The 1998 Season


After four seasons work at Fetternear (since 1995), we have obtained evidence suggesting that the main part of the medieval bishop's palace was quadrangular in plan, with four ranges of buildings arranged round a courtyard, and towers at the four corners. Thus 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 and Europe. Hitherto such structures have not been identified in Scotland.

The north (rear) wall of the towerhouse and mansion, Fetternear.

The north (rear) wall of the towerhouse and mansion, Fetternear.
Drawing: © SEPP

It is recorded that Bishop Alexander Kininmund built four residences during his episcopacy (1329-1341), of which he completed Fetternear and Old Aberdeen, despite being 'distracted by the confusion into which the English along with Edward Baliol had at that time thrown a great part of the country' (Moir Boece's Bishops of Aberdeen, 1894, 19-20).

The ambitious building programme for which we have found evidence at Fetternear is almost certainly the work of Bishop Kininmund. Geoffrey Barrow (Robert Bruce, Edinburgh 1988, 308) has suggested that Kininmund was possibly responsible for drafting the Declaration of Arbroath. It is certain that he went as an envoy to present the declaration to the Pope in Avignon. Perhaps the scale of bishops' palaces impressed him during his journey through France in 1320. Although he was initially elected to the see of St Andrews, Pope John XXII appointed him Bishop of Aberdeen, and he was able to realise at least some of his ambitions to construct on a large scale at Fetternear.

The fourteenth century palace overlies an earlier palace, perhaps of the twelfth to thirteenth centuries. It, too, was of a considerable size. We have detected various walls belonging to the earlier palace, one of which is a ghost wall. It cut through organic material, and was probably removed early in the fourteenth century.


in the July 1998 season, the team drew the north and east elevations of the Post-Reformation towerhouse and mansion, the north and west elevations of the Regency wing, and the north and west elevation of the early Victorian wing.

The pre-Reformation doorway in the north wall, 
giving access to the seventeenth-century 
stair tower. Photograph: SEPP

The pre-Reformation doorway in the north wall, 
giving access to the seventeenth-century 
stair tower. Photograph: © SEPP

The north (rear) wall of the towerhouse and mansion is particularly interesting as it incorporates parts of the bishop's palace belonging to different phases. In our 1995 Interim Report we suggested that significant high quality work was carried out at the Palace in c. 1500 A.D. (Dransart and Bogdan 1995, 31). Among the evidence that supports this suggestion is the existence at ground floor level of a doorway through the north wall. It seems to belong to an earlier structure as the hinges are on the outside of what is now the outer face of the wall. Latterly, the doorway gave access to the stair tower of the seventeenth century mansion.

The significance of this rear wall became clearer with the results of resistivity survey that are discussed in further detail below.


During July 1998, excavation was continued in Areas B4, B5, C2 and Area A. In this last area, the excavators detected a cobbled floor. This belongs to a structure that lacks entrances, and it was provisionally identified as the pit of the medieval bishop's palace.

It lies at the southern end of a rectangular structure approximately 30.5m (100 feet) long, the east wall of which probably extended as far as the rear (northern) wall of the mansion. This wall was widened at its southern end from 1.50m to a total width of 2.60m, indicating that at a secondary period at least part of the building had been heightened. It is possible that it was heightened to as much as at least three and a half storeys.

The widening of the wall blocked the outflow of a latrine into the ditch identified in the 1997 season. A second latrine was included in the outer skin of the thickened wall, and the outflow emptied into the same ditch. This second one was subsequently blocked by large stones, which were removed at the end of the 1998 season. The team continued to excavate the upper, post-medieval contexts of the ditch, which contained large amounts of building demolition.

Excavation of Area C2 revealed a continuation of the wall containing the second latrine, but it had been cut down to permit the development of the shrubbery east of the mansion in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. In Area B4 a nineteenth century excavation trench was detected and re-excavated.

