Coull Castle, Fortress of Sir Alan Durward

The Doorwards of Scotland and Coull

The name Durward is best known because of Sir Walter Scott’s “Quentin Durward” story, set in 15th century France. However the Durward family were at their height one of the most powerful families in 13th century Scotland, and now largely forgotten to popular memory.

The Durward, or de Lundie, family are said to have first appeared in Scotland during the mid 12th century, when the Barony of Lundie in Angus was granted to a knight called Malcolm, who then took the barony name for his own. Malcolm had a sister who married Walter fitzAlan, from whom the royal Stewart family were descended, and a brother Phillip, whose family held the Barony of Lundin in Fife.

Malcolm de Lundie married one of the daughters of the Earl of Mar, Gillechrist, and was granted the position of hostarius  (door warden) of all the royal palaces by King William I.  His son Thomas succeeded to this position, and increased his wealth and influence with his marriage to a daughter of the Earl of Atholl. After the death of Gillechrist (possibly the second of the name) he claimed the Earldom of Mar in right of his mother, saying that Duncan, also claiming the Earldom was of illegitimate descent.

King Alexander was keen to ensure that the Earldom of Mar was broken up, and awarded the title of Earl to Duncan, however Thomas was in his favour, and was granted a substantial part of the lower parts of the Earldom, in 1228. These lands were titled the Barony of O’Neill, and Thomas le Durward was probably the builder of the earliest phase of the castle at Coull which was to act as the principal seat of the Barony.

Thomas died in either 1230 or 1231, to be succeeded by his sons Colin and Sir Alan. It is unclear what happened to Colin, but he had probably died by 1233, when Sir Alan was in possession of the lands. Sir Alan married the daughter of the Earl of Atholl, was later to claim that great Earldom in right of his wife (without success), and later married the illegitimate daughter of King Alexander II. After the death of the King in 1249, Sir Alan Durward was for a brief time Regent of the realm of Scotland.

Sir Alan had risen to power with the support of King Alexander, eventually heading the government in 1244 in opposition to the Comyns, whose influence the King had been trying to counterbalance. With the complete removal of the Comyns from power in 1244, and Sir Alan’s appointment as Justiciar of Scotia (Scotland north of the Forth/Clyde) in that year, the more established nobility were getting suspicious, and when the King died in 1249, they started to ally themselves with the Comyns against Durward.

In fact, it quickly became clear that although Durward held office, he did not have enough clout to rule the country in the face of the sometimes violent opposition of the Comyns and their supporters, and both parties asked for King Henry III of England to intervene and restore peace to the Kingdom. Henry agreed, and one result of his intervention was the arrangement of a marriage between the young Alexander III and King Henry’s daughter Margaret, and the ceremony carried out in 1251. Comyn then made a master stroke.

Sir Alan had approached the pope to legitimise his wife, meaning that in the event of young Alexander dying childless, it would be Sir Alan’s children who would be next in line for the throne. Comyn made this public, and Henry was forced in the face of the outraged Scottish nobility to deprive Durward of his offices, and force him into exile.

In 1255 Sir Alan returned with a successful counter-coup, capturing the young King and Queen from Edinburgh Castle, and having previously prepared Henry III by presenting him with a list of complaints from Scotland about Comyn government. Unfortunately when the new Durward government was set up, it was still unable to contend with Comyn power, and in 1257 the King and Queen were again kidnapped, this time by the Comyns. The undoubtedly frustrated King Henry then brokered a compromise council, which was set up in 1258 with Durward and Comyn supporters in position.

Once the King took up the reins, Sir Alan continued to appear at court, and more often than his opponents. He was, however, no longer in high office, despite being prominent in the defence of the realm against the invasion of King Haakon of Norway in 1263. Sometime between 1268 and 1275 he died, and his estates were split between his three daughters with the exception of the Barony of O’Neill. These lands reverted to the Crown – presumably the title was restricted to heirs-male.

