Anyone with an interest in Scottish history cannot fail to be impressed by the number and variety of castles that dot it’s landscape. Many of these were still in use during the Jacobite Risings, indeed some such as Eilean Donan were the scene of fierce fighting. Choosing a castle for The Jacobite Risings was therefore an interesting process as there are many that could have made the cut. Ultimately, it was the desire to draw upon the landscape of the Cairngorms National Park that would provide the inspiration as in the National Park there are two well preserved castles, namely Corgaff and Braemar, which were ideal candidates.
Both Corgaff and Braemar castles played a role in the Jacobite Risings. During the first rising they were both in the hands of John Erskine, Earl of Mar, who was a government supporter, and were burnt by Jacobites in 1689 or 1690 to prevent their use by government troops. After the collapse of the Jacobite effort, the Earl of Mar drew up a memorandum of his losses in which he petitioned the Government to levy forfeitures and fines upon his tenants who had taken up arms in the Jacobite cause to fund the restoration of the buildings. This seems to have been done as far as Corgarff is concerned, however Braemar remained in ruin until taken over by the Government in 1748.
The ruinous condition of Braemar Castle during the remainder of the risings became the deciding factor as we wanted to build something that was in use during the 1715 and 1745 risings; Corgarff was and so Corgarff was chosen. The castle commands a striking position, located in the eastern part of the Cairngorms National Park at a height of around 430 metres above sea-level and overlooking the south bank of the River Don. As it currently stands, the nucleus of the castle is a plain rubble-built tower of the 16th century, measuring around 11 metres in length (east and west) by 8 metres in breadth.
"I returned on Wednesday from an expedition into the Highlands of Aberdeenshire, fifty miles from hence, to destroy a Magazine of the Rebels at Corgarff, which lies near the head of the Don. Three hundred foot commanded by Major Morris, and one hundred Dragoons commanded by me—the whole under the command of Lord Ancrum, were ordered for that duty. We marched from this on Friday, 28th February, in a snowy day to Monimuss, Sir Archibald Grant's house. Next day over mountains and Moors almost impassable at any time of the year, but much more so when covered with snow, to a place called Tarland. As soon as they saw us directing our March thither, they suspected our design on the Magazine there, and some rebels who lived there sent away an Express immediately to acquaint the Garrison, and to Glenbucket, who was with some men at Glenlivet above Strathdon, about Ten miles above the Castle.
In Dougal Graham's history of the rising, published in September 1746, the only account to ever be written in rhyming couplets, a short description is given of the capture of Corgarff Castle. Graham however chose to apply a little artistic license claiming Lord Ancrum blew up the castle with the captured gunpowder barrels rather than simply staving them:
“Now while the duke lay at Aberdeen,
From England did his troops maintain,
Brought in his stores ay by the sea,
And laid no stress on that country,
From thence the earl of Ancram went,
One hundred horse were with him sent,
Major Morris with three hundred foot,
Near to the head of Don they got,
To take the Castle of Cargarf,
But ere they came all were run aff,
Wherein was a large magazine
Of ammunition, and arms clean,
Which did become the Earl's prey ;
But could not get it born away,
No horse he could get to employ,
Most of the spoil he did destroy,
'Bout thirty barrels of powder there,
Made soon that fort fly in the air,
And so returned to Aberdeen,
Long forty miles there were between.”
Following the collapse of the rising Corgaff (and indeed Braemar) was purchased by the government and established as a base for garrisoning troops. The army made significant changes to the castle, including adding an additional floor, installing large Georgian windows, adding ‘pavilions’ to its gable ends and surrounding the whole thing with a curtain wall. All of these features can be seen today and these are what are shown in the photos from our field trip.
The 18th century modifications to Corgarff left us with a bit of a problem because we wanted to build the castle as it appeared during the risings and so further research was required. Fortunately, the drawings of the government engineers who made the alterations to the Castle are available and so we have ‘before’ and ‘after’ illustrations to draw upon. We also have the relatively unaltered remains of contemporary castles to inform us about more detailed features such as windows and eaves and so by using multiple sources of information we are able to recreate a reasonable approximation of the castle’s appearance before the government got their hands on it. This is not to say we apply no artistic license and certainly, the level of texturing and detail applied to the model’s walls are very much aimed at creating visual interest rather than representing absolute historical accuracy. While this can draw criticism, it is a line we must navigate when creating models that are intended to both provide an educational benefit and inspire enthusiasm. A further challenge was found in trying to get the scale just right. This is because while minifigure scale builds are generally scaled to around 1:40 to 1:44, minifigures just aren't very good representations of humans. What we have therefore is the closest representation of Corgarff we could get, using the form of the minifigure and the broader landscape as our guide. We are pretty pleased with the results.
Corgarff Castle is owned and run by Historic Scotland and is open Monday to Sunday between 1st April to 30th September. We thoroughly recommend a visit: