Atholl Highlanders at Blair Castle

Atholl Highlanders at Blair Castle

10th Duke outside Blair Castle

10th Duke outside Blair Castle


Blair Castle stands in its grounds near the village of Blair Atholl in Perthshire in Scotland. It is the ancestral home of the Clan Murray, and was historically the seat of their chief, the Duke of Atholl, though the current (12th) Duke, Bruce Murray, lives in South Africa. The castle stands in Glen Garry, and commands a strategic position on the main route (now the A9 road) through the central Scottish Highlands. The castle is a category A listed building, and the grounds are included in the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland, the national listing of significant gardens.


Blair Castle is said to have been started in 1269 by John I Comyn, Lord of Badenoch (died c. 1275), a northern neighbour of David I Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl (died 1270), who started building on the Earl's land while he was away on crusade. Upon his return, the Earl complained about the interloper to King Alexander III, won back his land and incorporated the tower that had been built into his own castle. David II Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl (died 1326), forfeited the titles and estates after rebelling against Robert the Bruce in 1322. The earldom was granted to a number of individuals until 1457 when James II granted it to his half-brother John Stewart (1440–1512). John Murray, son of the second Earl of Tullibardine, was created Earl of Atholl in 1629, and the title has since remained in the Murray family. During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms of the 17th century, the Murrays supported the Royalist cause, which led to Blair Castle being taken by Oliver Cromwell's army following his invasion of 1650.[2] The restored Charles II created the title Marquess of Atholl for John Murray, 2nd Earl of Atholl (1631–1703). The title Duke of Atholl was granted to the 2nd Marquess in 1703.


When Viscount Dundee launched the first Jacobite Uprising in April 1689, Atholl decided to remain loyal to the Government (although two of his sons joined the Jacobites). Atholl’s factor, Patrick Stewart of Ballechin, held Blair Castle for King James, and Dundee visited in May. In July Ballechin refused entry to Atholl’s whiggish son and heir, Lord John Murray. Murray laid siege to the castle, and General Mackay was approaching to join him and to seize it for the Williamites. Viscount Dundee relieved the castle, and the crucial Battle of Killiecrankie was fought because Dundee did not want to retreat and surrender the castle to Mackay. Dundee and his officers and clan chiefs held a Council of War at the castle on the eve of the battle, on 26 July. The next day, the Jacobites won the battle but Dundee was killed. After the battle, Blair Castle remained in Jacobite hands for some time. It continued to play an important role: for example, the Jacobite Highland chiefs swore a bond there together in August, to continue the rising.


In the Forty-Five, Blair Castle was occupied twice by Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his Jacobite army: in early September 1745, for several days, and then in early February 1746, again for several days. However, the Jacobites then unwisely abandoned it and Government forces, including Lowland Clan Agnew then occupied it. They held Blair Castle against the Jacobites, who laid siege to the castle during the last stages of the rising, in March 1746. They were besieged to near starvation until the Jacobite forces withdrew to fight the British Government forces at the Battle of Culloden.


In 1844 Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert visited and stayed at Blair Castle. It was after this she gave permission to establish the Atholl Highlanders. Before his death in 1996, George Murray, 10th Duke of Atholl, placed Blair Castle and most of his estates in a charitable trust, shielding them from inheritance taxes and leaving them under Scottish control, as his heir John Murray, the 11th Duke had indicated he had no desire to leave his native South Africa. On the night of 10 March 2011 a fire broke out at the clock tower of castle (not part of the medieval fabric), causing the tower's roof and second floor to collapse into the first floor. The clock tower was restored in 2012, with restoration work on the clock mechanisms performed by Smith of Derby Group.


The oldest part of the castle is the six-storey Cummings or Comyn's Tower, which may retain some 13th-century fabric, though it was largely built in the 15th century. The extensions which now form the central part of the castle were first added in the 16th century. The apartments to the south were added in the mid-18th century to designs by architects John Douglas and James Winter. The south-east range, incorporating the clock tower, was rebuilt by Archibald Elliot after a fire in 1814. Finally, the castle arrived at its present form in the 1870s, when David Bryce remodelled the whole building in a Scots Baronial style, and added the ballroom. It was further remodelled in 1885 when a new ballroom wing was added by James Campbell Walker. The castle has been open to the public since 1936. Its many rooms feature important collections of weapons, hunting trophies, souvenirs of the Murray clan, ethnographica, paintings, furniture, and needlework collected by the Murray family over many generations. The castle also provides the garrison for the Atholl Highlanders, the private army of the Duke of Atholl, noted as the only legal private army in Europe. In 2009, a Grand Fir (Abies grandis) in Diana's Grove in the grounds of the castle, was measured at 62.7 metres (206 feet), and declared the second-tallest tree in Britain.


The castle tours give you the opportunity to experience for yourself the sheer grandeur and timeless majesty of Blair Castle. Some of the rooms you’ll encounter on your castle tour include: The Entrance Hall. David Bryce designed the dual-purpose entrance hall under the direction of the 7th Duke, to serve also as an ornamental armoury. Weapon displays were a feature of the Scottish Baronial style, but this one even includes targes (shields) and muskets which were used at the Battle of Culloden. An impressive form of a favourite park stag, Tilt, who died fighting in 1850, now presides over the hall. The Picture Staircase. The staircase forms a family portrait gallery, completed in 1756 as part of the Georgian remodelling scheme. At first sight the walls appear to be panelled, but actually they were formed in plasterwork by the Edinburgh stuccoist Thomas Clayton and his Italian assistants, working under the architect James Winter. The 2nd Duke took a great interest in the design of the staircase and determined the layout of the pictures.


