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History and Heritage - Deskford

Deskford Castle or Tower was built in the late 14th Century by the Sinclairs of Findlater and Deskford, a branch of the St. Clairs of Roslyn near Edinburgh. The last of this line, Sir John Sinclair, resided in Findlater Castle on the cliff tops until tragedy struck. His only son fell from the arms of his nurse and was dashed to death on the rocks below. The nurse, we are told, in her grief, threw herself to the same fate. The family moved inland to Deskford Castle, but further tragedy awaited them. In 1411, Sir John Sinclair was killed at the battle of Harlaw, leaving no male heir. The estates of Deskford and Findlater were inherited by his eldest daughter, Margaret, who married Sir William Ogilvie in 1437, thus bringing to an end the Sinclair line and sowing the seed of the Seafield dynasty.

Deskford Castle, as portrayed by Charles Cordiner in 1790, was a fine example of a Tower House with four storeys rising above a massive barrel-vaulted entrance chamber. Crowning this edifice was a Garret storey, taking it up to more than seventy feet with a commanding view of the Strath of Deskford. The whole structure was connected by means of a semi-circular tower on the South West corner. The entrance was in the middle of the South wall, through what was to become Deskford Church, but what was originally part of the grand extensions and improvements of 1560.

At this time, the Tower was described as a "commodious mansion house" with its new quadrangle of buildings surrounding a huge cobbled courtyard.  In the Chapel, an aumbry was created to celebrate the wedding of Alexander Ogilvie to Elizabeth Gordon dated 1551.  This Sacrament House is regarded as one of the finest in Scotland.  There were also formal gardens and a large walled orchard which became famous for having the largest girth ash tree in Scotland dedicated to St John.  At some point, probably the Reformation, the Chapel was expanded into what we now see - a simple sixty foot long basic hall of worship.  The original Tower entrance was filled in and an alternative created in the West wall.  These changes of use could take place because the Ogilvies had moved to Cullen House leaving Deskford Castle to pass into obscurity and final destruction.

Well, not quite. The main wing of the complex has survived and is now the Muckle Hoose, and, although the old Tower was demolished to protect the Church, it still stands some 20 feet high.

The Parish Church

There is a record of an ancient chapel at Skeith, Deskford, dedicated to Our Lady of Pity, in which her wooden image was once preserved. For many centuries, however, the Parish Kirk dedicated to St. John the Evangelist was situated at Kirktown of Deskford within its churchyard. Now a roofless ruin in the care of Historic Scotland (signposted from the main Keith road), it is of considerable historic interest, and is well worth a visit, particularly on account of its Sacrament House (as mentioned above) - installed in 1551 by Alexander Ogilvy of Findlater and Deskford, with an inscription in English as well as the usual Latin. With its prominent position on the Keith road, the "new" church (in private ownership) is a listed building, of Victorian Gothic style. For more information, please visit www.cullen-deskford-church.org.uk

Deskford Carnyx

The area of lower Deskford is rich in Pictish remains. There was a religious and legal centre at Blairhillock in the form of a classic motte and nearby structure (now removed) named The Law Hillock. On the hills above, there are Fort structures and an abundance of barrows or burial grounds. Silver hoards and Roman coins have been discovered, but the jewel in the crown was unearthed by a ditch digger in 1816 whilst working in the vicinity of Leitchestown Farm. He found a badly corroded lump of metal which turned out to be the rarest of all - the Carnyx.

Although the Carnyx was badly broken and corroded, the conservators at the Scottish National Museum have painstakingly restored it and also have made full scale replicas which have subsequently been played. The Carnyx takes the form of a stylised boars head complete with a flappable wooden tongue, all of which is supported on a seven foot long trumpet. It was obviously a very special object and was probably used in religious processions or indeed to lead the Pictish army, as in our time do the bagpipes.

From analysis of the metals, its age is somewhere between 80 A.D. and 300 A.D. The Carnyx is the only surviving one in Britain, but similar trumpets have been found in Denmark and Northern Europe, and are often found in Celtic art as in the Gundestrup Cauldron. In trying to establish how this beautiful work of art came to be lying broken and crushed in a Deskford peat bog, the answer perhaps lies in the writings of Tacitus, the Roman historian, and in particular his description of the battle of Mons Graupius which some believe was fought in Banffshire, when perhaps escaping Picts may have buried the remnants of their sacred trumpet in a known site with a view of recovery in a future which never came for them. Alternatively, it may have been buried as votive offering.

The original is now on view at the Scottish National Museum in Chambers Street, Edinburgh, and a replica is to be found in the Banff Museum

History & Heritage

This project was part-financed by the scottish goverment and the european community moray leader 2007-2019 programme.