The Forest and Park of Drum


The Forest and Park of Drum, when first mentioned, in 1247, appear as in possession of the Crown, and the enclosure around the Park was stil1 maintained in 1318. Although this domain is not mentioned earlier it probably had always been reserved as a royal manor, for its situation, commanding the fords of the River Dee, gave it importance, and it does not appear to have formed part of the estates of the only great feudal baron on Deeside, Bisset, Lord of Aboyne.

Some notice of the last of this ancient and powerful family of Bisset, Lords of Aboyne, may not be without interest, especially as they are connected with the first recorded visit of a queen to the banks of the Dee and the mountain passes in the district of Mar. In the year 1242, King Alexander II and his youthful queen, Mary de Couci, in returning from Morayshire, were hospitably entertained at the Castle of Aboyne by Sir William Bisset, lord of that barony. The King, anxious to fulfill a friendly engagement to meet the King of England on the Borders, was  unable to prolong his stay at Aboyne; but the Queen, by his permission, accepted the pressing invitation of their host, and prolonged her stay for four days after the departure of her husband. Then, escorted by Sir William Bisset, she passed on to Forfar, and was there on the same day that a great tournament was held, in the presence of the King, at Haddington. At this tournament, Sir Walter Bisset, an experienced and accomplished knight, was worsted by the young Earl of Athol. On the following night a destructive fire burst forth in the town, and in the morning the charred body of Athol was found amongst the ruins of the house in which he lodged. Many other houses were entirely destroyed, and many other persons shared the fate of Athol. Whether the fire was the result of carelessness or of malice seems, even at the time, to have been uncertain; yet the loss by fire of so many lives in these houses—which were of no great height and contained few apartmentsrenders it probable that it must be laid to the account of the wassail of the friends and followers of the victorious Earl, and, all the more, that the building was constructed of wood, and carpeted with straw and rushes. The kinsmen of Athol, encouraged by the most powerful barons of the land, as well as by popular clamour, accused the Bissets—in the person of Sir William and of his uncles, Sir Walter and Sir John, of having contrived the assassination of the Earl, and of having kindled the fire to conceal it.

Sir William Bisset, as already mentioned, was, at the time of that tournament and subsequent conflagration, at Forfar, more than a day’s journey from Haddington. At a late hour he had been with the Queen at supper, and, having conducted her to her chamber, had retired to his own and gone to bed. On hearing that Sir William Bisset was accused, the. Queen warmly espoused his cause, and even offered to appear and by her oath to prove that he was not only innocent, but “that he had never devised a crime so enormous.” The measures he took to refute the accusation, although sufficiently energetic, and supported by so powerful testimony, proved ineffectual in allaying the suspicions or in arresting the active hostility of his enemies. He caused his chaplain to excommunicate, by book and bell,” all those who were directly or indirectly concerned in the death of the Earl of Athol, and procured, by the authority of the Bishop of Aberdeen, the pronouncement of the same anathema in every church of the diocese.

Neither the proffered royal oath nor the religious curse proved of any avail in satisfying the kinsmen of Athol, of whom the Earls of March and Buchan were the most active, so that at last the King found it necessary to fix a day on which he would give judgment on the accusations brought against the Bissets. At the time appointed, Sir William Bisset appeared and complained that all the properties of himself, as well as of his friends and their followers, had already been pillaged, burnt, and laid waste by his accusers; and after stating that, by the solemn rites of the Church, he had already pledged his soul in proof of his innocence, he now offered in single combat to defend with his own body the charge of falsehood and malice which he made against his enemies. They shrank from the combat, while he—alleging as a reason the great influence of his accusers—declined a trial by jury. In the end the Bissets submitted themselves to the judgment of the King, who pronounced on them the sentence of banishment and confiscation of their property.

In regard to Sir William Bisset, the head of the family, it may be remarked that he could not possibly have known the result of the tournament, neither could be have anticipated that one so expert in all knightly exercises as Sir Walter Bisset would be foiled by so youthful a competitor. Yet the slaughter of Athol was believed to have its cause in his success and in the revengeful feelings of the Bissets which it had stirred, as also in the ancient enmity that existed between the Earls of Athol and the Barons of Aboyne. The most unaccountable parts of the whole transaction are the delay of the Queen and her absence, which also occasioned that of her escort, from the tournament, although the period fixed for this joust had been generally proclaimed.

