Not too far from Edinburgh, in East Lothian, stands Keith Marischal (pronounced like ‘marshal’) House. When compared to the likes of Balmoral or Ardverikie (perhaps better known to some of us as ‘Glenbogle’), Keith Marischal is one of the more modest baronial piles, boasting only a few of the style’s soaring crow-step gables and pointed turrets. Like those other two houses, though, this is part of the kilts-and-bagpipes Walter Scottery brand of Scotland. Most of these design features date to the early 20th century, and were a self-conscious impersonation of the past. However, buried beneath these theatrical add-ons lie fragments of something far richer and more impressive, telling a much more vibrant and almost forgotten story of Scotland.
Perhaps the least appreciated part of Scottish history is the brief interlude after the worst of the wars with England and before the grimly dour austerity of Covenanted Scotland. This is the splendid period of Renaissance Scotland, the time of six Jameses and a Mary, and a wonderful flourishing of literature, architecture, and national self-confidence. When attention is paid to this time, most of it goes to the unlucky fate of Queen Mary (‘of Scots’ fame), and media depictions of the period tend towards hairy, unkempt, and vicious men prowling around cold and bare stone castles, as if the comb, plaster, and interior decoration were just something that happened to other nations – the recent Mary Queen of Scots film being a baffling case in point. Relatively forgotten are the wonderfully funny plays of David Lindsay, the revolutionary political philosophy of George Buchanan, the heartfelt poetry of Elizabeth Melville, and the groundbreaking mathematical innovations of John Napier. Similarly overlooked are the marvels of the painted gallery of Pinkie House and the ceilings of Crathes Castle, the architectural splendour of Linlithgow, Glamis, Falkland, and even George Heriot’s Hospital in Edinburgh.
Indeed, after the Union of 1707, Scots seemed to relish destroying their history. The great palaces were left to tumble into ruin or were mangled by conversion into army barracks; ancestral castles were swept away in favour of Classically inspired villas; and medieval churches were obliterated to make way for tedious preaching boxes. There were some efforts to preserve and celebrate the past, but the stranglehold of the Kirk, itself founded in the destruction of so much beautiful (or, in fairness, idolatrous, depending on your point of view) architecture, while contributing so much positive to Scotland’s story, left the Scottish imagination, at times, wholly dour. In the 19th century, while the Danes painstakingly restored the likes of Frederiksborg Castle, the Scots left Linlithgow to the mercy of the rain. And so the rich colour of the 1400s, 1500s and 1600s was forgotten.
Look, just south of Aberdeen, at Scotland’s most famous castle, Dunnottar. If the name does not ring a bell, you should recognise it in the image above. The ruins of Dunnottar are beloved for their spectacular setting, where visitors can marvel at the medieval tower, the gunloops, and stories of William Wallace burning an English garrison alive in the chapel. When complete, this palace would have shone brightly with its light-coloured harling (wall plaster), while banners, grand decorative finials, and smoke from the burning hearths would have risen above. Inside, finely plastered walls would have been decked with rich tapestries, the ceilings decorated with rich murals, and the rooms filled with books, feasting, laughing, and dancing, depending on their function and the time of day. The place was alive. And two and a half miles inland was Dunnottar’s sister palace, Fetteresso, owned by the same earl: a sprawling palatial villa with grand terraced gardens and hunting parks that stretched forever. Where Dunnottar was a place to show off, Fetteresso was a place to live. Today, though, Dunnottar – although still spectacular – is just a collection of walls, while Fetteresso has been largely obliterated by later development.
The Keiths and the Earls Marischal
Which brings us back to Keith Marischal. It was owned and used by the same family, the Keiths, who were the Earls Marischal of Scotland. In the 1570s the Earls Marischal were described as the richest earls in Scotland. A later story that they could travel all the way from Berwick to Caithness, and eat and sleep every night on their own estates, is a bit of an exaggeration, but encapsulates the scope of their great east-coast empire. As well as Keith Marischal, Dunnottar, and Fetteresso, the earls owned the sister houses of Inverugie and Ravenscraig in Buchan; Hallforest, not far from Aberdeen; a castle dominating the new town of Peterhead (founded by the earls in 1587); a grand town house in Aberdeen; a house converted from the Abbey of Deer; Ackergill Tower in faraway Caithness; as well as various smaller Keith houses of Aden, Boddam, Ludquharn, Troup, Delny, the ‘Wallace Tower’ in Aberdeen, and the delightfully named ‘Old Maud’.
