The 1997 Season


The research project is designed to throw light on the vexed relationship between castellar and ecclesiastical architecture in medieval Scotland. While MacGibbon and Ross (The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1887-1892) suggested that Scottish stone castellar architecture always differed from that of the rest of the British Isles, more recently Nicholas Bogdan (Some Aspects of Early Castle Building in Scotland, thesis, University of St Andrews, 1979) questioned this interpretation. He suggested that instead that it was the only in the fourteenth century that a distinctively Scottish form of castellar architecture began to evolve.

The excavation at Fetternear in 1997.

Illustration: The excavation at Fetternear in 1997.
Photograph: © SEPP.

Richard Fawcett proposed a similar development for Scottish ecclesiastical architecture ('Scottish Mediaeval Window Tracery', in Breeze, D J (ed), Studies in Scottish Antiquity, Edinburgh, 1984). One of the purposes of the Scottish Episcopal Palaces Project is to explore these alternative interpretations. Episcopal palace sites share a common patron, the bishops of medieval Scotland, and it is likely that episcopal palace sites provide a suitable test-bed to investigate whether Scottish castellar and episcopal architecture evolved along broadly similar lines.

This report presents the main findings of the 1997 excavation season at Fetternear. It also reports on developments arising from the architectural survey undertaken in conjunction with the RCAHMS at the site. Shortly before the Reformation in Scotland (1560), Fetternear passed to the Leslie family. The findings of the architectural survey combined with a study of documentary sources give an insight into how the site became a centre of recusancy.


The third excavation season at the summer palace of the Bishops of Aberdeen at Fetternear in June and July 1997 confirmed that the site is a complex one. During this season the team investigated modern contexts and contexts contaminated by the late 19th century excavation. We removed some of these layers in Areas A - C, detecting slight evidence of plough damage in parts of Area B. The stratigraphy of walls exposed in the course of the 19th century excavation reveals a complicated sequence. Most of the 19th century excavation had been backfilled, apart from Area A. This was apparently left as an archaeological feature in the lawn in front of the mansion, and the evidence suggests that part of it was converted into a flower bed.

A latrine was identified in Area A; it appears to have been erected above an earlier structure. Its outflow, which has not yet been excavated, seems to run into a ditch that was infilled with building rubble at the time the tower house was erected later in the 16th century. The ditch infill contained medieval glass and window lead. An articulated canid skeleton was found in the upper part of the fill.

Part of the infill of a ghost wall in Area B was excavated. The removal of this material indicated that archaeological deposits are at least 1.5 m deep, a remarkable depth of stratigraphy for a rural site. This ghost wall cut through organic material, and the wall was probably removed in the 14th century.

In Area C, the footings of the eastern wing of the mansion were identified. This 'wing' appears to predate the post Reformation tower house. It continued in use until it was demolished in the late 18th century.

Its rear wall (the easternmost wall of the wing) was removed by the later shrubbery in the north-eastern corner of Area C. Fortunately, the disturbance caused by developing the shrubbery in the late 18th and 19th centuries has not removed earlier medieval deposits, which still survive in this corner. Prehistoric worked flints were detected on various parts of the excavation.

It is likely that the medieval site overlies a prehistoric one. Evidence from this year's work confirms the international relevance of the site. The bishop's palace in the fourteenth century was comparable in size and form with the most elaborate examples in other parts of the British Isles. Hitherto such structures have not been identified in Scotland.

The architectural survey undertaken in 1995 and 1996 demonstrated that the adjoining seventeenth century mansion incorporates parts of the medieval bishop's palace. Evidence for this may be seen in the sections of the pre-Reformation walling that remain in situ in parts of the northern or rear wall of the sixteenth century towerhouse, as well as in parts of the rear wall of the seventeenth century hallhouse, which was developed to create the mansion of the 1690s.

Re-used sandstone dressings, which almost certainly came from the fourteenth century palace, are a feature of the windows and main door of the 1690s mansion. Clearance of trees at the back of the towerhouse in 1996 revealed that two gunloops with a broad external splay were inserted at a secondary period into two of the second floor windows. They may have been about a century old before they were reused, probably in 1640, and it is likely that they came from the pre-Reformation palace.

Further examination of the fabric of the ruined mansion in 1997 is providing evidence for a number of post-Reformation features that reflect a continental rather than just a Scottish building tradition. In the remodelling of the building that took place in the 1690s, a second stairtower was added in an effort to present a more or less symmetrical south façade (the westernmost of the two towers). The lower part of its turnpike stair was formed from reused stones (presumably from the earlier bishop's palace), but much of it seems to have been constructed in timber.

