting into the courtyard.
Today this drum tower still bears traces of the harling - a weatherproof outer layer over the stonework that would once have covered much or all of the castle. At the top of the drum tower is a cap house which has been restored to use and is accessible to visitors, those with a head for heights anyway. The sharp-eyed can still see, on the underside of one of the corner skew-stones, the letters "T.L." These are the initials of Thomas Leiper, the master mason (and, in effect, architect) who built the castle for William Forbes.
Within the main house, the ground floor is taken up with the kitchen and storage cellars. These were linked by three separate stairs to the first floor, which comprised two main rooms, a great hall where entertainment and the public life of the castle was carried out, an an inner chamber which was more private. Today, the most distinctive feature of the great hall is the very unusual stone tiling that still covers the floor.
The second floor of the main house held the private apartments of the laird and his family. The family apartments extended around the castle into the upper floor of the west range, which became an early example of what might later be called a drawing room, where the family could spend their time and where portraits were hung. It is this latter feature which explains the modern name given to this room: the gallery.
The rest of the castle was home to the range of other functions necessary to a lordly residence of this era. These included guest accommodation, brew house, bake house, wine cellar and, on the ground floor of the south-east tower, a pit prison.
The one part of the castle that doesn't comfortably fit into the overall pattern is Preston's Tower, in the north-east corner of the castle. The only surviving part of an earlier castle on this site, the tower opens a window onto the story of Tolquhon Castle in the years before William Forbes.
Tolquhon Castle may well date back far beyond any of its surviving buildings. From the 1200s Tolquhon and Fyvie were the two main residences of the Thanage of Formartine, a property of the crown. In 1390 the Thanage was granted by Robert III to Sir Thomas Preston.
It was probably Sir Thomas Preston who built the Preston Tower at the very beginning of the 1400s. As a fairly small tower house this would have been accompanied by a number of ancillary buildings, including a great hall and a kitchen, all of which would have been surrounded by a defensive "barmkin" wall. If there was a castle on this site before 1400, and there may well have been, nothing has been found of it.
Sir Thomas died without male heirs in 1433 and Fyvie Castle passed to the husband of his older daughter, while Tolquhon Castle passed to Sir John Forbes, who in 1420 had married Sir Thomas's second daughter, Marjorie.
The castle that was inherited in 1547 by William Forbes, the 7th Laird of Tolquhon was probably little different from that inherited by his ancestor Sir John Forbes in 1433. William Forbes was wealthy by the standards of the day, and unusually enlightened. Among his early acts was endowing a hospital for the poor in Tarves. It isn't clear what finally prompted him to replace the castle that had been his home throughout his life, but, as recorded on the plaque on the gatehouse, he finally took the plunge in April 1584.
Having created one memorial to himself in the form of the new Tolquhon Castle, William Forbes then created another. In 1589 he had inserted in the south aisle of Tarves parish kirk a magnificent monumental tomb to his own memory and that of his wife, Elizabeth Gordon. William Forbes was laid to rest there on his death in 1596 and his heirs inherited the castle. The 10th Laird of Tolquhon, Alexander, saved the life of Charles II during the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and was knighted in thanks. However, the 11th Laird went on to lose what was left of the family fortune by backing the disastrous scheme for a Scottish colony on the Darien peninsula. The Tolquhon estate was sold in 1716, becoming part of the enormous land holdings of the Earls of Aberdeen, residents of nearby Haddo House: though the 11th Laird himself, William Forbes, had to be forcibly evicted from Tolquhon Castle on 5 September 1718.
Tolquhon Castle remained inhabited as a farmhouse into the 1800s, but drawings done in the 1840s show it already in considerable disrepair. In 1929 Tolquhon Castle was transferred into the care of the state, and it is now looked after by Historic Environment Scotland.