Although Dunnottar was probably the earl’s primary and most impressive seat of power, Keith Marischal was the family’s ancestral seat. Located in the Parish of Humbie, East Lothian, it was also in handy reach of Edinburgh, the journey there and back being achievable in a day by horse. By 1159, in the reign of David I, a man called Hervie acquired the north-west half of the lands of Keith, the previous owner having been a Norman baron called Gilbert de Umfraville. The placename ‘Keith’ comes from a Brythonic word meaning woodland or forest, which has the same root as the Germanic word ‘Heath’. Hervie took the placename as his designation, ‘de Keith’, from where the surname ‘Keith’ would develop, and this in turn led to the forename. Although there are many ‘Keith’-derived placenames in Scotland (Dalkeith, Inchkeith, Inverkeithing, and so on), the surname seems to stem from just the Keith of East Lothian, and most folk with the surname ‘Keith’ seem to ultimately descend from Hervie. Hervie’s lands became known as Keith-Harvey to differentiate them from the other half of the lands of Keith, which became Keith-Simon – the lands of Simon Fraser, the first Fraser recorded in Scottish history. Keith-Simon later became Keith Hundeby and is now just Humbie. However, for most of their histories, Keith Marischal and Humbie were usually referred to as Nether Keith and Over Keith respectively.
The ‘Marischal’ element of Keith Marischal’s name was added because the Keiths were hereditary Marischals of Scotland, which was a royal office of some prestige, although a very vague one. The Marischal seems to have initially been the king’s farrier, before the job evolved into something like a commander of cavalry, a master of ceremonies, and, before the roles were fully formalised, they shared some responsibility with the Constable and the Lord Lyon in matters of chivalric precedence. But there is no written description of the role, aside from mentions of the responsibility for maintaining order within whichever building parliament was being held.
Hervie de Keith built a chapel on his newly acquired lands, the ruins of which still stand across a small burn from Keith Marischal House. This chapel became the church of its own small parish, although this was reunited with Humbie in 1618 and the chapel then abandoned to the ivy. Around the church was probably a cluster of houses, although by the 18th century the nearest township was to the east, which retained the name Nether Keith, of which next to nothing survives today – presumably prey to the lesser-known Lowland Clearances.
In reward for their adherence to Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Independence, in 1320 the Keiths were granted extensive confiscated lands in the north-east of Scotland. This shifted the focus of their landed influence, especially with the Castles of Dunnottar in the Mearns and, through a later marriage, Inverugie in Buchan. However, Keith Marischal still retained high practical and symbolic importance for the family.
As the principal seat of the Keiths (before and alongside their acquisition of Dunnottar), Keith Marischal would have been a notable residence befitting the status of its aristocratic owners. Seventeenth-century sources describe Keith Marischal and Dunnottar in the same breath, and studies of other noble families in Scotland have shown that the ‘ancestral seat’ was often held in very high regard, even if they didn’t live there most of the time. The ancestral home of the Campbells of Glenorchy, Kilchurn Castle, for example, was lovingly maintained, even though the family favoured Breadalbane.
What can the surviving house tell us about the residence’s earlier appearance? Keith Marischal today is largely a product of 19th- and early 20th-century remodelling, to such an extent that even in 1887 the renowned surveyors of Scottish castles, MacGibbon and Ross, lamented that the preceding century had removed anything they could use to ‘describe or delineate’. Indeed, the façade of Keith Marischal mostly dates to the 1900s, when a fairly plain E-shaped building with an attached single-storey kitchen block was given the full baronial treatment of turrets and crowsteps. However, there is a much older L–shaped core. A datestone surviving on the foot of the L reads ‘1589’, and although the authenticity of this is slightly suspect, the part of the structure that this stone is attached to is certainly the oldest part of the building, and it is not impossible that 1589 is roughly accurate. Moreover, the upper portion of the long part of the L can be firmly dated thanks to a building contract of 1604, recently discovered by the historian Michael Pearce. However, the 1604 contract is clearly part of a much wider project, detailing construction on much older buildings and foundations.
