Ten miles from the center of Aberdeen, is one of the most beautiful castles of Royal Deeside. It is a living building, the story of which is packed with historical incident and personal drama. As a castle it is special because it combines a medieval keep, a Jacobean mansion house and a Victorian extension in a uniquely pure form. For nearly all of its seven centuries it was the home of one family, the Irvines; it has the qualities of a family home, lived in through times good and bad by twenty-four generations. This family may often have been warlike, but with one notable exception it was rarely cruel; it was talented, vigorous, never quite at the top, but in nearly every generation contributed solid service to Crown, country and community.
The Irvine Family
The story of the Irvine family covers seven centuries and continues today. Their descendants spread all over the world, including Germany, Sweden and the United States. Washington Irving (1783-1859), now best remembered as the creator of Rip van Winkle, and Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth president of the United States of America, were both descended from them.
Gilchrist, son of Erwini, witnessed a charter of the Lord of Galloway between the years 1124 and 1165. Appearing to have been in Dumfriesshire, were the lands that bore the name of Irvine. The origin of this chiefly family, according to family tradition, is linked up with the early Celtic Monarchs of Scotland. Duncan Eryvine, whose eldest son settled at Bonshaw, was the brother of Crinan, who through the lay Abbots of Dunkeld, claimed descent from the High Kings of Ireland. Duncan’s brother, Crinin, married the heiress and daughter of Malcolm II. Their eldest son was to become King Duncan, the Monarch who was murdered (see Shakespeare’s MacBeth).
The de Irwin’s and Bruces’ were neighbors, and William de Irwin’s seat was at Lochmaben near Bonshaw. The de Irwin family strongly supported the Bruces’, and William de Irwin became Armour Bearer and ultimately Secretary to Robert when Bruce became king. Rewarded for his twenty years as a faithful servant to Robert, William was granted the royal forest of Drum in Aberdeenshire. Thus, this became the chief seat of the family. William de Irwin was appointed the king’s representative in the Royal Forest of Drum, part of the extensive forest where for many years the kings of Scotland had come to hunt deer and wild boar. In 1323 William was granted the charter of the Barony of Drum, giving him power ‘of pit and gallows’ - to drown or hang local wrongdoers. He was also given ownership of the Tower of Drum, which had probably been built during the second half of the thirteenth century, possibly as a stronghold for Alexander III, who died in 1286. The family virtually occupied the Castle and Tower until it was turned over to the National Trust for Scotland. There is a beautiful walled Rose Garden and Holly Grove on the estate.
It was probably during the lifetime of William’s son, Alexander, the 2nd laird, that the feud arose with near neighbours the Keiths, hereditary Marshals of Scotland. Legend has it that the Irvines burned down Halforest Castle, stronghold of the Keiths, in revenge for their burning to death in the fields one of the Irvine children.
There was also a pitched battle at Keiths’ Muir, near the Dee, in which many of the Keiths were drowned at a place called Keiths’ Pot. One was cut down while clinging to a stone which occasionally still appears above the water and is known as Keiths’ Stone.
The 3rd laird, Alexander, who died in 1410, had two sons. He elder, also Alexander, supported the Earl of Mar, the Stewart General, and followed him to the French wars, where he was a commander in the successful but bloody capture of Liege. On the eve of the battle, Alexander was knighted and later given additional lands by Mar. On succeeding to Drum, he became the fourth laird, but to preserve the long-established numbering given by previous historians, who had believed Sir Alexander to be the third laird, it is necessary to designate him IVA and his younger brother Robert, who succeeded him, IVB.
Three years later, ‘the gude Sir Alexander’ was to serve his master for the last time. Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, appeared on the mainland with a large army to challenge the royal authority. After razing Inverness, he headed towards Aberdeen to do the same.
Mar was deputed to defend the city with a small local force - prominent amongst his officers was Sir Alexander Irvine. It is said that midway between Drum and Harlaw, Irvine stopped at a place now called Drumstone and, foreseeing death in combat, made his final will.
So, in 1411, the two Irvines came to the Battle of Harlaw, a mere twenty miles north of Drum, one of Scotland’s bloodiest ever acts of civil war and a desperate battle between the rising power of the Western Islands and the stolid, more settled world of the East Coast.
One of the Islanders’ senior chiefs was Maclean of Duart, Red Hector of the Battles, and at some point in the battle he met Sir Alexander Irvine. The two great warriors locked in single combat; neither would yield and in the end both died still fighting each other.