King Alexander granted the Barony to the Earl of Fife, Duncan, (married to one of Durward’s daughters) and after the Earl was assassinated in 1288, his wife Isabella continued to hold his domains. Following the disastrous reign of John Balliol, and the assumption of King Edward of the control of Scotland, in 1299, Countess Isabella granted the lands of Coull and Lumphanan to Sir John de Hastings, Lord of Abergavenny. She was unable to repay a debt to him because of the war, and attacks on her lands by Sir Herbert de Morham. In return Sir John was to pay her £80 per annum.

Sir John was a competitor for the throne of Scotland, being the grandson of Ada, the third daughter of David of Huntingdon, but had little connection to Scotland beyond this. Instead, being married to the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke, and holding the title Lord Abergavenny, his connections were very firmly to the court of Edward I. He died in February 1313.

In 1302, King Edward regranted the Countess her lands in England, but not those in Scotland, and we may assume that Sir John continued to hold Coull for King Edward at this time. In 1305, John de Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, and a supporter of Edward I, petitioned the King, having spent substantial sums on repairing the castles of Aboyne and Aberdeen. In it he states that he has been ordered to hand over the lands of Coull (no mention of the castle) and others to the Countess of Fife, showing that he was in possession of them at the time. It is not known when he took over the lands from de Hastings.

After Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce confirmed that the barony of O’Neill should remain the possession of the Countess, but after the battle of Dupplin in 1332, the then Earl of Fife had joined the party of Edward Balliol. A charter issued in 1354 to William Lord of Douglas confirms that Coull had been held by his father Archibald previously, and it is likely that between 1332 and 1346, Coull was a possession of the Douglases. In 1346, Fife abandoned the Balliol cause, and joined King David’s failed invasion of England. He was captured at the Battle of Neville’s Cross, and condemned as a traitor by the English King. However, as his wife was also a grand-daughter of Edward I, he was pardoned and allowed to return to Scotland. His daughter Isabella was the last of the family to hold Coull.

In 1389, Isabella resigned the barony of Coull and O’Neill to the Crown, along with the Earldom of Fife, both of which were granted to his son Robert, the future Duke of Albany, and in 1398 he granted the barony to his son John Stewart, Earl of Buchan. Following the death of Buchan in France, the barony again reverted to the Crown and was then granted to Patrick Forbes of Corse by King James III in 1482. In 1492 Coull became detached from the rest of the barony of O’Neill and was acquired by Alexander Irvine of Drum.

In none of these cases is there any mention of the castle of Coull, and in fact it only appears specifically in a charter of 1554, when the “lands of Cowle with their castle and mill” are mentioned in a grant of the Queen-Regent to Alexander Irvine of Drum. In the first half of the 17th century it was definitely ruinous.

The castle was described in 1792 in the Statistical Account of the parish as follows: –

“Not many years ago there was scarcely anything to be seen at all, but a number of little green hills and the remainder of an old wall about 30 yards long and 10 or 12 feet thick; the ruins were buried in the ground.”

“…the remains of four gates and five turrets of very extraordinary dimensions. These last…will be about 18 or 20 feet in diameter; the walls win those places which seem most entire are 15 feet thick…one of the gates, which is not so much demolished as the rest, is closed above with a Gothis arch of freestone; this gate is 9 feet wide, 12 feet high, and 15 feet thick. The whole work, as far as can now be traced, appears to be a square measuring about 50 yards on each side.”

This had been exposed by residents searching for fertiliser, but soon became covered up again, and it seems probable that some of the building was robed for stone at this time as well, since when excavated by Archibald Simpson in 1923, the remains were nowhere near as entire as this description. The castle has further deteriorated in the ninety years since Simpsons excavation.

Guided tour of Coull Castle

The castle is built on a rocky bluff overlooking the Tarland burn, and the natural strength of the location has been enhanced by the digging of a ditch and counterscarp bank around the eastern side of the castle. From the approach the contours are all that can in fact be seen; the best preserved sections of masonry lie to the south and west. These are hidden by the topography of the site, which slopes from the rock face overlooking the artificial ditch towards the west where the burn flows.