The house’s roof structure is fascinating, being clearly salvaged material. The construction of its present form perhaps dates to the later 17th or maybe even the early 18th century and, wonderfully, the Edwardian roof is just tacked on to this, so we have a roof within a roof in places. Among the salvaged material in the roof are a number of painted boards and, excitingly, these appear to be fragments of painted ceiling decoration, which was favoured in Scotland during the 16th and early 17th century – most impressively seen at nearby Pinkie House, a glorious villa built for Alexander Seton, first Earl of Dunfermline (1555-1622), where murals of biblical and Classical scenes run the length of its long gallery, dating from about 1613. Dunfermline and Marischal were acquaintances at court and government, and a charming letter survives from Dunfermline asking to borrow one of the Earl Marischal’s books.
Looking outwith the house, there are a few intriguing features nearby. The steading complex dates to the 1810s and is probably constructed of material salvaged from the ruins of the old house, so further study of its architectural features would be a rewarding endeavour. Before the driveway was altered to create a winding woodland avenue at about the same time, it terminated on the nearby road at a fascinating feature called the Fir Knowe. This seems to be a prehistoric burial mound, as previous antiquarian investigations there uncovered a few funerary urns. That the house’s driveway once was interacting with it is fascinating, perhaps suggesting it was incorporated as a garden feature.
While the Keith Marischal house and its setting as they stand today are of considerable interest, they can only tell part of the story. The current building probably only encompasses one part of one side of a much larger palace complex. We learn this by turning to the historic record.
History of the house
Despite owning the lands, and no doubt having a noble residence there, from 1159 the Earl Marischal and his house and fortalice at Nether Keith are not actually mentioned in surviving documents until 1489. After that, we have more records: in 1525, the Lands and Barony of Keith are mentioned cum turre et fortalicio. Turre simply translates as ‘tower’, while fortalicio refers to a defended courtyard or walled enclosure. A variation of the house’s name over the centuries was ‘Keith Place’; ‘place’ or ‘palace’ being a Scots term that denoted a noble residence which enclosed a courtyard.
Did the many wars between Scotland and England have an impact on the lands of Keith? The extent is not known, but as Keith Marischal lay not too far from the paths of the English armies during the ‘Rough Wooing’ (1543-1551, when Henry VIII tried to force a marriage alliance between the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, and his six-year-old son, the future Edward VI), especially after the Battle of Pinkie in 1547, it may be that the later building works and redevelopment recorded at the site might be related to such damage. The lands and castle seem to have been burnt by a raiding English army in January 1550, for example.
The house’s most important proprietor was George Keith, fifth Earl Marischal (1554-1623) who founded Marischal College, Aberdeen’s second university (now familiar from the soaring silver granite Gothic Revival building in the heart of the city). He also established two new towns, Peterhead and Stonehaven, both in 1587, and in 1583 George was described as having the ‘revennew greatest of any Erle in Scotlande’. He is known to have lavished money on many other noble residences, building wholly new castles or houses in Peterhead, Aberdeen, and Brotherton, and remodelling his great castles of Inverugie, Fetteresso, and Dunnottar. He also devoted considerable attention to Keith Marischal. George spent much time at court in Edinburgh, and the house – around 20 miles from the city – would have provided a useful retreat. Coupled with this, George was keenly interested in his descent and the history of his family. He composed the first known genealogy of the Keiths, and in this he declared that the estates of Keith Marischal had been given to his ancestor Robert Keith, along with the office of hereditary Marischal of Scotland, by a grateful Malcolm II for slaying a Danish invader called Camus. This is demonstrably wrong, but given the importance George attached to the site, his known architectural exuberance elsewhere, and his extensive revenues, it is very likely that Keith Marischal was extravagantly remodelled and ranked alongside the finest palaces in Scotland. As the ancestral home of the Keiths, the house would have been held in high regard as the symbol of the family’s origins and the antiquity of its kindred.
