The Man Who Saved Leslie Castle

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. 

Leslie Castle in 1979
Before the Restoration of Leslie Castle in 1979
Leslie Castle in 1942
Leslie Castle, East wall, in 1942. Attribution: © Crown Copyright: HES

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. 

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

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.

David Leslie gives talks about the restoration of the castle

Leslie’s Cross at Chapel of Garioch

Leslie's Cross

Planning your trip to the Leslie Clan lands? Start with a night’s stay at Leslie Castle and visit the Leslie’s Cross at the Clan Chapel and learn about the bloody battle of Harlaw. Then visit the ruins of Balquhain Castle orFetternear Palace before returning to eat at the castle.

Leslie’s Cross

The Leslie’s Cross honours the Leslies who died at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411. The red granite Cross is in a prominent place, in the front of the Chapel of Garioch.

The inscription reads: Sir Andrew Leslie, third Baron of Balquhain, and several of his sons rode out with Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar to meet the advance of the Highlanders at the fields of Harlaw. Six of Sir Andrew’s sons died that day as well as Leslies from nearby castles and farms.

The deadly battle typified a clash of cultures. On the one side the “wild” Highlanders who were considered savage raiders. On the other the “sophisticated” landowners farmers and trades folk of lowland Aberdeenshire. The battle raged, fuelled by a power struggle for land between the Lord of Isles and the Duke of Albany. Hundreds of men died on each side.

The Earl of Mar’s force consisted of Knights in chainmail and armour with swords, battleaxes and mace. The Highlanders had more men and charged using claymore, axes, bow and arrow. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting followed and the Highlanders ducked in cutting the hamstrings of the horses so when the poor animals collapsed the Knights were helpless.

Leslie's Cross at Chapel of Garioch

Clan Leslie Chapel

The Chapel itself has had a long association with the Leslie family and is officially recognised as the Clan Leslie Chapel for the North East of Scotland.

Originally a private Chapel, this Church was in existence in 1151. When King Robert Bruce’s sister married one of the King’s strongest supporters, he gave her the Lordship of the Garioch. Around 1350 she founded the Chapel of our Lady of the Garioch on the heights of Drumdurno so that masses might be said for the souls of the Founder, her brother and her husband. So began the Chapel of the Garioch.

On January 22, 1420, as a result of a feud with the Forbes, Sir Andrew Leslie did battle with his opponents including the Sheriff of Angus. However, Sir Andrew was killed during the course of the battle. His wife, Isabel Mortimer had tried to stop the fighting but sadly failed. Isabel Mortimer bequeathed an annual amount for a priest to pray for his soul for all time. The Ogilvies of Granden and Forfar also granted an annuity for a Chaplain to perform divine services in the Chapel for the soul of Sir Andrew Leslie, Knight.

In 1473, King James III created an annual stipend for the support of a Chaplain at the Chapel of St. Mary of Garioch. In order to pray for the souls of Alexander Leslie, the second son of Sir Andrew and his wife Isabella. By 1500 five other priests were attached to this small Royal Chapel supported by endowments from the Mar and Leslie families. Mary Queen of Scots heard mass in the Chapel, during her stay at Balquhain Castle in September 1562. A fitting close to 200 years of aristocratic history.

The Present Church

Grip Fast Clan Leslie Chapel

The present Church opened for worship in 1813. The walls are elaborately stencilled in various colours and the blue painted ceiling is spangled with gold stars. It was extensively renovated by the Congregation in 1922. The back gallery was removed and a Chancel with a window of five lights built out from the north wall. In 1931 the Women’s Guild donated stained glass for the window and in 1959 a Memorial Mosaic Plaque inserted in the Chancel wall. The Chapel is an extremely beautiful example of Scotland’s country Churches.

Leslie Castle Foundation in 1661

For Leslie Castle 1661 was a significant year.

The present Castle’s foundation stone which reads “FUNDED JUNE 17th 1661” is on the west of the main stair tower. Although the west wing of the Castle formed part of the first stone Castle built in the 12th century, it was substantially altered during the mid-17th century refurbishment by John Forbes. John, having married Anna, the descendant of George Leslie of Leslie (and in so doing paid off the Leslie’s debts) set about re-building the castle.

The historical backdrop to those times is marked by the momentous restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660.  And in the following year, 1661, the professional soldier General Alexander Leslie of the Balquhain lineage, 1st Earl of Leven, died at Balgonie castle.  Where he had retired from active military service in support of the Presbyterian “Covenanters” during the preceding years of civil war in Scotland.

It seems small wonder that Leslie Castle was built with many defensive fortifications included given this period of such great unrest.

Interestingly it is said that the classic nursery rhyme There was a Crooked Man, was written about General Leslie who had signed an agreement with Charles I securing a measure of religious freedom, the crooked stile being the border between England and Scotland, and they all lived together in a little crooked house, refers to the uneasy truce.

History of Scotland 1661-1699 Timeline

…1 January 1660: General George Monck, the Military Governor of Scotland, leads troops based in Coldstream south to London to restore Charles Stewart – Charles II – to the throne.
…14 May 1660: Charles II is proclaimed King of England, Scotland and Ireland while still in Holland.

…25 May 1660: King Charles II sails from Holland to Dover: the monarchy is restored.
…29 May 1660: King Charles II becomes undisputed king of England following his restoration.

…January 1661: The Scottish Parliament meets under its Commissioner, the Earl of Middleton. On 28 March it revokes every law passed since the year of Charles I’s accession, 1633. This rolls back the Covenants and restores ultimate power to the King in London.
…4 April 1661: The death at Balgonie Castle in Fife of Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven, the professional soldier who became a field marshal in the Swedish army before returning to command the Scottish Covenanter army during the Wars of the Thee Kingdoms.
…23 April 1661: Charles II is crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey: he had been crowned King of Scotland ten years earlier.
…27 May 1661: The Marquis of Argyll is executed in Edinburgh for his role during Charles II’s 1650-1 reign. A number of other extreme Presbyterians are executed later in the year, though Neil Macleod, who had betrayed Montrose at Ardveck Castle, escapes. Charles II is also settling scores in England, where many of those responsible for his father’s death are executed and Oliver Cromwell’s body is exhumed and symbolically beheaded.

…6 September 1661: King Charles II restores episcopal government to Scotland by royal decree. Alternative services called conventicles, often held in the open air, that spring up in an effort to retain a Presbyterian approach, are later made illegal.
…18 December 1661: The ship Elizabeth of Burntisland sinks off the coast of north east England, taking with it many of Scotland’s most important historical records, en-route back to Scotland after their earlier removal to London by Oliver Cromwell.

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