Approaching the castle site from the track to the north, to the left is the counterscarp bank and wide artificial ditch.  In front is an area of extremely uneven ground with a visible depression, beyond which is a section of mortared wall. Upon closer inspection, it can be seen that the depression is round, and is in fact the basement of the right-hand of the two gatehouse towers. It can also be seen that the curved section of wall it the surviving remnant of the tower. A fragment of the eastern tower also survived in Simpson’s day but is now buried beneath the turf. Also clearly visible at this point is the rectangular drawbridge pit that lay between the two towers. Behind and to the south-east of the gatehouse site is a sloping ramp leading up to the main courtyard of the castle, which is probably made up of the collapsed gatehouse towers and curtain wall.

A stone dyke, however, directs the eye up the slope south-west towards the Tarland burn. This roughly follows the line of the old north-west curtain wall, of which not much remains, the footings mostly lying beneath the dike and the uneven ground. As one passes the summit of this rise and heads downhill, a section of the curtain wall now becomes visible, heading a short distance downhill, to end at the partial remains of a small round tower, and from this, the south-western curtain wall foundations can clearly be traced.

Running parallel with this south-western curtain is another, thinner wall, which is the inner wall of the hall and kitchen block. This was divided in two at basement level, and the dividing wall can clearly be seen surviving to a height of well over a metre. Simpson identified the northernmost room as a store below the kitchen, by the presence of the fireplace buttress in the wall, above which the main kitchen fire would have been. Although now largely overgrown, this buttress can still be seen projecting towards the courtyard near where the storeroom wall meets the curtain wall. Towards the middle of the building, the remains of the entrance to the store survive, with a number of the carved sections of the doorway can be seen.

The southernmost of the two rooms, Simpson identified as a storeroom beneath the great hall. The wall of this room has not survived as well, but it is also possible to see a surviving part of an entrance doorway, and to trace the wall foundation towards the south-eastern curtain wall. The south-western curtain wall, which served as the exterior wall of the hall block, fades away to almost nothing at this point, and the gable end – consisting of the south-eastern curtain wall – is completely missing. The two curtain walls are presumed to have met at a small round tower matching that at the other end of the kitchen/hall block, but there are no remains; and in fact Simpson records that a substantial effort was made to locate walls in this corner – without success.

The view of the castle at this point is dominated by the substantial sections of wall slightly to the east of this position, and which climb up the steep slope to the high point of the site. Between the now-missing southern end of the hall-kitchen block and these substantial ruins there was clearly a small doorway exiting the castle, which was the sally-port. Only one side of this gateway survives, and then only a couple of pieces of carved masonry indicate its presence. To the east of this sally port the large ruined wall is pierced by a gap that was clearly once a doorway, and enters into the basement room of a large round tower, projecting out from the curtain wall over the slope. Simpson deduces that because there is no evidence of internal stairs within the width of the wall of this tower, the basement was unconnected to the upper floors, and that the main entrance was at first floor level, which seems reasonable. The room inside the tower was about 4.5 metres wide, and contained a small latrine room to the east. The walls of the tower are on average just over 2 metres thick. They survive to a height of over 5 metres in places.

Climbing up the slope to the east of the great round tower, alongside the ruined wall, it becomes clear that the wall at this point is extraordinarily thick, and from the top it is evident that there is a mismatch of masonry on the outside of the round tower. Most of the tower is made of tidily finished pink and grey stone, and the walls were clearly vertical, with a slight batter at the base. However around the outside of the tower’s base, the stone has a beehive like profile, and there has been no attempt at all to regularise the masonry. In fact it looks for all the world as if someone has just piled a great load of ballast against the base of the tower. This is clear evidence of an entirely separate (and clearly rushed) stage of construction, and Simpson was able to identify that this was repair work carried out after the main tower had been seriously damaged.

To the north-east of the tower, the wall is, as has been noted, extraordinarily thick, and there appears to be no logical explanation for why it is so much thicker than any of the other sections of wall at Coull Castle. It is possible, as suggested by Simpson, that it was the site of a staircase accessing the wall head, and combines this with a possible wooden access stair for the main areas of the tower. However it seems somewhat odd to place a stair accessing the wall head in a position maximising the number of steps necessary to reach the top of the wall, and this thick wall may have contained a grand staircase for the tower – which also provided access to the battlements, and from the wall walk to the tower.

