Ellon Castle Gardens

History of Ellon Castle Gardens

Ellon Castle Gardens have a fascinating history, which we continue to uncover. Here are some of the things we know – and are still trying to find out more  – about this magical place. The history starts a few hundred metres up river, close to where the bridges now are. Then the tale moves to the Hill of Ardgith, where the castle ruins still stand today.

1132

Ellon gets its first mention in written history in an entry in the margin of the Book of Deer. At this point the motte and bailey castle is in front of where the New Inn now stands.

1382

Robert II gifts Ellon to his 3rd son Alexander Stewart, (‘Wolf of Badenoch’) Earl of Buchan.

When were the first yew trees planted and did they have anything to do with the Monastery of Deer? Just how ancient are our ancient yews?

1413  Thomas Kennedy  appointed  Constable of Aberdeen.

1505  William Kennedy becomes Constable of Aberdeen.

1543 John Kennedy and his wife Marjory Cheyne inherit from his father William.

1564 John Kennedy succeeded by son John,  married to Isobel Cheyne.

1592 James Kennedy, succeeds, married to Elizabeth Forbes.

Who was Isabel Moffat who sold the Hill of Ardgith in 1413? We'd love to know more about her and whether a tower house, or indeed anything, existed on the site at that time!

1607 John Kennedy inherits, later known as John of the Great Sword.

1652  Slaughter of Waterton. Feud with local Forbes family over a ditch resulted in the death of Thomas Forbes and Kennedy men fleeing to escape prison and trial.

1663  John Forbes, son of Thomas, appointed hereditary Constable of Aberdeen by Act of Parliament as Kennedy still alive.

 

A secret passage is said to exist from the old castle down to the river Ythan. It may have been an escape route for fleeing Jacobites but it is more likely that it was used for smuggling brandy brought up the river on barges and through the passage to the castle. Can we find it?

1668-1706 Owned by Sir John Forbes of Waterton, married to the sister of the Earl of Aberdeen, Jane Gordon. Their sons disposed of the estate, and it is unlikely that any of the family lived there.

1717 Two of Baillie James Gordon’s sons murdered by their tutor Robert Irvine in Edinburgh as revenge for the maid being sent away after an affair with the tutor.

We're not sure who sold the castle after James' death. James’ widow Elizabeth is said to have received 200 guineas to buy a gown in recompense for relinquishing her life rent entitlement.

1783 Penelope and the earl had two children: a son, Alexander, born in 1783; and a younger daughter, also named Penelope.

1801 3rd Earl dies. His legitimate son William Gordon (2nd son) inherits. Ellon Castle is to go to Alexander, the 3rd Earl and Penelope’s illegitimate son, if William dies with no children.

1808 William Gordon (who is a local MP but does not live locally) advertises the materials in the Aberdeen Journal on 25 May from the castle, which he plans to decimate.

Alexander Gordon fights legal battle to stop the destruction.

1845 William Gordon dies with no children to inherit. Alexander Gordon inherits at last.

1849-51 James Matthews of Mackenzies & Matthews of Elgin is the architect of the new castle.

We're not sure whether the stone from the old castle was used to build the new chateau. Was it blown up before, or just after the Chateau was built?

1873 Alexander Gordon dies. His son George John Robert Gordon, inherits.

1885 Arthur John Lewis Gordon is third child of George John Robert Gordon, and grandson of Alexander. His Aunt is Eleanor Vere Gordon or Boyle.

1886 Arthur’s son, Cosmo Alexander Gordon, was born in Ellon in 1886. 

1913 The Ellon estate was heavily mortgaged and in severe debt when Arthur inherited it – by 1913 it was being administered by trustees.

1919 Sir Frederick Becker (owner of pulp and paper mills ) buys the estate. He sold all the farms. The old suite of offices were again remodelled as his shooting lodge.

1927 Sir Frederick Becker had the 1851 mansion  demolished.

1929 Sir Frederick sold what remained of the estate to Sir Edward Reid in October 1929.

2009 Scotia Homes and Barratt Homes applied for planning permission to develop the sections of the land – known as Castle Meadows and Castlewell.