Robert Irvine survived the battle, changed his name to Alexander and, as fourth laird of Drum, married Elizabeth Keith, thus ending the feud of their forefathers. He is also believed to have exchanged swords with the son of Red Hector in token of peace between their families. This Alexander was also an important figure in the London negotiations to ransom the young King James I of Scotland, who had been held captive there by the English for eighteen years. He was knighted by the grateful king after his eventual release and attended him at the Inverness parliament.
The fact that he was arrested there and briefly held by the king, along with many other barons, need not be regarded as too sinister; it was part of a general trawl for traitors. When the somewhat intolerant king was eventually murdered in Perth it was Alexander who was chosen to be governor of Aberdeen during the period of crisis. In his later years he built St. Ninian’s Chantry in St. Nicholas’ Church, Aberdeen, and in 1457 was buried there with his wife in Drum’s Aisle. Part of his carved tomb was subsequently moved to the Chapel at Drum, but the couple’s stone effigies and their memorial brass, a most unusual feature in Scotland at this date, can still be seen at St. Nicholas’ Church.
The 4th laird’s son had died before him, so the new Alexander who succeeded as 5th laird was his grandson, described in contemporary documents as ‘stout and vitious’. Despite being Sheriff of Aberdeen, he made furtive night attacks on one Walter Lindsay of Beaufort for which crime he was deprived of his office and sent to prison. Seventeen years later he was in trouble again when he ambushed and killed two men at the Brig o’ Balgownie, for which he later paid compensation of 100 merks. On finding his chaplain St. Edward Macdowall in flagrante delicto with his wife, he did not murder him but had the man castrated in the Tower of Drum. For this he was not fined, and received a royal pardon from James II on 19 July 1487.
The 6th laird was more on the right side of the law and in 1527 was rewarded by King James V for helping to arrest ‘rebels, thieves, reivers, sorcerers and murderers’. Bit great sadness was to overwhelm his later years. His eldest son, Alexander, went south to fight the English invaders at Pinkie and was killed there, leaving nine young children. It is recorded that he took with him to Pinkie a large cannon from Drum known as the ‘Great Falcon’.
The next two lairds seem to have led comparatively quiet lives, but in the 9th laird the Irvines produced yet another notable character. This Alexander, known as ‘Little Breeches’ because he followed the Continental fashion of short trousers, was responsible for the building of the Jacobean mansion of Drum in 1619. He was Sheriff of Aberdeen and he and his wife, Marion Douglas, were noted local philanthropists.
The laird was rich enough to lend money to King James VI. He asked for a special dispensation to eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as other days, gave L10,000 for a scholarship at Aberdeen University - which survives today as the Drum Bursary - and a large number of other benefactions including ‘32 bolls of meal’ for the poor people of nearby Drumoak. His wife also founded a hospital for spinsters in Aberdeen.
Alexander, the 10th laird, was an ardent Royalist supporter of Charles I when most around him were Covenaners, the Scottish equivalent of Roundheads. He, too, was Sheriff of Aberdeen and with him the family’s prosperity and prestige reached its peak. As the Civil War spread, Alexander was away from Drum fighting when the castle was besieged. In the face of General Monroe’s heavy siege equipment, Lady Irvine decided to surrender quite rapidly and included a promise that her husband would give himself up. So Drum Castle received a hostile garrison, the first of four it was to endure during the Civil War.
The laird’s two soldier sons were also active Royalists: young Alexander was later to become one of Drum’s most colourful lairds. He fought for the Marquess of Huntly and was excommunicated by the Church of Scotland for ‘popery’, with a reward of 18,000 merks put on his head for his capture, dead or alive. He and his brother tried to escape by sea from Fraserburgh, but high winds drove them back to the Scottish coast and capture.
Robert, the younger brother, died a miserable death in the depths of Edinburgh Castle, but Alexander survived there under sentence of death until he was set free after the Marquess of Montrose’s victory at Kilsyth. His mother and wife were besieged and captured in Drum, this time by the Marquess of Argyll who turned both women out of the castle with nothing but ‘two grey plaids and a couple of work nags’.
This time Drum Castle was completely ransacked. Twice captured, four times garrisoned, Drum and its lands had been severely ravaged during the war. Animals had been killed, crops ruined, silver, jewellery and furniture stolen and its prosperity destroyed.
When young Alexander, the 11th laird, who had won a small cavalry encounter towards the end of the war, at last succeeded to his impoverished estates he was soon offered a peerage by the newly restored King Charles II. But he turned down the honour when the king refused to provide financial compensation for damage done to the Drum estate while supporting his cause.
