The man who saved Leslie Castle did not wield a sword, or strike with a battle axe. He did not command an army to defend the Leslie lands with. He was an architect, a practical hard working man who thought the castle was worth saving for future generations. Having visited Leslie with his father years before, he would come back to restore it. His name is David Carnegie Leslie.
One day back in 1979 he began the epic task of restoring the castle. One thing is certain; if he had not acted when he did the castle would have been surely lost to the perils of time. By 1979 parts of the north and east walls had completely collapsed. They came down in the great storm of 1953 and such was the weight of stone that fell on the night of 31 January that the ground shook and was felt in the surrounding areas. Without intervention it is likely little more than a pile of stones would remain today.
On the 4th of November 1990 the New York Times published the following: “Mr. Leslie is an architect for the City of Aberdeen. One day, in 1979, a colleague half-seriously suggested restoring a castle. There were quite a few old castles around the Grampian Mountains, unwanted and collapsing into oblivion. Mr. Leslie thought about Leslie Castle and, the following weekend, drove out to take another look. “If it had been a dreary day, well . . .” he recalled recently. “But there was a wonderful golden autumn glow on the hills. I decided then and there to restore Leslie Castle.””
So towards the end of 1979 David and his wife Leslie, agreed to buy the ruin and an acre of land. The Leslies became the owners of a ruin that had not been occupied since the early 1800’s. They knew that most of the walls had collapsed but soon discovered that most of the remaining walls were unstable and on the point of collapse. To make things worse, in those early days when they were eager to get stuck into the project they faced snow, sleet and freezing rain. The icy stones were not ready to give up their secrets. Mrs Leslie says ‘Rubble Rallies’ were organised with friends and volunteers to begin the enormous task of sorting through the fallen masonry to identify the significant pieces for the restoration.
Much of the stonework was lost; having been taken over the centuries and used to build local buildings. Stone from 4 local cottages that were being demolished was incorporated into the building. But, new cut granite stone was still needed and Mr Leslie was fortunate enough to get hold of a large diamond cutting saw that was installed on site housed in a purpose built enclosure. This was used to cut replacement stone for door and window openings. Slessor Troup, a master stonecutter who had worked on other castle restorations was employed as the head mason. Even one of the turret’s bases was also recreated with new stone, and can be observed today at the northeast corner of the castle.
The castle would have had ornate carved stone gargoyles high up on the outside. Today only one piece of carved stone survives at the castle. A carved bear, the symbol of the Leslies, Earls of Rothes, now has pride of place above the fireplace in the withdrawing room safe from the elements.
The restoration took 10 years and cost over a million pounds. On the wall in the main staircase is a plaque with the names of the contributors to the project. Mr. Leslie spent hundreds of hours in libraries and talked with architectural historians, to ensure that the project was as faithful as possible to the 1661 design. The 55 lead glass windows were hand made by the Leslies this alone took hundreds of hours of painstaking labour. The great wooden beams, of which you can only see 1/3 exposed, are reused from a jute mill that was being demolished at the time in Dundee. The floor is made up of 3,000 square feet of flagstones from an old malting mill. At one time malt was turned on those flagstones to produce some of the finest malts whiskies of Scotland. The roof is made of hand cut green Cumbrian slate, the turret slate work creates a fish scale effect, which is a work of art itself.
Patience, Wisdom, Tenacity
Without the work and perseverance of David and his wife Leslie the Castle would not survive today. As per their moto, it took “Patience, Wisdom, Tenacity” to complete the project, they succeeded where others would have surely failed. Today David Leslie gives talks about the restoration of the castle and will be giving a special talk for the 2020 Leslie Clan gathering. The man who saved Leslie Castle.