The Dining Room. The present Dining Room was formed during the 18th century from the 16th century Great Hall. It incorporates more of Thomas Clayton’s plasterwork, ceiling roundels by Thomas Bardwell showing the four seasons, and local landscape scenes by Charles Stewart, an artist patronised by the 3rd Duke. At one time marble used to be quarried in nearby Glen Tilt, but imperfections in the stone and difficulties of transport made it uneconomic. A sample of Glen Tilt marble can be seen as a mount for a silver stag presented as a wedding gift to the 7th Duke and Duchess in 1888. There are other examples in the castle of the use of this marble. The Ante Room. This room now commemorates the life of Iain, 10th Duke whose vision and insight led him to place Blair Castle and the surrounding estate in trust for the benefit of the nation. He died in 1996 and was succeeded by John, the 11th Duke. The Derby Suite. The daughter of the 7th Earl of Derby, Lady Amelia Stanley, married the 1st Marquis of Atholl in 1659 and this suite is named for her. The bed hangings were embroidered in 1650 by Lady Amelia’s mother. Queen Victoria used this suite on her visit to Blair Castle in 1844 and it was on this occasion that she was so impressed with the guard provided by the Atholl Highlanders that she granted them the right to bear arms.


The Drawing Room. After the Ballroom, the Drawing Room is the largest room in the castle and represents the pinnacle of the 2nd Duke’s aspirations to grandeur. The ceiling and cornice represent Thomas Clayton’s very finest work, set off by the exquisite marble chimney piece by Thomas Carter. The crewel work curtains have recently been restored over some ten years by volunteers from the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. The Tapestry Room. Castle tours also take in the stunning tapestry room, which contains the Mortlake Tapestries that once belonged to King Charles I and were sold by Cromwell after the King’s execution. They were discovered in Paris and purchased by the 1st Duke who brought them to Blair Castle to hang in this room which forms part of the ancient Cumming’s Tower. The great William and Mary State Bed is hung with fine silks made by the Huguenot silk dressers of Spitalfields. It was brought to Blair from Holyrood Palace by the 1st Duke who had an apartment there as Lord Privy Seal to the Scottish Parliament, until he was arrested for opposing the Act of Union. The Main Staircase. This fine carved staircase was designed by Abraham Swan for the 2nd Duke. It displays various curiosities including the skull of a prehistoric Irish Elk. Also on the staircase are narwhal tusks – these were often brought home by early travellers and gave rise to the legend of the unicorn.


The Ballroom. Commissioned by the 7th Duke for the annual gathering of the Atholl Highlanders, this grand ballroom remains unchanged today. It is still used for its original purpose and for many Highland balls, wedding receptions, corporate hospitality and private dinners. Designed by David Bryce and completed in 1876, just before his death, the ballroom is essentially Scottish in style and setting. The celebrated fiddler Neil Gow was closely associated with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Dukes and his portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn, his chair and fiddle are displayed on the stage.The collections displayed in 30 rooms give a rich and varied impression of Scottish life over seven centuries. Fine pictures and furniture, arms and armour, porcelain, embroidery and lace, Masonic regalia, Jacobite relics and many family treasures provide fascinating insights into Scottish social history. Visitors taking the castle tour become acquainted not only with the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, their circles of friends, visiting Royalty and Scottish nobility down the age, but also with the ordinary people who have lived and worked at the castle through the centuries. Foresters and gamekeepers, gardeners and maids, butlers and estate managers have all left their mark and have an equally fascinating tale to tell.


Free parking for castle visitors is available within 100 metres of the castle, for 200 cars and 20 coaches. The extensive parklands in their magnificent Highland setting form part of a large estate with many walks and trails. The landscaped grounds include superb woodlands and the 9 acre Hercules Garden has been painstakingly restored. There is a deer park and pony trekking centre close to the Castle and children will be thrilled by our woodland advenuture playground. Castle Tours - accompanied and guided tours are available at no extra cost for groups of 12 or more, subject to availability. Booking is recommended and booked tours are given priority. At busy times and in high season it is not always possible to provide dedicated guides but in such circumstances guides are available along the visitor route to answer questions during free flow tours. Tours take about 50 minutes. Disabled visitors are invited to seek guidance from reception staff on arrival at the Grounds Office who will direct them if appropriate to park close to the castle. A full tour of the castle includes three floors and it is not possible to avoid stairs. The whole ground floor is accessible by wheelchair from the disabled parking area and gives access to several display rooms, the gift shop, restaurant, lavatories (including disabled lavatory) and an audio-visual presentation on the castle. Free use of a wheelchair is available if required. An electric limited mobility scooter may be hired at a charge of £3.00 giving access to the grounds – all proceeds are passed to Highland Perthshire Shop Mobility to help them extend the provision of such services. The audio visual facility provides a rolling 25 minute display showing many aspects of the castle. It is principally intended for disabled visitors who are given priority but is otherwise open to all. Assistance dogs are welcome.


Location : Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, Pitlochry, Perthshire PH18 5TL

Transport: Blair Atholl (National Rail) then 12 minutes. Bus Routes : 83, 87, 887 and M91 stop nearby (150 metres).

Opening Times : 1st April to 30th September, Daily, 09:30 to 17:30

Tickets House + Gardens: Adults £11.00;  Seniors/Students £9.50;  Children(5 - 16) £7.00

Tickets Gardens Only: Adults £6.50;  Seniors/Students £6.50;  Children(5 - 16) £3.00

Tel. : 01796 481207