Castle Huntly revisited

In A reflection of Perth et al. I detailed the history of HMP Perth in Scotland. In this blog, I will look back at the history of HMP Castle Huntly, which among other uses over several centuries was a former probationary school for girls, a borstal for boys and a young offenders’ institution.

In 1452, during the reign of the King of Scotland, James II (1437-1460) the first Baron Gray of Fowlis received permission to build a fortalice (a small fort) on land owned by the Baron. The year 1452 was also the start of the ‘Battle of Brechin’, a civil war that broke out between those loyal to the king and the noble families led by the ‘Black Douglases’ following the murder, by the king, of William Douglas, 8th Earl of Douglas.

The English government, in 1424, took Lord Andrew Gray, allegedly in place of his father, as a hostage for the payment of the ransom of King James I. Lord Gray was first sent to Pontefract Castle, before being sent to the Tower of London, where he remained until 1427, at which time he was swapped in exchange for Malcolm Fleming, the son of the laird of Cumbernauld.

Castle Huntly stands on an outcrop of volcanic rock just south from the village of Longforgan. Stone from Kingoodie Quarry, on the banks of the River Tay, was used in its construction. Being exceptionally hard stone, it was difficult to work with but it was durable as evidenced by the condition of the castle building, now 550 years old.

The earliest part comprises a keep with additional living and domestic quarters, considered as one of the finest examples of the “Tower and Jamb” design of the period. Entry to the keep was through a door several feet from where the base of the keep met with the rock foundation — itself about ten feet above ground level, they built up an apron wall to the level of the entrance to the keep which created a series of cellars with vaulted ceilings. They lay a roof on top to provide a forecourt to the entrance and access to a winding staircase, provided next to the cellar at the north-west of the forecourt a doorway, several feet off the ground, in the apron wall. The floor of the cellars, which are of rough rock, was the line of approach to the original doorway.

The ten-foot thick walls of the keep are so well integrated with the rock of its foundations that they are sometimes difficult to determine where the rock ends and the masonry begins. In the lower part of the keep a dungeon, measuring 12 by 17 and 15 feet to the ceiling, was cut out of the solid rock. Means of a trapdoor entered this from the guardroom above and has only a tiny slit, or loop window, high on the southwest wall to admit light and air. As well as the guardroom, there are three other cellars with barrel-vaulted ceilings and each had to be hewn out of the rock, which remains exposed on the end wall and floor. Because the walls are so thick and the cellars so thoroughly protected from atmospheric influences, the temperature within seldom varies irrespective of the time of year, so they used one only for the storage of wine. Originally, the only access to the floors above was by a ladder which could be drawn up to the first floor providing a greater security and as late as 1946, only a light wooden staircase connected with the floor above.

Over the next 200 years, there were several additions to the castle.

In 1660, Earl Patrick of Strathmore added a storey. In 1776, a major reconstruction was carried out by the Paterson family, when the building received a new roof, a central tower or “lantern” was added and two wings, each of two storeys, with an entrance hall in between, were erected so forming what is the front of the castle. At the entrance to what was the inner park, the 1st Earl of Strathmore built a gateway. This was one of six similar structures, which were laid in a straight line along the primary avenue in a northwest direction to join the Dundee — Perth road at the Snabs. Each gate comprised a central arch, 16 feet wide, with two side arches about seven feet wide and the piers between decorated with ornamental, semi-circular Tuscan pilasters surmounted by elongated pyramids.

A short distance from the castle, they built an icehouse into an excavation on sloping ground. The egg-shaped chamber, considered being one of the finest extant examples in the country and possibly in Europe, constructed entirely of handmade brick and is still in perfect condition and thoroughly dry after 300 years. Also within the castle grounds several quaint statues of classical figures may still be seen, testifying to the refined taste of the Earl of Patrick. A mercat cross, comprising an 11-foot high stone pillar with a lion on top, had been erected in Longforgan in the 17th Century.

Some years prior to 1797 it was removed and erected on a mound, known as Cromwell’s Knowe, in what used to be the park at Castle Huntly where it remained until as recently as 1989 when, following an application from the Community Council, they returned the cross to the village to stand outside the primary school. Tradition would have it that Lord Gray named the Castle after his wife, a daughter of the Earl of Huntly, but, since the Gray family came to Perthshire from Chillingham, Northumberland, in the time of King Robert the Bruce, it is more likely that the name was taken from a village of Huntly, in the parish of Gordon, part of their Berwickshire estates. The best-known member of the Gray family was Patrick, 6th Lord Gray who, as the notorious Master of Gray, was involved in several hazardous escapades during the reign of James VI. This treacherous and unprincipled rogue connived and schemed his way into the confidence of Queen Mary of Guise, her daughter Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth of England, the French Court and Mary’s son, James VI.