2012 Planning application was approved with the income from eleven of the proposed 247 properties to be given to a community trust to maintain the gardens.

2014 Ellon Castle Gardens Trust set up.

2017 Deer Park was sold to Ellon Castle Gardens Trust for a nominal sum, £1, by Aberdeenshire Council.

Historical Significance

Ellon Castle Gardens is a fascinating microcosm of the history of North East Scotland. There are tales of a neighbourly dispute ending in murder, a mistress installed in the Castle, and disillusioned Jacobite supporters. The narrative of the old Castle is interwoven with historical events of local, regional and national significance.

Just how long there has been a Castle Garden in Ellon is difficult to tell. However, we are fairly sure that there was a castle in this area dating back to the early 15th century and that ties in with the age of some of the oldest yew trees which are reckoned to be about 800 years old. There is evidence that Kennedy of Kenmuck bought land at the Hill of Ardgith in 1413 and built his castle “The Fortalice of Ardgith” there. Some of the yew trees were possibly already there when the castle was built but almost certainly there was no formal garden at that time.

Over the years the Castle saw many changes until it was finally partly demolished in 1852 to provide building materials for a new castle. This was knocked down in the early 20th century to be replaced by a conversion of the stables and offices of the original Ardgith Castle.  This building and the ruin of the original Ardgith Castle stand to this day. The Kennedy “coats of arms” is still visible on the wall of the castle ruins.

The castle and gardens have had a colourful and sometimes brutal history which mirrors the tempestuous times of the last 800 years. The unique collection of 19 English yew trees in the centre of the walled garden are thought to be at least 500 years old and may possibly date back to Mediaeval times when St Mary’s Church (the present parish Church) was a centre for training monks for the ancient Monastery of Deir (which claims to date back to Columba).

The Kennedys of Ardgith and their neighbours the Forbes of Watertown had a dispute over a mill lade which led to a pitched battle and the Slaughter of Watertown in 1652, after which the Kennedys had to flee Aberdeenshire.

The next significant owner was Baillie James Gordon – a wealthy Edinburgh merchant who in 1715 created the walled garden with its 9 metre high terrace carved out of the hill. Tragedy struck him, too, when his two elder sons were murdered by their tutor. He sold the castle to George Gordon, the 3rd Earl of Aberdeen, who installed his favourite mistress, Penelope Dering from Hastings, in the castle. He was so protective of her that when Robert Burns visited Ellon in 1787, he was refused entry.

Around this time Scotland was torn asunder by the Jacobite uprisings and NE Scotland was a hotbed of Jacobitism. James II of England (VII of Scotland) was deposed because he refused to foreswear his Catholic faith. His supporters – mainly Catholic and Episcopalian – were given tokens which were made from melted down cannon. As he was not the king, he could not afford to pay his troops but promised that his ”gun money” could be exchanged for real money when he regained the throne. One such coin, dated 1690, was recently found in the garden, presumably thrown away by a disgruntled soldier realising that it was worthless.

Polite decay

It was the third Earl’s legitimate son William who inherited the old castle and gardens after the death of the third Earl,  but he allowed it to decline over time from 1801 when the Earl died through to 1845 when William died childless. So it was uninhabitable when the Earl’s illegitimate son, Alexander Gordon, finally inherited it on the death of his half-brother in 1845. Hence he built the new castle in 1851 but his family ultimately ran out of money and eventually the estate was sold in 1919.

His daughter Evelyn Vere Gordon was a noted artist and illustrator who produced a book entitled Seven castles and a garden in which she described in detail Ellon Castle garden in the 1880s. She married Rev Richard Boyle, son of Lord Boyle, who was descended from the scientist Robert Boyle after whom Boyle’s Law is called!

In more recent times, the castle was owned by Sir Edward Reid whose father, Sir James, was physician to Queen Victoria and who himself was a Director of Baring’s Bank and was married to Tatiana, the daughter of Colonel Alexandre Fénoult, formerly of the Russian Imperial Guard. Such exotic and international persons in Ellon.

The gardens were in private ownership until 2014, when the nine-acre site was transferred to the community of Ellon. The sundial is one of only two known to exist with a design featuring 24 faces (the other is to be found in Pitmedden Garden). 

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