Ellon Castle Gardens is a fascinating microcosm of the history of North East Scotland. There are tales of a neighbourly dispute ending in murder, a mistress installed in the Castle, and disillusioned Jacobite supporters. The narrative of the old Castle is interwoven with historical events of local, regional and national significance.
Just how long there has been a Castle Garden in Ellon is difficult to tell. However, we are fairly sure that there was a castle in this area dating back to the early 15th century and that ties in with the age of some of the oldest yew trees which are reckoned to be about 800 years old. There is evidence that Kennedy of Kenmuck bought land at the Hill of Ardgith in 1413 and built his castle “The Fortalice of Ardgith” there. Some of the yew trees were possibly already there when the castle was built but almost certainly there was no formal garden at that time.
Over the years the Castle saw many changes until it was finally partly demolished in 1852 to provide building materials for a new castle. This was knocked down in the early 20th century to be replaced by a conversion of the stables and offices of the original Ardgith Castle. This building and the ruin of the original Ardgith Castle stand to this day. The Kennedy “coats of arms” is still visible on the wall of the castle ruins.
The castle and gardens have had a colourful and sometimes brutal history which mirrors the tempestuous times of the last 800 years.
The Kennedys of Ardgith and their neighbours the Forbes of Watertown had a dispute over a mill lade which led to a pitched battle and the Slaughter of Watertown in 1652, after which the Kennedys had to flee Aberdeenshire.
The next significant owner was Baillie James Gordon – a wealthy Edinburgh merchant who in 1715 created the walled garden with its 9 metre high terrace carved out of the hill. Tragedy struck him, too, when his two elder sons were murdered by their tutor. He sold the castle to George Gordon, the 3rd Earl of Aberdeen, who installed his favourite mistress, Penelope Dering from Hastings, in the castle. He was so protective of her that when Robert Burns visited Ellon in 1787, he was refused entry.
Around this time Scotland was torn asunder by the Jacobite uprisings and NE Scotland was a hotbed of Jacobitism. James II of England (VII of Scotland) was deposed because he refused to foreswear his Catholic faith. His supporters – mainly Catholic and Episcopalian – were given tokens which were made from melted down cannon. As he was not the king, he could not afford to pay his troops but promised that his ”gun money” could be exchanged for real money when he regained the throne. One such coin, dated 1690, was recently found in the garden, presumably thrown away by a disgruntled soldier realising that it was worthless.
A secret passage exists from the old castle down to the river Ythan. It may have been an escape route for fleeing Jacobites but it is more likely that it was used for smuggling brandy brought up the river on barges and through the passage to the castle.
The third Earl’s illegitimate son inherited the old castle and gardens but allowed it to decline over time. He built the new castle but ultimately ran out of money and eventually the estate was sold in 1919. His daughter Evelyn Vere Gordon was a noted artist and illustrator who produced a book entitled 7 castles and a garden in which she described in detail Ellon Castle garden in the 1880s. She married Rev Richard Boyle, son of Lord Boyle, who was descended from the scientist Robert Boyle after whom Boyle’s Law is called!
In more recent times, the castle was owned by Sir Edward Reid whose father, Sir James, was physician to Queen Victoria and who himself was a Director of Baring’s Bank and was married to Tatiana, the daughter of Colonel Alexandre Fénoult, formerly of the Russian Imperial Guard. Such exotic and international persons in Ellon!
The unique collection of 19 English yew trees in the centre of the walled garden are thought to be at least 500 years old and may possibly date back to Mediaeval times when St Mary’s Church (the present parish Church) was a centre for training monks for the ancient Monastery of Deir (which claims to date back to Columba).
The gardens were in private ownership until 2014, when the nine-acre site was transferred to the community of Ellon. They are Grade B Listed and contain several listed monuments. The sundial, one of only two known to exist with a design featuring 24 facets (the other is to be found in Pitmedden Garden), is Grade A Listed. The ruins of the old Ellon Castle are Grade B Listed, as are the Deer Park Wall, Garden House and the sundial on the upper terrace. Finally, the castle gate piers are Grade C Listed.