The eastern end of this thick wall terminates suddenly, with no indication of the presence of a curtain wall connecting this corner to the much lower gatehouse. This wall would have overlooked the edge of the crag, and the wide ditch. It is unlikely that it was as thick as the short section of wall adjacent to the large round tower, and it also seems improbable that there was a range of buildings butting up to it. The reason for this is that the ground slopes quite steeply from the site of this wall towards the kitchen/hall block as well as towards the gatehouse. Whilst it is possible this slope is partially due to the presence of collapsed masonry, it is more likely that in the destruction of the castle, the walls were toppled into the castle ditch. It is in fact quite possible that the courtyard was terraced, with an upper level by the north-east curtain wall, and a central courtyard area sloping from the level of the sally port to the level of the gatehouse entrance.

From the site of the north-eastern curtain it is possible to appreciate the uneven nature of the site, and it is evident that in order to provide access to the store rooms beneath the hall and kitchen, an access passageway had to be excavated along the south-west slope, which probably has a retaining wall of some kind hidden behind the turf. This means that the floor level of the storeroom under the kitchen is several feet beneath the level of the courtyard, and suggests strongly that the entrances to the hall and kitchen were at first floor level, probably reached by a flying staircase. Further buildings may have been present adjacent to the north-western wall, although these (and any on the highest “terrace” would probably have been of wood, unless the foundations lie buried in a substantial mound of debris.

Exiting through the sally port, to the west of the castle it can be seen that the slope drops fairly unevenly – and sharply in places, to the burn which undoubtedly was the principle source of water for the castle, although there was probably an as yet unidentified well in the courtyard. South and south-east of the castle is an area of land that may at one point have made up a castletoun, which gets progressively more uneven as one approaches the castle and may have contained outer earthworks as an extension of the ditch and counterscarp bank defences. Simpson depicts some of these on his plan, but this is barely recognisable today in some places. It is also notable that many of the features and dimensions shown in his article are no longer visible, or much reduced today; particularly the height of the remains, which is much lower in many areas today than his excavations in 1923.

His efforts did, however, reveal one thing that we can be certain of. Coull Castle was destroyed by fire. And this sets us up for the most intriguing aspect of Coull Castle – its final fate. We know a reasonable amount about the history of the lands, and of the men (and women), who held Coull. However very little is known about the castle’s history.

The story of Coull Castle

It is assumed that the construction of Coull Castle was started by Thomas Durward, after 1228, the year of his acquisition of the part of the Earldom of Mar that was to become the Lordship of O’Neill. There is certainly no evidence that the Earls had any dwelling here. It is, however, far from certain that he would have completed it, since he had died by 1231, and his elder son Colin died only a short time afterwards, so would have had little – if any – part to play in the building of the castle.

It is therefore undoubted that the first of the Durwards to spend any great time at Coull was Sir Alan, who was an active player in the politics and wars of the nation for four decades. Coull was his principal residence, and he would have made sure that no expense was spared in ensuring that his castle reflected his power, influence and wealth adequately. This was also a “golden age” in which Scotland had no extended periods of conflict – the last of the rebel family of MacWilliams had been put to death in 1230, and there was no war with England during the reign of Henry III.

When he died, and his estate was divided up among his three daughters, there was an obvious candidate to hold the castle of Coull and its pertinents, that chosen by King Alexander. One daughter had married a member of the de Soulis family, one was married to the Earl of Fife, and the third had wed a member of the Bisset family. This is why Coull had passed to the Earls of Fife – the other two men were not powerful enough to compete with the Earl for such a prize as the Barony of O’Neill. It is unlikely that Earl Duncan had much interest in Coull beyond its rents, and notable that his widow was prepared to part with it to pay her debts off during the Wars of Independence in preference to other estates.

As we have seen, Coull Castle is not mentioned by John de Strathbogie in his 1305 communication to Edward I, meaning that it was either secure, in other hands, or utterly destroyed. In an earlier letter, dated 1304, Earl John states that Aboyne Castle was the only castle locally held for King Edward, and at that time we know that the area was held fairly securely by him. This indicates that Coull was neither held by him or against him; ie it was uninhabited and indefensible.