Dunfermline and Marischal were acquaintances at court: a charming letter survives from Dunfermline asking to borrow one of Earl Marischal’s books.
This brings us back to the suspect datestone reading ‘1589’. That year, the earl took out a loan against the barony of Keith Marischal, for the huge sum of £8,000, which may relate to this phase of building work (he borrowed a further £4,666 13s 4d in 1590, and the same sum again in 1592). In 1589, he also travelled to Denmark as ambassador to marry Princess Anna as proxy for King James. Later legends tell how the timber for the roof of Keith Marischal was a gift from the King of Denmark in thanks for the earl’s role in arranging the marriage – though, unfortunately, Dr Coralie Mills of Dendrochronicle has pointed out that the fast-grown pine of the roof cannot be meaningfully tested for tree-ring data. In any case, though, the rare survival of the 1604 building contract, relating to a small part of the buildings, provides clear evidence that a multi-year programme of works was under way and of some ambition.
Sadly, the great fortunes of the Keiths were not to last, and everything George had built up would be lost within a century. The Keiths’ ancestral home was sold, apparently ‘for the purpose of aiding General Leslie’ during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, at which time the inept William Keith, seventh Earl Marischal, was experiencing severe money problems. The house and barony were sold in November 1642 to William Hepburn, advocate of the king’s council and session, and the house thereafter remained with the Hepburns until being passed to the Hopes of Hopetoun and leased out. The Keiths retained their northern lands, although their east-coast empire shrank fast. Firmly opposed to the Union of 1707, the tenth Earl Marischal threw in his lot with Jacobitism and the 1715 rebellion – for which his estates were forfeited and he was exiled. Although later reprieved and returning briefly to Scotland, the earl preferred a glittering career in the service of the Prussian Crown, and the line of the earls died out.
Description of the lost palace
Our best account of the house’s pre-19th-century appearance comes from Alexander Mitchell, who was sent by Bishop Robert Keith (1681-1757) to document it. Mitchell was active from 1715 to 1781, and his description must pre-date Bishop Keith’s death in 1757. In his report, Mitchell describes a courtyard 24 yards long and 19 yards wide, only a section of which (the core of the current house) was habitable, the rest being in ruins. He describes a turret on the surviving portion (which still stands), but also that there was an identical turret opposite (which does not). We know that the surviving turret at Keith Marischal was still standing by 1604, when a building contract orders the lost turret to be rebuilt, while the range in between these was to be raised from two storeys to three. The two-‘turreted’ arrangement described by Mitchell and indicated through the surviving portion of the building suggests that the south wing closely resembled the 1619 range at Drum Castle in Aberdeenshire. This is no coincidence: the mother of Alexander Irvine, ninth Laird of Drum, was Elizabeth Keith, aunt to George Keith, fifth Earl Marischal. Irvine also donated generously to the earl’s new university of Marischal College in Aberdeen.
Mitchell wrote, too, about how, on the north side of the court, there stood the ruins of the Marischal’s great hall, with its inside wall surviving to the joisting. Later that century, and independently to Mitchell, the house was described in the Statistical Account of Scotland by Henry Sangster, the minister of Humbie. He describes how the great hall ‘surpassed anything of the kind, and was suited to the splendour of a family at that time the most opulent and powerful in the kingdom. The house itself was of the form of a hollow square: and one entire side of it, 110 feet in extent, and three storeys in height, was occupied by a hall. Succeeding proprietors have pulled it down.’