The Bissets were allowed forty days wherein to depart from Scotland; and, before their expatriation, were compelled to vow that they would proceed to the Holy Land, and there, for the rest, of their lives, pray for the soul of the murdered Earl. It has been remarked that this was an extraordinary vow for innocent men to make; but it must be borne in mind that this or death was the alternative; and it seems still more strange that the enemies of the Bissets could expect the soul of Athol to benefit by the prayers of persons who had been condemned as his murderers, and who, if guilty of the slaughter, were equally guilty of the deepest perjury, and for their crime were also cursed and cut off from the communion of Christians. The Bissets, preferring  “Green Islands of  the Saints” to the desolation of  the Holy Land, passed into Ireland, and, under the protection of the King of England, gave considerable annoyance to the country from which they had been expelled.

In 1318, King Robert Bruce, by a deed granted permission to the abbot and monks of Aberbrothoc, together with those in their service, to freely pass and re-pass through the Park of Drum with horses, loaded carriages, or otherwise, without molestation from the forester or any other officials, on condition, that they should erect two gates for the purpose of their entrance and exit, with bolts to be opened and shut as occasion required. This deed, and a reddendo attached to deeds thereafter mentioned of William de Irvin and Alexander Burnard, show that then, and in 1328 and 1324, the Park of Drum was still maintained as a royal preserve.

It appears, says Tytler,to have been the custom of our monarchs to remove their court at different seasons to the various palaces, estates, and manors which they possessed in private property. The preservation of the game, the enclosing the parks or chases round the royal castles by strong wooden pales, the feeding of the does during winter, the employment of park-keepers, whose business was to guard the forest from waste or intrusion, and of foxhunters who were hired to destroy the beasts of prey and noxious vermin, are all occupations which appear in the chamberlain’s accounts.

In 1322, King Robert Bruce granted part of the Park of Drum to Alexander Irvin, and at the same time a part of the upper forest of Drum to Alexander Burnard, in possession of whose descendants it still remains.

In 1328 the Park was again royal property, as appears in the charter to William de Irvin of the Forest of Drum dated this year stipulating for the payment by him and his successors of one chalder of meal for the maintenance of the Park. This charter to William de Irvin granted the lands in free forestry; but in the following year, 1324, by another charter, the forest of Drum was erected into a free-barony for the same individual. By a bounding charter, dated 1324, of lands granted earlier to Alexander Burnard, he and his successors are bound to pay one chalder of meal for the maintenance of the Park of Drum.

In 1359, King David II granted a charter of confirmation to Sir Walter Moigne of the lands of the Park of Drum in free forestry. The Park had previously been bestowed on him, but this confirmation became necessary in consequence of an Act of Parliament, passed in 1357, recalling all gifts of Crown lands which had been made during the King’s long captivity in England. Attached to this grant of the Park was the right to receive payment of the two chalders of meal already mentioned as retained in the grants to the 1rvines and Burnetts for the maintenance of the Park.

By deeds dated in 1388 and 1393, John, son of Sir Walter Moigne, transferred the Park of Drum and the payments for its maintenance to his friend Alexander of Irwyne, Lord of the Drum.

The Tower and House of Drum. The Tower of Drum, after having remained so long unscathed by time and the private feuds of earlier ages, was in imminent danger of destruction when besieged by General Monroe during the Civil War of 1640. At that time it was saved by surrender, after two of the besieging force had been killed, but before the four mortars and the mining tools were brought into play; and its convenient position for a garrison, with the great strength of its masonry afterwards preserved it from the demolition to which it was consigned by the Scottish Parliament. From destruction by fire—either through the carelessness or malice of its intrusive inmates, the garrisons of the Covenanter forces—the Tower was guaranteed by the absence of timber in its construction, and thus it remains in perfect preservation, to afford a theme for discussion as to the probable period of its erection, for there is no notice of it in the family papers which can assist in settling the point.

