Delgatie Castle stands some two miles east of Turriff in Aberdeenshire. A minor road leads from the A947 north-east of the town, and a signposted drive then leads to a car park among woods. This offers views up to the rear of the castle, standing on higher ground a short distance away. From the car park you pass through gardens that are steadily being restored to their former glory to emerge at the west end of the castle. The main entrance is on the south front of the building.
Delgatie Castle is very much the product of decades of hard work and dedication by the late Captain John Hay of Delgatie. The building he purchased in the early 1950s was effectively a derelict ruin after decades of infestation by dry rot and its use as a temporary barracks for troops returning from Dunkirk early in the war. Captain Hay and his wife Everild set out to restore the castle to a comfortable home. And having returned Delgatie Castle to Hay family ownership after a gap of nearly two centuries, Captain Hay went on to establish the Clan Hay Centre here. He first opened the castle to the public in 1994.
Captain Hay died at the age of 91 in 1997 and left the castle and estate to the Delgatie Castle Trust. Their role is to maintain Delgatie as it was during the Captain's life. The result is a building of immense character: less a pristine showroom than somewhere that has a charming "lived in" feel. You will never, sadly, turn a corner to be greeted by a tall man in the Captain's trademark highland dress, but you will find the guides he wrote for each room still on display, along with many personal possessions which reflect his character, and oddities like a bedroom called "Attock Fort". This is so named, the Captain's room guide tells us, because "my last command in India was Quilidar (commandant) at Attock Fort, which is at the top of the Khyber Pass."
The origins of Delgatie Castle are said to date back to around 1030, when a castle was built on the site by the then Earl of Buchan. In 1308 King Robert the Bruce secured his claim to the Scottish crown by attacking the powerbase in what is now Aberdeenshire of John Comyn, the Earl of Buchan. The "harrying of Buchan" laid waste to vast areas of the landscape and ended the Comyns as a powerful force in Scotland. In order to secure his hold on ex-Comyn lands, Robert the Bruce granted their estates to his own supporters, and Delgatie Castle (presumably by now worse for wear after the military campaign) was given to Sir Gilbert Hay of Erroll, who later also became 1st Hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland. Some sources suggest that this early Delgatie Castle was largely rebuilt in 1346.
There may be stonework from an earlier castle or castles still present within the later structure, but the core of what you see today at Delgatie can be traced back to the building here of an imposing L-shaped tower house. Most sources seem to agree that this was built in the 1570s, which ties in with a date of 1570 carved above a fireplace on the ground floor. The slight contradiction is the presence, high in the tower, of "Queen Mary's Bower", in which Mary, Queen of Scots is said to have stayed for three days after the Battle of Corrichie in 1562. So either the tower was built before this date, or Mary actually stayed in the earlier Delgatie Castle.
The Earls of Erroll seemed to specialise in backing the losing side in the many conflicts which occurred between the 1500s and the 1700s. Francis Hay, 9th Earl of Erroll, was charged with treason against James VI in 1594 for his part in an uprising. Then Sir William Hay of Delgatie was executed alongside the Marquis of Montrose in 1650 for their efforts to restore Charles II to the throne. His later reburial, with great honour, in St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, was probably no great compensation. And then the Hays supported the Jacobite cause in the uprisings of 1715 and 1745.
Although this ill-judged support does not appear to have resulted in the family's estates being forfeited, as happened to many Jacobite landowners, it did have a damaging effect on their fortunes. In 1762 the bankrupt James Hay, 15th Earl of Erroll, sold Delgatie to Peter Garden of Troup. In 1798 it was sold to the Duff family, and in 1868 the castle and estate were sold again, this time to the Ainsley family.
Captain John Hay spent much of his military career in India, and on the North-West Frontier in particular. During his command of Attock Fort in the 1930s, it is said that he became aware that the local Afghan warlord, with whom he had been exchanging occasional high explosive shells, was like him a Mason. The two met, and agreed they should establish a local ceasefire, but that each should report invented continuing hostilities to their respective superiors. This seems not to have been appreciated when it was discovered by the British high command in India, and Captain Hay was posted away. During World War II he helped organise the defense of the Shetland Islands against possible German invasion. Captain Hay first visited Delgatie Castle in 1949, by which time it was in a very poor state. The rest, as they say, is history.
Before entering the main entrance of Delgatie Castle, it is worth taking a look at the frontage seen from the south side, which is difficult to accept is the same building you've already seen from the rear. The tall tower house of the 1770s remains the dominant element, but this has been altered at various times in its life, and some of the windows you see today are certainly larger than those inserted by its original builders. The original tower was extended outwards in 1768 by the Gardens of Troup, and there were further additions in the 1800s.
To the east of the tower is an adjoining house, apparently also dating back to the 1500s, while to its west is a building that appears to have been designed as a chapel. Beyond this is a doocot made to look like the gable end of a church, and to its west is a flat wall, again of ecclesiastical design, topped off by a cross. The doocot here is disused, and appears to have been replaced in use by the circular doocot you can glimpse near the cottage to the north of the castle. The terrace to the front of the castle stretches out as far as an iron gate flanked by cannons. The pasture beyond is home to Delgatie's resident ponies.
The main entrance brings you into Delgatie's hallway. The reception and shop are beyond, while a passage leads off to visitor facilities and the excellent tea room. To your left as you enter is a door leading into a small chapel, and beyond this is a function room.
Tower houses are essentially vertical stacks of rooms, and Delgatie Castle is no exception. The eight floors of the building are linked together by a 97 tread turnpike staircase reputed to be one of the widest in Scotland, with each step measuring over five feet in width. The staircase is unusual in linking every level of the castle together; and even more unusual in that such a wide and imposing structure is wholly contained within the thickness of the front wall of the castle.
There are rooms to see and mementos to enjoy on every level of the castle. By far the largest room in the building is the ballroom, on the first floor. This seems to have been created from the original great hall of the castle in either the 1700s or the 1800s, and rooms like the withdrawing room to the rear are part of the later additions to the original structure. As you climb steadily higher through the castle, there are some real surprises in store. Perhaps the most striking are the original painted ceilings in the Tulip Room and the Rohaise Room. These date back to 1592 and 1597 and are among the finest original painted ceilings to be found anywhere in Scotland. The painting on the Tulip Room ceiling is only on the rafters, but in the Rohaise Room the lower side of the floorboards above are also painted, and the effect is stunning. It seems little less than miraculous that these ceilings should have survived the dereliction of the castle in the years before Captain Hay purchased it.
The Rohaise Room is also notable for being home to the castle's ghost: a young woman who legend says was called Rohaise and who defended the castle from attack. And who, it is said, is particularly apt to make her presence felt to any young men staying in "her" room. The uppermost room in the castle, named Attock Fort for reasons we've already explored, houses a magnificent four poster bed, plus a matching four poster bed intended to accommodate a small child. This room also has a painted ceiling, but when we visited the original had been removed for woodworm treatment and had been replaced by temporary paintings.
Delgatie Castle is open to visitors, and can accommodate weddings and other functions. There are also two self catering apartments available within the castle itself, and four more in the coach house on the estate. The tea room can be enjoyed without paying admission for a tour of the castle.