The Great Hall, if the descriptions given are accurate, would be a very remarkable building. Mitchell gives the length at 72ft ‘and perhaps 19 or 20 feet broad without the Court’, which could be taken to imply the width of the hall (although he implies that only the inside wall still stands), or that it extended a further 20ft in addition to the 72ft of the courtyard width, making 91-92ft. If he meant 72ft plus 20ft on both sides, this would broadly line up with Sangster’s assertion of 110ft. This is a very large structure. For some perspective, the 1503 Great Hall of Stirling Castle, the largest in Scotland, measures 126ft by 37ft. Edinburgh Castle’s is 82ft by 30ft, and Linlithgow’s is 98ft by 28ft. Of the more ambitious noble great halls, the Earl of Orkney’s 1606 Great Hall at Kirkwall, Orkney, was 56ft by 20ft, and the Earl of Huntly’s Huntly Castle was 43ft by 29ft. The Great Hall of Dunnottar Castle was 55ft. At either 78ft or 110ft, Keith Marischal boasted the second or the fourth longest hall in Scotland.
There is a slim chance that this space is mistakenly described (albeit in two accounts) as a Great Hall instead of a Long Gallery, which were known to have such considerable lengths (Dunnottar’s is 115 feet), but these only occupied a single storey, usually on the top floor, and Keith Marischal’s hall is described as being three storeys in height (rather than one room in a building range of three storeys). Moreover, at Keith Marischal it is more likely that a Long Gallery would have occupied the top storey of the south range, as this could then have overlooked the formal gardens and enjoyed the most sunlight.
One puzzling omission from these accounts is mention of the tower. A poem of 1635 described Keith Marischal as a tower, in addition to the 1525 description of ‘tower and courtyard’ noted above. The comparison with Drum is important again. At Drum, the old medieval tower stands separate from the two-turreted 1619 range, and this may have been the case with Keith Marischal. The footings of the original tower of Keith may lie under the lawn, forming part of the courtyard, possibly on the undescribed western side. The old medieval tower, if it still stood when the palace was sold in 1642, would have been of little practical use for the new owners and of no symbolic significance for them, which may explain its quick disappearance and why it is not mentioned by Mitchell.
What, then, can archaeology add to these written accounts?
In the spring of 2018, a generous grant from the Castle Studies Trust allowed historical descriptions and their implications to be explored scientifically. Rose Geophysics carried out a geophysical survey of the area immediately in front of the present house, using both resistivity and radar methods, and although a clear floor plan was not seen – the creation of the oval driveway in about 1810 seems to have disrupted everything – a couple of intriguing features were apparent. Of course, they might just be well-formed tree roots, but a large rectangular feature in the north might be the foundation of a medieval tower. Several other anomalies seem to roughly correspond with where we would expect the three ranges of the courtyard to be. While the exact dimensions of the great hall are beyond our grasp for the moment, we at least have a few interesting targets for future research. A wider survey might also help to put these into better context.
Overall, the historical record and the historical context suggest that Keith Marischal was in the top rank of Scottish noble architecture in the early modern period, and further archaeological work may well help to reveal more about its history. The wider landscape, the fragments within the surviving house, and the geophysical survey so far give us tantalising (if frustrating) glimpses and we hope that future work will help uncover more of this story.
In many ways, this house is a metaphor for Scotland itself: its fortunes follow those of the ancient kingdom, reaching its zenith under the Stewarts, falling into decline for two centuries, before being given a baronial facelift at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its current owners are painstakingly repairing, renovating and, where appropriate, modernising this old building, so it will stay standing for many more years to come – and so the story continues.
Keith M Brown (2000) Noble Society in Scotland: wealth, family and culture from Reformation to Revolution (Edinburgh University Press).
Charles McKean (2004) The Scottish Chateau: the country house of Renaissance Scotland (History Press).
Audrey Dakin, Miles Glendinning, and Aonghus MacKechnie (eds) (2011) Scotland’s Castle Culture (John Donald).
Marilyn Brown (2015) Scotland’s Lost Gardens: from the Garden of Eden to the Stewart palaces (RCAHMS).
Miles Kerr-Peterson (2019) A Protestant Lord in James VI’s Scotland: George Keith, Fifth Earl Marischal (1554-1623) (Boydell and Brewer).
Dr Miles Kerr-Peterson is an affiliate of the universities of Glasgow and Dundee.