The form and construction of the Tower, its materials, its internal arrangement, its situation, and its local and historical associations all point to an early period, and support the tradition that it was erected by King William (the Lion) in the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century,  after the return of that monarch from his captivity in England and Normandy, and when he had a palace at Aberdeen. It has certainly stood for centuries, and unless overthrown by deliberate purpose or untimely accident, this grim memorial of an early age may continue to be inhabited and may remain essentially unchanged for many centuries more. Its architecture is of the oldest and simplest form. The well in the dungeon, the great thickness of the walls (at the expense of its light supply), the vaulted roofs, the few small windows far from the ground, no entrance lower than that on the first floor, which could be reached only by steps that were originally removable in times of danger, all show that it was built for security and defence, so necessary in very early troublous times. Two other facts indicate that it was built before the period of cannon and during that of the battering ram, for its position, facing on the north and west a contiguous range of rising ground, proves that it was not. intended to withstand the former, which could easily fire point-blank on its summit; while the rounded corners of the four-sided tower (like the round towers at the corners of the curtain walls of more extensive places of defence in the olden time) were probably meant to afford no salient for the latter.

In form the Tower is oblong, with rounded corners, the north and south sides being fifty feet six inches, the east and. west sides thirty-eight feet six inches in length. It is without turrets, but surmounted by high battlements rising from a simple and slightly projecting corbel moulding. The height to the top of the battlements is sixty-eight feet four inches. The interior consists of three vaulted chambers, each occupying an entire story. A small recess in the wall of each of the two highest compartments is the only further separate accommodation   provided in the original masonry, although it seems probable that wooden platforms, supported on the corbel-tables which  project immediately beneath the spring of the arches of the two uppermost stories, formed additional floors. The thickness of the walls at the first floor is eleven feet, but is considerably diminished towards the top, and somewhat increased in the dungeon below, in proportion to the size of the different compartments. The ascent to the upper chamber is by a screw stair  in the wall at the south-east corner the building.

I have already stated that Drum had probably been always retained as one of the royal domains, although the first mention of it is in the year 1247, in the reign of Alexander II. The fact that it had then its enclosed royal park as well as a forest, and that, prior to the wars of independence, the number of castles and fortalices that existed in Scotland was great, renders it reasonable to infer that there was one at Drum, especially if regard be had to its position—contiguous to, and between, two of the principal fords and places of passage on the river Dee, and commanding a route that was then, and possibly may again become, the direct line of communication between the North and the lowlands of the north-eastern districts of Scotland. These fords, in the time of the Roman invasion, were commended by the great station of Devana, traces of which still remain, and are called Normandikes. This Roman camp is situated on the property of Drum near the banks of the river Dee, which here makes a considerable bend, and thus protects the position at Normandikes on both the south and eastern sides. Part of the road leading from the fords was, no doubt, improved—if it was not formed—by the Romans, as it leads to the  north towards the Roman camps at Kintore and Glenmailen. It is also to be remarked that the ancient forest laws indicate that in every forest there was a royal castle.

It has been urged as an argument against the existence of the Tower of Drum at the time of the grant of the forest to William de Irvine, that it is not mentioned in the gift. But this objection is of no weight, as all fortalices were considered the property of the Crown, and anciently the grant of the land on which a fortalice stood carried no right of property in any tower or place of defence, unless by express grant, which was rarely given. The grantee of the land was merely invested with the privileges of hereditary keeper of the stronghold; and it is probable that at one time no better title than this was attached to the possession of many of ancient places of residence which were more adapted for defence than for comfort.

It is commonly believed that the erection of many castles or defensive residences of the feudal barons of Scotland should be attributed to the effects of the Act of Parliament which, in 1426, ordained that every lord who had lands beyond the Grampian Mountains should repair or rebuild the castles or manor-places which-formerly stood on them, and should either himself reside therein or procure a friend to take his place. This Act, however, gives no authority for the erection of a new castle, but merely enjoins the restoration and inhibiting of those that existed “in auld tymes,” and, until a comparatively recent period, a subject required special permission to erect a fortalice or place of strength on his property.

