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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


Updated: Sep 21, 2022

The drawing room was in the south-east wing of Slains Castle, and it was where the earl entertained his visitors. They would have been impressed by the glorious view over the North Sea from its ceiling-high bay window.

Four rooms comprised the south-east wing: The tower, Lady Erroll’s dressing room, the drawing room, and the library.

The tower is the only part of the castle with masonry from the original building. This was constructed by Francis Hay, 9th Earl of Erroll, around 1600 following the destruction of the original Slains Castle five miles to the south-west. Francis had taken part in a Catholic rebellion in the north of Scotland, which failed. King James VI personally supervised the blowing-up of his castle in 1594, using gunpowder given to him by Aberdeen Council. Sometime after, Francis returned from exile in 1597, and built a new house on what is now the site of (New) Slains Castle, naming it Bowness.

According to a source quoted in Pratt’s Buchan, Bowness was built in imitation of a house in France where the earl had lived while in exile. The name Slains Castle came later, when the 11th Earl of Erroll extended the building.

The lower part of the original Bowness House has survived at the base of the tower, which is not surprising given that the foundations are flush with the edge of the cliff. These would have been hazardous to build, and just as hazardous to remove.

According to Blanche Murphy, who described the castle in 1873, the tower once held an alarming feature: ‘There used to be in olden times an oubliette in which unhappy prisoners were let down. All at first appeared dark around them, but when they had thankfully assured themselves that they at last stood upon solid ground, they would look about them and presently descry a line of fitful light coming from a door ajar in their dungeon. The poor victims would then go in haste to this door, pull it open and, blinded by the sudden light, step out upon the green slope terminating quickly in a precipice, which went sheer down to the sea.’

Between the tower and the drawing room was Lady Erroll’s dressing room (or boudoir), which connected by a door to the master bedroom located on the south side of the castle and to the east of the front door.

The drawing room has been commented on by various visitors. Johnson and Boswell spent the night at Slains Castle in 1773. Boswell mentions the full-length portrait of James Hay, the 15th Earl of Erroll, painted by Joshua Reynolds.

Let's mention another painting here: on the right-hand side of an old photograph of the drawing room is a portrait of William Harry Hay, the 19th Earl of Erroll. He is depicted standing in a camp during the Crimean War, where he was wounded in the hand at the Battle of Alma.

Dr Johnson wrote about panoramic view of the sea from the bow window, ‘how the eye wanders over the sea that separates Scotland from Norway, and when the winds beat with violence, must enjoy all the terrific grandeur of the tempestuous ocean. I would not, for my amusement, wish for a storm; but as storms, whether wished for or not, will sometimes happen, I may say, without violation of humanity, that I should willingly look out upon them from Slains Castle.’

The Rev. John Pratt wrote in his book about the Buchan area of Aberdeenshire: ‘The learned Doctor was correct in his idea of the magnificence of a storm as seen from the windows of Slains Castle; nor would his imagination have been less affected had he chanced, during some dark November night, to have heard the booming waves as they beat against those rocks, or rush up the broken gullies, almost forcing upon on the belief, in spite of the stability of one’s footing, of having slipt our cable and being fairly out to sea.’

In extreme storms it had been known for waves to be thrown over the roof of Slains Castle. And during one particular storm the following happened (excerpted from my book When Brave Men Shudder: the Scottish origins of Dracula):

‘On the 10th October 1894, the steamer Chicago was on route from Sunderland to Baltimore with 130 tons of cargo. The ship, heading north, skirted around the Skares at the southern end of Cruden Bay in bad visibility and a stiff following wind. A short time after, the second officer on watch noticed they were heading directly towards a light which couldn’t at first be identified. What was that light? As they got closer, they realised to their horror that it was beaming from the windows of Slains Castle, and they were heading straight for the cliff underneath it. The engines were put full astern although this was not enough to prevent the steamer hitting the cliff. The impact was so violent, a large block of granite broke off, the ship’s three forward compartments were breached and the ship jammed fast on an underwater ledge. A coachman at the castle, having heard the collision, warned the coastguard. The steamer could not be refloated, so rocket lines were fired, secured to the ship, and the 22 crew were taken onshore. A servant’s ball was being held at the castle that evening which explains the light the second officer had seen. The party came to a halt as everyone rushed outside to watch the unfolding drama below.’

Not everyone appreciated the view from the castle or its lonely setting. Victor Hay, who would later become the 21st earl, wrote a novel called Ferelith where Slains Castle is renamed ‘Gowrie Castle’. This excerpt is of great value as it is the only known description of the castle by one of its residents, albeit written with a gothic tint as befits the subject of Ferelith, a ghost story.

‘....the house loomed close to us, magnified by the mist. It looked cold and unfriendly, and one doubted whether it was really there. No sound came from it, nor was there any sign of life about. It stood there silent and inhospitable, offering no welcome, forming (as it were) an integral part of its dim vapour setting, so that I half expected it to melt away in thin air... Thus we came to Gowrie [Slains] Castle.

I have seen it in many moods since, but my first impressions remain the most vivid – a dim, shadowy mass, grey and impalpable in the mist, lonely, uncanny, weird. This is what it will always be to me, for it fits in best with the events my mind associates with the spot.

Not that it was always thus, for I have seen it storm-swept from the north-east, when the biting wind lashed the breakers on to the rocks on which the castle stood, and sent great flakes of foam spinning over the roof, while the showering spray rattled against the windows, and the green water almost topped the granite cliffs.

Again, I have seen it warm and smiling on a long, hot summer’s day, with the waves kissing the feet of their old enemies, the rocks, as if they sought to lull them into a false security, and the gulls hovering lazily in the air, or basking in thousands on the water.

Or again, still and shimmering in the moonlight, with a path of rippling silver shooting across the sea, like a highway built for fairies, losing itself in obscurity. I know it well with all its changes, fierce and grave and gay; but its real self is as I first saw it, mournful and hopeless in the drizzling mist.’


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