Suppose you were on a scavenger hunt. And suppose they challenged you to find, in the same room, a knight in shining armor and a polar bear. Where would you go?
Scotland, of course. Isn’t that everyone’s first guess? Specifically, Blair Castle, the ancestral home of the Murray clan and historic seat of the Duke of Atholl.
Oh, I forgot to mention, it’s not just a knight in armor, he’s got a horse too. And a lance, at the ready, as if a joust is imminent. It’s all stashed neatly under the stairs. Maybe the knight’s name is Harry Potter, and he had a little confusion as to what the dogs of war looked like.
You think I’m kidding?
The oldest part of the castle dates back to 1269 and is called Comyn’s Tower. Of the original stonework there is no sign, it’s all buried behind plaster. The only hint that it’s there is the exceptionally deep window wells.
It’s called Comyn’s Tower because it was started by John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. The problem was, Comyn built his tower on the lands of his neighbor, David Strathbogie I, Earl of Atholl, who was off crusading. When he came home, rather than “there goes the neighborhood”, he complained to the Scottish King who backed him and gave the tower to the Earl, who in turn used it as a cornerstone for his own version of the castle.
The Earl’s son, David II backed the wrong horse – he opposed Robert the Bruce in 1322. This cost him his titles and lands – so much for the Strathbogie’s. The title of Earl of Atholl was granted to various individuals over time, including John Stewart, half brother of King James Stewart II of Scotland in 1457. This kingly connection would pay off in time.
The castle is more a museum than living space these days; the place is littered with displays, paintings, and esoteric paraphernalia of all sorts. This is a portion of a painting of an unlikely pair: Mary, Queen of Scots, and her son, James VI. (I mentioned these folks in Monsters and Battlefields.) The thing that makes this painting unlikely is that James VI was separated from his mother at age one, she never saw him again.
And as for this chap, I don’t remember who he is, but I thought it interesting that an aristocrat would have himself painted, cross-eyed and all. I dare you to look at it closely without getting a little cross-eyed yourself.
In 1629, John Murray, son of the second Earl of Tullibardine, was created Earl of Atholl in 1629, and the title has since remained in the Murray family.
The timeline in Monsters and Battlefields showed the mid-1600’s as a chaotic mess, civil war, Oliver Cromwell Lording it around, and Charles II reinstated in 1660. The Earl of Atholl backed the royalists during this time, and Charles II thanked him by bumping his Earldom up to Marquess of Atholl in 1676.
In 1703 the family really hit the jackpot. In addition to the Atholl title, the Marquess also held other titles and it was promotions all around. Check out this list: Lord Murray, Balvenie and Gask; Viscount of Balwhidder, Glenalmond and Glenlyon; Earl of Strathtay and Strathardle; Marquess of Tullibardine; and Duke of Atholl.
In short, the Murrays were Scottish big shots, with titles and lands that made them very rich men. It’s not surprising the family could afford to collect do-dads. In 1740 the second Duke started the build-up of much of what makes up the castle’s footprint today.
The castle was a point of contention in both the Jacobite rebellions of 1689 and 1745. In fact, the Jacobites were laying siege to the castle in 1746 and were nearly successful when they withdrew to the north to join Bonnie Prince Charlie. This ended badly at the battle of Culloden. The siege was a brother against brother deal – the Duke backed the government, but his brother and most of the Murray clan backed the Jacobites.
In 1844 Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert visited and stayed at Blair Castle. It was after this she gave permission to establish the Atholl Highlanders, the only legal private army in Europe. The Highlanders still exist, a force of about 25, but only for ceremonies.
The castle was also used for a dramatization of the visit in the PBS series Victoria, and several of the displays highlight this usage.
The castle arrived at much of its present form by 1870, and the ballroom was added in 1885.
As for the Murray’s, they’re still around. They’re now up to the 12th Duke. The line hasn’t been a straight father/son deal, occasionally the sitting duke did not have heirs. For example the 10th Duke, Iain Murray was a fourth cousin twice removed; he, in turn, was unmarried and succeeded in 1996 by the 11th Duke John, his second cousin once removed.
John, however, lived in South Africa and had no interest in moving to Scotland. So, Iain placed Blair Castle and most of his estates in a charitable trust, shielding them from inheritance taxes and leaving them under Scottish control. Effectively, John inherited the title but nothing else. Bruce, the 12th Duke still lives in South Africa, but makes the trip to Blair for ceremonial inspections.
And you thought your family is convoluted.