In September 1998, a resistivity survey was carried out over an area covering eleven square metres immediately north of and southwest of the mansion. Measurements were taken at intervals of 0.50m. The survey provided evidence for an area of low resistance that probably indicates the remains of a robbed out tower situated at the northern continuation of the wall detected in Area C2. An estate map dating from 1838 shows that this building survived into the nineteenth century.

A rectangular shaped structure behind the rear (northern) wall of the mansion and a linear structure running parallel to the rear wall and under the 1818 wing appear as areas of high resistance. This linear feature may represent the rear wall of a range that was oriented at right angles to the 30.5 metre long structure excavated in Areas A and C. Its front wall was converted into the rear wall of the towerhouse and the later seventeenth century mansion. Two gunloops with a broad external splay were noted in the 1997 report.

They had been inserted into two of the uppermost windows at the back of the towerhouse. Their position at the height of the second floor suggests that the rear wall of the medieval range of buildings still stood at the time of the 1640 raid. This rear wall would have made the windows on the ground and first floors unsuitable for inserting gunloops. Count Patrick Leslie and his wife Mary Irvine probably had it removed as part of the late seventeenth century development of the site.

The resistivity survey southwest of the mansion revealed an area of high resistance that emerges from underneath the 1840 wing. This might represent the remains of another tower. As the westernmost part of the seventeenth century mansion incorporates the cut down remains of a barrel vault, it is likely that the medieval bishop's palace had a quadrangular plan, with four ranges of buildings disposed round a courtyard, and that it had towers at the four corners. The 1900 O.S. map provides possible evidence for a tower at the southeast corner, but this area has not yet been excavated. At present, the evidence for a southwest tower is more conjectural. The 1900 O.S. map also suggests that the bishop's palace also had another courtyard to the south.

Finds from the excavation included a double-sided ivory comb (perhaps late thirteenth/early fourteenth century), two glass bottle seals bearing the coat of arms of the Counts Leslie, and the core of a wound rubber golf ball, a type that dates from after 1901 in Britain.

Most of a nineteenth century excavation of parts of the Fetternear palace by the then laird, Charles Leslie, was backfilled and restored as a lawn. It is possible that early in the twentieth century the Bishop's pit briefly served as a golf bunker (cf. the private golf course that formerly surrounded Drum Castle, Aberdeenshire).

In the 1997 season, a coin was excavated in context 0055. It has been examined by Donal Bateson of the Hunterian Museum. He identified it as a continental imitation sterling of an Edwardian penny of London, dating from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. It may have been lost by 1325 (Donal Bateson, personal communication). This coin is of great interest as it comes from a context that is probably associated with the destruction of the pre-fourteenth century palace. Bishop Kininmund is recorded as rebuilding the palace during his episcopate (1329-1341).

Members of the research team are also investigating other bishops' palaces in Scotland. The large fourteenth century structure at Fetternear, with at least two courtyards, is, as indicated above, comparable with sites elsewhere in Britain and Europe.

To date, we have identified about seventy pre-Reformation bishops' residences in Scotland, but there appear to be very few that might be of the size and sophistication of Fetternear. The best parallels seem to be St Andrews castle and the bishop's palace, Aberdeen. However, Bishop Kininmund constructed a larger palace at Fetternear than at Aberdeen. It would seem that they both had a similar plan, being constructed round a courtyard and having corner towers. The Aberdeen palace was remodelled in the 1450s, and it survived until the mid seventeenth century.

The unpublished ninteenth-century excavation produced tracery, which is somewhat unusual on a castle site. William Kelly, the Aberdeen architect, described the finds as 'perfect pieces of advanced first-pointed mouldings and tracery' (Kelly 'St Machar's Cathedral', Transactions of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society IV 1910, 172-173). We have yet to detect any such tracery, but we have excavated finds of medieval window glass and window leading.

The 1998 season of work at Fetternear was enormously fruitful. Already we are obtaining findings that are helping us to reconsider the development of castellar architecture in Scotland, and its relationship with ecclesiastical architecture.

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


Aberdeenshire Council, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, The Hunter Archaeological Trust, Society of Antiquaries of London, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Royal Archaeological Institute, University of Aberdeen, and the Scottish Castle Survey