This is a splendid location miles from anywhere are surrounded by rounded low hills, with pastureland with sheep, some forestry and heather covered tops. The castle is a startling white harled tower house silhouetted against the skyline and surrounded by a star shaped wall. It doesn’t look like a castle and confused two Germans who arrived in the car park and asked where the castle was…
The tower house dates from 1550 and would have been surrounded by a barmkin wall. The tower would have contained vaulted storage rooms in the ground floor with great hall above and private chambers at the top. Domestic buildings like bakehouse, brewery and stables would have been built against the barmkin wall.
The castle has had a very chequered history. In 1571 it was owned by John Forbes, a supporter of King James VI. This brought him into conflict with the neighbouring Gordons who supported the ousted Queen Mary. A force led by Adam Gordon of Auchindoun marched on Corgarff to seize the castle. When they got there they found the menfolk away and the castle only defended by John's wife Margaret and 27 other women, children and servants. When Margaret refused to surrender the castle, Gordon's men set fire to the building killing everyone inside. It was burnt by Jacobites in 1689 so it couldn’t be used by royalist troops supporting William and Mary and was burned down again after the 1715 Jacobite uprising.
In early 1746, Jacobite forces were using Corgarff Castle as an arms store after their retreat from Derby. A forced march by 300 Government foot soldiers and 100 dragoons through the snow from Aberdeen just missed the Jacobites who had been tipped off about their arrival and had fled leaving still warm fires and the cat. The government troops found large quantities of gunpowder and over 300 muskets. In 1748 the castle was bought by the government and converted for use as a fort as part of their measures to control the Highlands.
The high stone-vaulted ceiling of the old hall was removed and an extra timber floor inserted, providing accommodation for the commanding officer, three non-commissioned officers and up to 42 men. Half were based in the castle. The rest were divided into small, scattered patrols based in barns or in the homes of a largely hostile population.
Outside, the courtyard buildings and surrounding wall were demolished. They were replaced with two single-storey pavilions and the star-shaped wall, equipped with musket-loops. It wasn’t strong enough to withstand cannon fire, but would have deterred a band of armed highlanders from attacking.
Later it was used as a base to support excise men trying to stamp out illicit whisky distilling and smuggling. It was abandoned by the army in 1831. Its last residents eventually left in 1912. The castle was fully restored in the 1960's and now contains an exhibition and reconstruction of a barrack room from 1750 when the redcoats of Pultenay’s 13th foot were stationed here.
The castle is reached up a steep climb up the track from the car part, although there is some disabled parking at the top of the track, although wheelchair users are unable to access the tower house. The part of the walls facing the road have been stripped of their harling after problems with the harling separating from the walls. They are waiting to be redone. It is worth walking round the outside of the walls before entering for views and photographs.
There is a single doorway through the walls. This leads into a narrow cobbled courtyard around the tower house which has a well. Steps lead up to the tower house which has slate slabs on the roof and two smaller outbuildings, pavilions, at the bottom. The reception and shop are on the first floor in what was the officer’s apartment. This had a small fireplace flanked by shelved cupboards and served as bedroom, sitting room and office.
Next to it is a smaller room with bare stone walls. This had been the kitchen of the original tower house, but this was moved into one of the outbuildings in the 18thC alterations. The room was then used by the second officer. It still has a small fireplace with barrels of peat beside it. The small room in the walls would have been a garderobe.
Stone steps lead down to the two vaulted stone cellars from the original tower house. These were used to store food and ammunition and were lit by small windows. One now contains barrels.
Steps lead up to the reconstructed 1750 barrack room on the first floor. There is a small fireplace at either end and six beds. Above these are wooden pegs to hang belongings and slates with names on. On the end wall is a stand which would have held muskets. There is a table and two benches for eating and a small storage recess in the wall by the fire. This has an old kettle and there are boxes with peat and logs. The walls are whitewashed and the ceiling is covered with graffiti.
The soldiers slept two to a bed although NCOs probably had a bed to themselves. The original furniture would have been made by carpenters who had brought patterns from Edinburgh Castle and travelled north to make the pieces on site. Bedding and other equipment would have been shipped from Edinburgh to Aberdeen and then brought by cart.
The soldiers were given a ration of food everyday; about half a loaf of bread, a pound of meat and two pints of beer. If they wanted any more food, they had to buy it themselves. They had to cook their food themselves over the fire here.
Steps continue up to a second barrack room. This is now empty but has display panels about General Wade, military roads, Corgaff and the other barrack blocks owned by Historic Scotland. There is also some information about local wild life.
More steps lead up to a garret, the cap room, under the roof which has a display about conserving the landscape for future generations.
The two pavilions on either side of the tower house were added in 1746. The east pavilion was a guard house and prison where Jacobite sympathisers of whisky smugglers were kept. Prisoners were held here until they could be escorted to Perth or Aberdeen. Although Inverness was closer, prisoners were not sent here as magistrates were sympathetic to the prisoners cause and rarely upheld the prosecution.
The west pavilion was the kitchen and brewhouse for the garrison and had a large peat store off it.
Corgaff is a stunning site, definitely 5*. The inside is interesting, but there isn’t a lot to be seen, especially if you have already visited Fort George and seen the reconstructed barracks there.
There are no refreshments at Corgaff Castle although the Goodbrand and Ross Tea rooms are just a few minutes drive east along A939.