In the deed, dated 1393, from John de Moigne to Alexander de Irvin, it is stated that certain payments are to be made apud manerium dicti Alexandri del Droum.” That manerium was used at that period to designate dwelling-places at which castles existed is shown by many deeds. But I shall refer only to examples near in time and place. In the deed granted between 1377 and 1384 by James de Douglas to  Sir Thomas de Harkar, mention is made of “Manerium de Cowle. The castle there is known to have been in existence long prior to that date, and in a deed of Isabel, Countess of Fife, dated 22nd June 1389, “The Fortalice of Cowl is mentioned.

The ruined Tower of Halforest, situated in .the ancient forest of  Kybtor (Kintore), has often been referred to as a structure coeval with the Tower of Drum; but its external construction, and its large windows with their finished mouldings, are evidence of a different and much later period of architecture. It may possibly be the building that replaced an earlier tower, which tradition says was destroyed by the Irvines in the end of the fourteenth century. Several circumstances are, however, common to the situations and histories of the Towers of Drum and Halforest. They were both links in a chain of royal domains that extended from the Tay to the Moray Firth, and. formed easy stages along the principal  road which led through the shires of Perth, Angus, Kincardine and Aberdeen, to Banff, Moray, and Inverness. On this line, and on the opposite bank of the river Dee, were the castles of Durris and Drum. Kintore and Inverury, in like situations, gave security to the passage of the Don, or shelter to the royal party if detained on either side of it. On July 13, 1296, King Edward I of England, in his progress through Scotland, stayed a night at Durrus, having halted on the day before at Glenbervie, and passing, on the 14th, to Aberdeen.

King Robert Bruce granted the forests of Kintore and Drum to two of his followers, with whose descendants they still remain, but the Parks at these places were still retained as part of the royal domains. Although the forest at Kintore thus became, in 1309, the property of the Keiths, Marischals of Scotland, it appears that in 1365, King David II confirmed a charter, granted in 1361, “apud Manerium nostrum foresti de Kyntor.” In 1362 the same monarch affixes his seal to a deed “apud Forestam de Kyntor.” From these facts it would appear that, although the forest was the property of the Keiths, the right to the residence there, whatever it might be, was inherent in the Crown. Such rights, however, seem to have been exercised only where there was a fortalice or place of strength to afford sufficient protection to the King. Halforest was rendered particularly convenient by its proximity to the burgh of Kintore, which- furnished accommodation for the Royal retinue.

The more modern part of the House of Drum was finished in 1619, and forms two sides of a square, the other two sides of the courtyard being enclosed by a wall, and a low building adjoining the Tower near the north-east corner of the quadrangle and having communication with the House, which is joined to its south-west corner. A small chapel, occasionally used as a burying-place for the family, is situated close to the House, and probably formed part of the range of buildings that gave place to the more modern dwelling-house erected in 1619. But the principal place of sepulture of the family was the transept of St.  Nicholas Church of Aberdeen, called Drum’s Aisle, where it probably was that Sir Alexander Irvine, in 1456, erected and endowed to the patron saint of the Irvines, Saint Ninian, an altar, near which its founder was interred in the following year, 1457.                                                                                »»»


The preceding is an excerpt from The Irvines of Drum, written by Lt.-Col. Jonathan Forbes Leslie and published in 1909. It is printed here without permission (copyright has expired). The author was not an Irvine, nor was he born of one of the collateral families. Col. Forbes Leslie was married to Margaret Urquhart (d. 1882), who was the daughter of  John Urquhart, who was a son of William Urquhart and Margaret Irvine. Margaret Irvine (1748-1773) was the daughter, and second child, of George Irvine of Artamford. George was the ninth child of William Irvine of  Artamford and Isobell Keith.

Henry Quentin Forbes Irvine, the 24th Laird of Drum, bequeathed the castle and manor house, along with three hundred acres, to the National Trust of Scotland in 1975.                                    


Drum Castle and manor house; photo by Don Erwin, 1993