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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


Updated: Sep 21, 2022

The view of Slains Castle is never to be forgotten. Perched on the edge of sheer granite cliffs, its situation is dramatic. No wonder that Bram Stoker, who knew Slains Castle well, gave most of the castles and mansions in his novels a cliff-top setting. In his day, the castle he knew was intact: the living quarters were on the first floor, whereas the ground floor ‘below stairs’ held the various ancillary rooms and the servants' quarters. Only in 1926 was the castle partly demolished.

New Slains Castle today is the ruined shell of a building that was mostly constructed in 1836. Although there had been earlier buildings on the site dating from the start of the seventeenth century, only a few fragments have survived.

What I intend to do over the next five articles is to give an informed account of what was where within the ruins of New Slains Castle. I start my guide to the ruins by taking a short walk through the front entrance.

1. Front Door

Twelve wide steps constructed from salmon-pink Peterhead granite led up to a shorter step forming the threshold for the front door – thirteen altogether. The exposed location of the steps must have made climbing them a hazardous undertaking during a winter gale.

The steps are now gone, and are believed to have been sold to Aberdeen Council, who used them for the construction of Torry Intermediate School in the south of the city. That's plausible, because the school was mostly built with Peterhead granite sourced from the demolition of Pitfour House in 1926.

The front doors were located within a projecting stone entrance hall flanked by octagonal shaped stone columns. Two double doors about ten feet high and presumably solid oak provided a solid frontage. Photographs show that there was no door knocker or bell here. A stone carving of the Hay family crest lay above the front door. In 1852 this was described in a letter (included in Slains Castle’s Secret History) as ‘the family arms in a very old stone’.

The crest still survives and is set above a fireplace in a house next to Old Slains Castle, near Collieston. The motto at the base of the crest reads ‘Gang Warily’ - Go Warily. Given the connection between Slains Castle and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, this was advice that should have been well heeded by Jonathan Harker on entering Castle Dracula!

Compare and contrast the entrance door of Slains Castle with Bram Stoker’s description of Castle Dracula's front door.

‘Then he took my traps, and placed them on the ground beside me as I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails, and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone. I could see even in the dim light that the stone was massively carved, but that the carving had been much worn by time and weather...
I stood in silence where I was, for I did not know what to do. Of bell or knocker there was no sign. Through these frowning walls and dark window openings it was not likely that my voice could penetrate.’

Differences: 1) The front door of Castle Dracula was at ground level whereas that of Slains Castle was accessed up a flight of steps. 2) The Slains Castle front door was not studded with nails.

Similarities: ‘Of bell or knocker there was no sign’. One wonders whether Bram Stoker on visiting Slains Castle for the first time stood at the front door perplexed by the absence of a knocker or bell! He would, of course, have had to knock on the door, and hope that the echo was heard by the castle butler somewhere within.

Inside the front door was an entrance hall which led through a door into a quadrangular corridor originally built around a central courtyard. Facing you straight ahead was another corridor which led into the famous octagonal hall, the central hub for the principal rooms of the castle.

The quadrangular corridor around the courtyard was a feature of the castle before 1836, and was mentioned by James Boswell when he visited Slains Castle with Dr Johnson in 1773.

‘My lord [James Hay, 15th Earl of Erroll] has built of brick, round or along the square in the inside, a gallery both on the first and second storey, the house being no higher, so that he has always a dry walk, and the rooms which formally entered through each other, have now all separate entries from the gallery, which is hung with Hogarth’s works and other prints’.

The brickwork can still be seen inside the castle ruins. It looks as if this part of the castle was modified and added to in 1836. The octagonal hall and the three corridors leading from it probably date from this time.

A letter from the Countess of Erroll in 1852 letter mentions that ‘through all the corridors are distributed the family pictures. You may conceive their number when I say that they are hung in a line all through the corridors.’ A visitor to the castle, writing in 1867, mentions that ‘the house is built around a large covered piazza, intersected by corridors where pictures, armour and all kinds of old family relics decorate the walls’.

Two paintings of note hung in the corridors: ‘In one of the corridors hangs the picture of James, Lord Hay, a fair-haired, sunny-faced boy, tall and athletic, standing with a cricket-bat in his hand. He would have been Earl of Erroll had he lived...’ James was killed at the Battle of Quatres Bras, which took place in the run up to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He had only left Eton a few months earlier. Lord Hay’s Road in Aberdeen is named after him.

‘A little farther down this corridor, which to all intents and purposes is a family picture-gallery, we shall be forced to stop before the portrait of a dark woman, masculine and resolute, not beautiful nor like the handsome race of the Hays, of which she was yet the last direct representative. This is the famous Countess Mary, one of the central figures of the family traditions. The Hays were hereditary lords high constable of Scotland, and also one of the few Scottish families in which titles and offices, as well as lands, are transmitted through the female line. So this Countess Mary found herself, at the death of her brother, Countess of Erroll in her own right and Lord High Constable of Scotland.’

Next time in part two we will venture out of the corridors into the octagonal hall with its look-alike within Castle Dracula.


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1 Comment

Aug 26, 2022

Fascinating, Mike, and superb research. Very much looking forward to the remaining instalments.


The walls of the octagonal hall inside Slains Castle

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