In 1587 they eventually caught him out, tried for treason and condemned to death, although he had the sentence reduced to one of banishment. Two years later he returned to sue King James for damages and awarded £19,983. Patrick on his death in 1611, succeeded by his son Andrew who sold Castle Huntly, in 1614, to Patrick, 12th Lord of Glamis and 1st Earl of Kinghorne.

When, in 1672, his grandson got a charter from Charles Il making the lands of Longforgan a free barony of the Lordship of Lyon, the name of the castle changed to Castle Lyon. John, the 7th Earl, married an Elizabeth Bowes of Streatham, who on the death of her husband, returned to London in 1776 and they again sold the castle, this time to a Dundee man, George Paterson, for the sum of €40,000.

Paterson had gained fame and fortune in India, where he had acted as Official Secretary to Sir
Robert Haggard during the time of the contest between France and England for supremacy in Hindustan. A man of considerable administrative capacity and professional talent, Paterson was engaged in many of the delicate negotiation which took place and records of these services, many of a secret nature, were preserved for many years in the castle’s cellar. By a strange coincidence Paterson married a daughter of the 12th Lord Gray in 1775 so that, when he took up residence, he restored the original name of the castle and castle Lyon became, once again, Castle Huntly.

It is said that when a friend of the family remarked to Lord Gray that he was surprised at the engagement of his daughter to a commoner, Lord Gray replied — “Weel, she had the bluid and he has the fillings, so between them they will mak a guid puddin.” While the castle remained in the Paterson family, in fact for the next 160 years until the death of the last of the Patersons in 1940, Castle Huntly attracted interest frequently for different reasons. In 1930, one press report revealed that “Not even the most alert among Longforgan folk were aware of the identity of the charming lady whose car… turned down the picturesque road from Longforgan Village to the beautiful gate-way of Castle Huntly”. It was none other than the then Duchess of York, the late Queen Mother who, for the first time, saw the castle once possessed by her ancestors.

In 1939, another press report tells how workmen undertaking alterations for the owner, Cole AG Paterson, rediscovered the “bottle dungeon” and some old plans of the castle which were found in some cellars. They hoped that the latter might yield some clue to the whereabouts of the mysterious passages and hidden vaults, which they believed the castle to contain. They referred to the underground tunnel which some believed connected Castle Huntly with Glamis Castle about 15 miles distant!

A rather different account, based more on historical fact, connects the White Lady with a dowager Countess of Strathmore of a much later period who entered a second, ill-fated marriage. The unhappy woman wrote about her wretched experience and described the letter as the most bitter indictment of a husband ever written by a wife. As well as being reported to have been seen in one room in the castle, it is told that her ghost haunts the grounds, and even in the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign, many Carse folk did not care to pass the Bogle Bridge at night. Possibly the most recent sighting was by a person described as a cool, calculating man of affairs walking in the Avenue on an April afternoon. In a most matter of fact, he described how he saw the White Lady moving among the trees. A mystery also surrounds the date of the Wallace Stone, which, for many years, was stored within Castle Huntly’s vaulted cellars. The Statistical Account of 1795 describes this stone, formerly called a bear stone, and relates that the stone was the property of a Longforgan weaver named Smith, who also farmed a few acres of ground. When not in use for removing husk from barley or bear, he kept the stone at the side of his cottage door as a seat, and it was here that Wallace sat on his way from Dundee, when he fled after killing the Governor’s son.

The last descendant of the Smith family gave the Wallace Stone to George Paterson for safe-keeping and whether it now lies hidden in some forgotten, sealed-off part of the castle, or whether its historical associations were overlooked and the stone disposed of is not known. During the war years, the castle a girl’s probation school before being purchased in 1946 by the Scottish Home and Health Department for use as a borstal and, today, it still belongs to the Scottish Prison Service. The drawing room, in one wing built by George Paterson, is now the Tayview Room. The old library is now an office, and they use the main hall as a meeting room.

The top of the castle, standing as it does some 1430 feet above the surrounding Carse of Gowrie, makes a perfect vantage point from which to search the countryside in search of the occasional absconder from Her Majesty’s hospitality! To the north lie the hills of Rossie and Evelick, and to the West, one can discern distant Kinnoull. The Southern horizon is bounded by the Fifeshire Hills, the Lomonds and Norman’s Law whilst, to the East, Dundee and the Tay Bridge are visible as are the many villages scattered along both banks of the River Tay from Perth to Broughty Ferry.

Today, HMP Castle Huntly operates as Scotland’s only open prison.

I have sourced the information above from and from previously unpublished material written in 1990 by the then governor E. Brownsmith, kindly provided to me from In a coincidental link, considering I’m always banging on about education (and history), James II was responsible for the formation of the University of Glasgow.

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