Places of Interest, Garth Castle

By James Irvine Robertson

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his grim little fortalice was probably built by Alexander Stewart, earl of Buchan, who is better known to history as the Wolf of Badenoch. Son of the first Stewart king, Robert II, and grandson of Robert Bruce he was a law unto himself north of the Highland line and an uncomfortable man to have in any position of authority. So much so that the Gaels called his descendants 'Children of the Accursed Whelp' and there were plenty of them. David Stewart, he of the statue, estimated in 1820 that four thousand people in Atholl descended from the Wolf's son who settled at the castle.

For a century the family were pillars of the community, slaughtering only the king's enemies, until the time of Neil Gointe. A free translation of his name would be Neil the Bitter and Twisted. Soon after inheriting Garth he fell out with his neighbours, particularly Sir Robert Menzies who was charged by the king to keep order in Rannoch. But Neil protected the gangs of outlaws who preyed on the people and incited them to direct their assaults on Sir Robert and his dependents. Finally, in 1502, Neil and his henchmen attacked Castle Menzies, burnt it to the ground and pillaged Weem, Camserney, and other Menzies properties. Sir Robert was stuffed into the dungeon of Garth Castle and starved in order to encourage him to sign over to Neil the local estates that he coveted.

King James IV then came north to sort out the affair. Neil kept his head by surrendering his captive once he had extracted a document in which the prisoner forgave his captor. Having been deprived of control of much of his estates Neil's later years are obscure but he survived into very ripe old age, dying in 1554. He was suspected of murdering his wife by dropping a rock on her head when she was down in the burn below the castle. Tradition has it that his last nine years after her death were spent in the dungeon of his own castle.

It is interesting to compare this, the oral tradition's vilification of Neil, with documented history. The dispute was about land and Neil was supported by the Stewarts of both Grantully and Bonskeid. Three years after the burning of the Menzies stronghold, the king confirmed Neil in the lands he inherited. And the Menzies never did win possession. The earl of Huntly, married to Neil's sister-in-law, became titular lord of the disputed estates but Neil retained control. His second wife was killed by a stone falling from above but the man responsible is named as Alexander Stewart and the use of 'negligently' in the contemporary report would, at worst, indicate a culpable homicide rather than murder. The tradition that Neil lived his last nine years in his own dungeon would seem to be a confusion with his ancestor the Wolf who built Garth Castle and did indeed spend a considerable time imprisoned by his royal father after the burning of Elgin cathedral. The Wolf himself did his penance and now lies in Dunkeld cathedral, his tomb topped by an effigy of himself in full armour.

Once fortifications would have covered the site of Garth Castle but now only the central keep remains. Brutally plain and functional, it is built of unhewn boulders, its height twenty metres, its two metre-thick walls containing the staircase. It sits on a promontory that juts out over the gorge containing the Keltney burn. The neck of the promontory was then broken which made the building virtually impregnable before the days of gunpowder and sufficient of a nuisance afterwards for Cromwell's soldiers to render it unusable after Glencairn's Rising in 1653. The castle remained a ruin for three hundred years but its inaccessibility and the size of the stones with which it is constructed preserved it from the fate of most of the little clachans which dotted Atholl. These have vanished, mined by Victorians to turn into drystone dykes, shooting lodges, barns, and paved yards.

The castle was restored in the 1950s although the architect, curiously, left it with a flat roof instead of the gables with which it had once been more elegantly endowed.