The North East castle that disappeared in a sandstorm

The dunes at Rattray Head, close to the castle site which was destroyed by moving sand whipped up by a  violent storm in the early 1700s. PIC www.geograph.co.uk
The dunes at Rattray Head, close to the castle site which was destroyed by moving sand whipped up by a violent storm in the early 1700s. PIC www.geograph.co.uk
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It was once home to one of the most powerful families in Scotland and the chief homegrown enemy of Robert the Bruce.

But Castle of Rattray in Aberdeenshire was to ultimately fall to the force of nature after it became engulfed by sand following a “furious” easterly storm in 1720.

The old chapel of Castle of Rattray. PIC www.geograph.co.uk

The old chapel of Castle of Rattray. PIC www.geograph.co.uk

All that exists of the medieval stronghold today is a rather bleak and windswept grassy mound, known as Castle Hill.

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Tradition states that the force of the sand blew over the castle and buried alive the inhabitants of the nearby fishing settlement of Rattray - “a godless crew” - who were engaged in playing cards on the Sabbath at the time of the tragedy.

Then, Castle of Rattray was in a ruinous state after the influence and power of its owners, the Earls of Buchan, had been systematically dismantled - often violently - by Robert the Bruce.

The new Seatown of Rattray was built at the end of the 18th Century but was ultimately abandoned due to poor fishing and harsh living conditions. PIC www.geograph.co.uk

The new Seatown of Rattray was built at the end of the 18th Century but was ultimately abandoned due to poor fishing and harsh living conditions. PIC www.geograph.co.uk

Once an important link in the family’s powerline across the north, from Inverlochy Castle in the east to Slain’s Castle in the West, a timber castle first appeared on the site during the early 13th Century with St Mary’s Chapel and burial ground to follow.

The castle lay on prominent sand dune about 550 metres north east of the church. It directly overlooked the channel that allowed boats access to the bay and harbour.

It was destroyed for the first time following the defeat of John Comyn, 3rd Early of Buchan, by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Barra near Inverurie in 1308.

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Castle Hill at Rattray, the windswept mount once home to the medieval stronghold of Castle of Rattray. PIC www.geograph.co.uk

Castle Hill at Rattray, the windswept mount once home to the medieval stronghold of Castle of Rattray. PIC www.geograph.co.uk

Shortly after Robert the Bruce’s victory, his rival’s properties were burnt to the ground in the Harrying of Buchan with Rattray Castle among those destroyed.

John Comyn fled south and the castle was swiftly rebuilt in stone.

But as Robert the Bruce carved up his new lands, Castle of Rattray reportedly fell into a ruinious state as it was passed around his supporters.

An account in the New History of Aberdeenshire, published in 1875, said: “After the defeat of Cumine (sic) by Robert the Bruce, it fell into ruins and now not a vestige of it remains, the site having been blown over with sand, and the once good harbour of Rattray is now choked by the drifting sand.”

Following the storm, there was no more fishing on this stretch of coast until the Rattray Estate built the new fishing village at Rattray Head around 1795.

The new Seatown of Rattray became known as Botany after the newly formed penal colony, Botany Bay, in Australia.

Fishing was poor given the weather and the conditions around the towering cliffs of Rattray Head. By the 1830’s only a few families remained, most of them concerned with agricultural work nearby.

According to local research, more fishing families arrived in 1838 following an advertisement designed to draw more people to the area.

Their existence was a meagre one but the village struggled on until the middle of the 20th Century.

All that remains now is piles of rubble and a few ruins, with the remains of the nearby chapel and the site of the castle a powerful pointer to the area’s turbulent and windswept, past.