So, twice the Irvines had missed becoming great magnates of the crown. The eleventh laird’s first wife had apparently been somewhat aristocratically aloof but, after she died, he spotted a young shepherdess on his estates, some forty-seven years his junior. Sixteen-year -old Mary Coutts was not one to sell her virtue short so, despite general disapproval, the two were married and the old laird enjoyed six years of bliss before dying not long before his seventieth birthday in 1687. This story is recorded in the traditional ballad ‘The Laird of Drum’.
Alexander, his son by his first wife, was to be the 12th and last member of this line of Irvines. He died suddenly, leaving a pregnant wife, and an entail which gave Drum to his ruthless cousin, Irvine of Murtle. The 13th laird, Alexander Irvine, moved into Drum before his predecessor was even buried and confined the unfortunate widow to a small room.
His son, Alexander, the 14th laird, was a Jacobite and fought for the Old Pretender at Sheriffmuir. He was severely wounded in the head and died insane some years after the battle, leaving no heir.
Now Drum passed to the late laird’s uncle, John Irvine, the 15th laird, who had lived and worked for many years in Jamaica and South Carolina. He had returned to Scotland in about 1723.
In 1736 William, Earl of Aberdeen and Patrick Duff of Premnay bought the encumbered estate, which included lands from Cromar to just north of Dundee. They gave back to the family the ancestral seat and a small amount of land that surrounded it. The rest they parceled out between them. The Drum estate never again grew to its former size or importance.
Alexander, 15th laird’s successor was Alexander Irvine of Crimond, the 16th laird. Alexander, his son, was the 17th laird, a Jacobite who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie. He escaped after the Battle of Culloden, sheltered in a secret room at Drum and was saved from capture by the Redcoats only by the presence of mind of his sister, Miss Mary Irvine, who misdirected them. The soldiers did, however, make off with more Irvine family wealth, having spotted where it was buried by the newly dug earth. After some years of exile in Paris, Alexander was allowed to return home and ‘died after a tedious illness, universally loved.’. The head gardener of Drum had fought with him at Culloden and is reputed to have made a fortune out of selling ‘horse nails’ and other booty after the battle.
Of Alexander, the next and eighteenth laird, little is remembered except that he lived for a very long time and was Master of Drum for eighty-three years. His son was Hugh Irvine, the painter, whose Archangel Gabriel (allegedly a self-portrait) hangs in the library. The family name became Forbes Irvine in deference to his wife Jane Forbes, heiress of Forbes of Schivas, who died when Alexander was only 32. He never married again and lived a retired life at Drum, dying in his ninety-first year.
Most of the nineteenth-century lairds were distinguished lawyers, serving at the Bar or as sheriffs in various parts of Scotland. At least one younger son was a Major-General and may others held senior posts in the army or Indian Civil Service.
The 19th laird, Alexander, inherited Schivas in right of his mother and assumed the name of Forbes before Irvine. On succeeding to Drum he effected an excambion (exchange) of land whereby Schivas passed to Lord Aberdeen, and Kennerty, a former Drum property, was restored to the estate. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Alexander, the 20th laird.
Alexander trained as a lawyer, and played a prominent part in the administration of the County of Aberdeenshire. He married Anna Forbes Leslie, an amateur artist of some distinction. He was succeeded by his third son, Francis Hugh, the 21st laird, who married Mary, only child of John Ramsay of Barra and Straloch. These two estates were to pass to the junior line of the Irvines of Drum.
He was succeeded by his eldest son, Alexander, the 22nd laird, who fought with the Grenadier Guards in the First World War. The 23rd laird, a bachelor, died in 1940 whilst serving with the Gordon Highlanders and his brother, Henry Quentin Irvine, fought with the King’s African Rifles. Some ten years before Quentin’s death this popular 24th laird entered into an agreement with The National Trust for Scotland so that Drum and its 411 acres could be bequeathed to the trust and held for the benefit of the nation.
He was succeeded in 1975 as laird of Drum and chief of the name Irvine of Drum by his younger brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Francis Irvine, 25th laird, who lived in Cheshire. In 1992, the latter’s son David Charles Irvine succeeded as 26th laird. After a business life in the north-west of England, the present laird returned to Deeside to live near Drum.
The article was copied in part from “Drum Castle and Garden”, “The National Trust for Scotland Guide Book” and partially reproduced, changing font and style to fit our site.