This means that Coull Castle had been attacked and slighted before 1304. The almost total collapse of the Scottish cause in 1296 means that it was not destroyed by the English in that year, and in fact Countess Isabella appears to have been consistently loyal to King Edward, making it unlikely one of her properties would be destroyed. In fact Coull was probably garrisoned by English soldiers at her instruction. It is, however, quite likely that the castle was attacked and taken by Sir Andrew Murray, who was leading the rebellion in the north soon afterwards. It is likely that his assault resulted in serious damage to the large circular tower, and that it was caused by undermining

After the defeat of Wallace and Murray at Falkirk in 1298, if Coull had been occupied by the rebels (which is unlikely), the slighted and strategically useless castle was abandoned for the Countess and her supporters to attempt to repair. It is therefore for this reason that no mention of the castle is made in her grant to John de Hastings, although “the pertinents” were included. It seems probable that Hastings then commissioned emergency repairs to prevent the collapse of the large tower.

Between 1298 and 1304, King Edward invaded Scotland four times, and in this period the lands of Coull were taken from John de Hastings and granted by Edward to John de Strathbogie. Under these circumstances it is unlikely that any attempts were made to inhabit the castle. Strathbogie describes the vicinity as “savage and full of evil-doers” reflecting the likelihood that any attempt to occupy the lands of Coull would be met with hostility.

It is logical to suppose that the local situation had deteriorated since Hastings (based elsewhere) had been granted the lands of Coull, and that Strathbogie as a local man had been commissioned to bring the area under control again. If this was the case, it also follows that he was unable to reoccupy the repaired castle at Coull because of rebels in the area, and was restricted to Aboyne Castle, a lesser stronghold. Despite the fall of Stirling Castle, and the epic campaign of Edward I as far north as Elgin, northern Scotland was not as subdued as might have been expected in 1304. Certainly John de Strathbogie felt matters were far from peaceful around Coull, and that strategic errors were being made, with Aboyne castle being taken out of his hands and granted to Alexander Comyn.

When Robert Bruce rebelled in 1306, a significant event took place in Mar, at Kildrummy, where Strathbogie had defected to Bruce (possibly resenting the Comyns) and held the Bruce womenfolk safely within the castle, which was besieged by the future Edward II. Strathbogie was caught and executed in London, and the women imprisoned in barbarous fashion. It is possible that Strathbogie had attempted to repair Coull Castle, having joined Bruce, but if so, it was almost certainly the last time Coull was occupied.

In 1308, Aberdeenshire was a target for Bruce. Edward I of England had died, and Edward II was still finding his feet, which gave him free time to deal with his most diehard opponents, the Comyns. By this time David de Strathbogie, son of Earl John, had rebelled against Bruce and was in exile in England, his estates granted elsewhere, leaving Bruce a relatively free hand in the Mar uplands. If Coull were still standing, it was a clear target for Bruce and his supporters, who systematically destroyed every castle they took, to prevent the English garrisoning them.

The evidence is clear that the castle was burned to the ground, with charcoal being discovered by Simpson in every location a building could be identified. In various places twisted and partially melted iron nails, and fused stonework were discovered. In addition the walls were dismantled down to the foundations, and the surviving remains of the towers have been deliberately destroyed rather than plundered for stone, since areas of easily accessible stone remain, whilst in others attention has been paid to removing stone in more difficult spots that are strategically important.

Coull Castle is desperately in need of preservation to prevent further deterioration of the site, and it is likely to yield a wealth of information about its history if excavated systematically. It is a snapshot of a thirteenth century Scottish baronial castle with a very short lifespan of at most eighty years, and thus of unusual importance. This little known and unloved site can be found just to the south of Coull church, which has a car park, a short distance to the north of Aboyne, and is visible from the B9094 Aboyne – Tarland road.

Had Sir Alan Durward succeeded in the legitimising of his wife, it would also have been the birthplace of a new royal dynasty of Scotland, since it would have been his daughters that would have been the logical successors to the Maid of Norway, and Edward I would never have been invited to pass judgement on Balliol, Bruce and the others. At Coull, it is possible to consider an alternative history of Scotland, with no Wallace, no Balliol, no Bruce, and no Stuart dynasty. All it would have taken was one stroke of the papal pen…