To date, no parallels for this type of construction have been identified in Scotland. However, wooden turnpikes do occur in France and Germany (personal communications, H.G. Slade and G. Stell). Another feature at Fetternear indicating a German connection is a stone on the south facing façade that bears the letters IHS and MRA, with the date 1691.

Although such stones are common in Bavaria and Austria, the only other examples in Scotland that combine both these references to Jesus and Mary are at Balquhain, the Leslie's ancestral castle. A metal example is built into the priest's house at St John's, Fetternear, the Catholic church erected in the nineteenth century by the Leslie family.

Since the publication of our first interim report, Fetternear 1995, it has become increasingly clear that the site at Fetternear is noteworthy not only for its pre-Reformation bishop's palace, but also for its post-Reformation Catholic history and the remarkable Leslie family that owned the estate from 1550 until 1932.

Research has shown that the Leslies of Balquhain and Fetternear were arguably the most successful Scottish mercenaries of the seventeenth century, rivalling even the celebrated General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries, Tsar Peter the Great's confidant.

They served the Austrian Emperors faithfully during the Thirty Year's War. Walter Leslie was made Count of the Holy Roman Empire and James, the second Count, made a notable contribution to the defeat of the Turks outside the walls of Vienna in 1683 (F. Leslie, 'Count Leslie, and the Siege of Vienna', Scottish Notes and Queries, Third Series XII No 7, July 1934, 97-100). During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Counts Leslie ranked amongst the most important magnates in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe.

For their services, both military and diplomatic, they were granted important properties in lands that now form part of Austria, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Still others they acquired by marriage. Count Walter married Princess Anna de Dietrichstein, daughter of Maximilian, Prince de Dietrichstein, Prime Minister and Grand Chamberlain to the Emperor, while two of his successors married princesses from Lichtenstein. With connections such as these, it is possible to say that Fetternear is a site of international importance.

The study of the available documentary sources reveal that the continental features observed at Fetternear in the course of the architectural survey mentioned above may be attributed to Count Patrick Leslie and his wife Mary Irvine when they remodelled the mansion in the 1690s. Their armorial panel, which bears the date 1693, is placed immediately above the main doorway.

Another carved stone bearing the letters IHS and MRA may be the work of a local Scottish mason. In contrast, the armorial panel might have been brought from the Continent. Stylistically it appears to be related to the slightly earlier arms of the second Count which still surmount the inner entrance of the Leslie's great fortress of Ptuj in Slovenia (A L Klieforth Grip Fast: the Leslies in History, Chichester, 1993, Figure 47b).

It is interesting to note that the Leslies seem to have been remodelling Ptuj and Fetternear at much the same time in the late seventeenth century. At both they seem to have decorated the pedimented dormers with their family arms (C. Leslie Historical Records of the Family of Leslie from 1067 to 1868-9, Edinburgh 1869, I, 119).

Another fruitful line of documentary research is the discovery by Mrs Ann Dean of an inventory of the contents of Fetternear house in 1742. The contents were auctioned in that year following the death of Count Ernest Leslie, who died unmarried. Included in the list of items sold are paintings, furniture, rugs and a most interesting library.

Also mentioned is 'a statue of Virgin Mary, finely cut in wood'. The statue, which represents the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, probably dates from the seventeenth century, and is perhaps the work of an Andalusian sculptor. That the sculpture should represent the Immaculate Conception is of great interest, since the Jesuit order was a staunch advocate of the belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception.

Members of the order were active in sixteenth and seventeenth century Scotland (including Leslies of the Conrack branch of the family), while Count Patrick's brother, William Aloysius Leslie, was a distinguished Jesuit who served as rector of the Scots College, Rome (Roberts, in Fetternear 1996). It is therefore fitting that Patrick Leslie and Mary Irvine should have placed the Jesuit monogram IHS on the front of their mansion, and that they should have placed a statue of the Immaculate Conception inside.

The documentary sources are providing rich material for a fuller understanding of the post-Reformation history of Fetternear. These sources have enabled us to identify material culture from the site, a study of which gives a greater insight into the use of visual symbols at Fetternear. This aspect of the project complements the research that is being conducted on the medieval aspects of the site.

The project directors wish to thank Mrs C Whittall, Mrs C Fyffe, Mr R Fyffe and Mr D Fyffe for their support and for allowing access to the site.

University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Society of Antiquaries of London, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Aberdeenshire Council, the Scottish Castle Survey, and Sir Archibald Grant Bt.