The Highlands: from frightening wilderness to tourist trap
Aldourie Castle is located on Strath Dores’ low lying rolling grounds, between Loch Ness’ southern shore and the steep sides of the Glen leading up onto Drumashie Moor. People have lived in this area of the Highlands for thousands of years. There is so much here today to explore and enjoy but it has not always been this way. This mesmerising castle has seen a lot of history and in the process undergone substantial changes. Originally starting life as a laird’s mansion house, Aldourie began its story in a time when terror reigned during the Highland clan system. As the hills around it transformed so did Aldourie itself, only eventually achieving castle status in the 19th Century.
To understand the reasons for the transformation of the property from house to castle it is necessary to understand the forces in play in the Highlands at that time. As the Highlands trudged through bleak wilderness into tourist-appealing rustic idyll thus was born the Highland Sporting Estate and the Scottish baronial castle.
The earliest part of the building was built by Alexander Macintosh of Kyllachie in the 17th Century whose family’s clan had held land in the Findhorn valley about 12 miles east of Aldourie. Although the old Scottish clan society proved to be a stable, lasting and fair way of living there was an equal measure of uneasiness amongst the Highlands that came with this way of ruling. Each clan had a chief to whom the people owed allegiance and he in turn could call on them to fight in his private army when required. Often disputes would break out with neighbouring clans over boundaries or disputed chieftainships. This wild untamed and frightening land was governed by people of the same description and this was the reason few Lowland Scots or English ever ventured across the Highland line, leaving it all for the indulgence of the Highlanders for many years to come.
Alexander Macintosh was a real Highland character who led his clan to battle on several occasions. He was responsible for the first phase of construction at Aldourie in around 1622, a modest two-storey building with a few rooms and an attic. On Alexander’s death the property passed to his nephew William VIII of Kyllachie, who already owned a lot of land in the area, and in turn to the latter man’s son, Donald IXth of Kyllachie, in 1655. In 1667 there was a record of a Donald McIntosh of Aldowrie’ showing that the house had been built to a standard that was rated important enough to be recorded in his name. One of Donald’s daughters, Katherine, married John Barbour in 1700, who gave the title ‘of Aldourie’ to himself although his acquisition of the property did not officially happen until 1733.
An event which would make history was on its way…
The Battle of Culloden in 1746 marked the defeat of the old Highland clan system. The British government could no longer tolerate a radical, independent minded and repeatedly rebellious people living in its northern lands. The Highlanders were subsequently brought into line; new laws forbade them to keep weapons of any kind and even to wear Highland dress – a deliberate move to quash an ancient culture. At the same time, Fort George was built and other measures taken to ensure that peace reined across the Highlands.
Around 1754, still in its modest form of ‘mansion’ house, Aldourie was sold by the Barbour family to William Fraser WS of Erchitt and Balnain. William’s daughter Anne married Alexander Tytler in 1776 and as was custom among the high classes of the time they merged surnames. By the 19th Century the old clan system had been consigned to history books, many chiefs had forfeited their estates or sold up and former clan lands were changing hands fast to new breed of landlord. These new owners had a real interest in the land from an economic or recreational perspective but little interest in, or loyalty to, the people, including their history or culture.
Entrepreneurial landowners saw economic opportunity in wool and soon sheep were growing in the Highlands. The wool boom did not last but by the time it finished the Highlands had been transformed and the dawn of tourism was beginning. The new Highlands brought curious travellers to see what all the fuss was about, including famous writers such as Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in the 1770s, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Their writing changed people’s views of the Highlands from terrifying baron land to a wild, romantic and rustic place. The icing on the cake came in the form of royal approval when Queen Victoria and her new husband Prince Albert started holidaying in the Highlands in 1842, ultimately buying Balmoral Castle in 1848. What the Queen did, society followed, and aristocrats flocked north to buy their own Highland estates to hunt, shoot and fish. However, they competed this time not in the shape of war but instead vying for attention in the form of spectacular house parties in the most impressive houses…or castles.
The Fraser-Tytler family owned Aldourie for some generations and by the 1830s the family, an influential set of lawyers and historians, were amongst the highest ranks of Scottish and Highland gentlemen. It was only natural they would want their home to reflect their status and the growing interest in the land as a sporting and social playground. And so began the build to transform a house into a more comfortable home that would define their power, position and taste. The first of four new building phases of Aldourie Castle was completed in 1839 and the rest, they say, is history…
The Fraser-Tytler family owned Aldourie Castle until it was necessary to sell to the late Mrs Neil Fraser-Tytler’s husband’s cousin, Colonel Angus Cameron. Colonel Cameron died in 2001 and his widow decided to sell the Aldourie the following year and move to Inverness. However, the family retained some of the estate and is still active locally. Today, ever patient Aldourie remains a private sporting estate, now famous in its own right as the only habitable castle on Loch Ness, and is regularly hired out for exclusive house parties. The beautiful property, hidden away amidst the tall trees, has been through many changes but will always maintain a strong, justifiable sense of pride in its surrounding Highland legacy.