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Architecture Notes

Event ID 855090

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Architecture Notes


(Classification cited as Moat; Bishop's Palace; Tower-house; Laird's House; Country House; Excavations). The ruins of Fetternear House are situated in parkland about 450m NW of the river Don and 80m NE of the Marshes Burn; it incorporates three main phases of construction, ranging in date from the later 16th century to the 19th century and stands within the moat of the bishop of Aberdeen's medieval palace.

Recent excavations by Nick Bogdan and Penny Dransart have revealed the remains of the medieval palace and the moat within which it once stood. Two phases of a large building aligned from NE to SW were located on the inner lip of the SE arm of the moat, the return of which to the NW was found in a excavation trench to the NE of the ruins. A shallow hollow continues the line of the SE arm of the moat to the SW as far as the river-terrace of the Marshes Burn. In addition the foundations of a building that postdates this range and overlay it on the NE immediately S of the ruins, were uncovered.

This building comprised two phases each aligned from SE to NW with that to the S built onto the one to the N and offset to the SE (Dransart 2004-5). This building does not appear to be connected with the present ruin, being aligned differently and there are no tuskers in the ruin that would support such a connection. Although the 2nd edition OS 25-inch map depicts the outline of what was recovered by Charles Leslie's excavations in the 19th century (Aberdeenshire 1870, sheet liv SW), these do not match well with those revealed by Bogdan and Dransart and there would appear to have been a good deal of imaginative reconstruction on the part of Charles Leslie. The current programme of excavations by Penny Dransart is continuing, particularly to the W of the track past the ruin.

The present ruin appears to be a 19th-century neo-gothic house, comprising a crenellated three-storey building of six bays with turrets and a lower wing at either end. However it incorporates the remains of a 16th century tower-house and a late 17th century laird's house. Two additional ranges of buildings that were added during the course of the 19th century are now part of the ruin. In addition the building once had a large flat-roofed porch that is visible on a 19th century photograph held at the RCAHMS (C65799), which has been completely destroyed as, indeed, has a building depicted on an estate plan of 1838 held by the University of Aberdeen (AUL MS 3528/11) that was attached to the NE corner. The basement of the building incorporates several blocked slit windows, with chamfered arrises and squared heads, which appear to be late medieval in origin, but apart from the one that is visible in the 17th century stairwell and another set in the E wall they are incomplete and cannot be considered to be in situ. That in the stairwell has been made into a feature, and for this reason it is questionable whether it is in situ or has been put there as an antiquarian feature in the same way as the incomplete examples. It is therefore doubtful if any of the standing ruin incorporates walls from the medieval palace.

At some point in the late 16th century, the bishop's palace was demolished and replaced by a Renaissance-style tower-house, comprising a range aligned from SE to NW with a hall-house of two floors between two towers, each of them of three floors, the SE of which has a stair turret attached to its SW corner. The stonework along the NE wall does not display any quoins that would suggest that the tower on the SE was freestanding before the first-floor hall was constructed. The roofline of the first-floor hall in the central part of the building is preserved as a groove cut in the stonework of the respective internal walls of the towers at either end. A small window light is visible in the SW gable of the third floor of the SE tower just above the roof-line, the bottom left-hand corner of which has been cut into to make the groove. Holes for the rafters of the hall roof are also visible in the stonework of the turret that is attached to the SW corner of the tower, but no trace of the front wall of the house at this time was evident and it appears to have been completely demolished in the course of later modifications. Only two window-lights could be traced at first floor level in the rear wall of the hall, of which that to the W has been blocked with the insertion of a new chimney-stack in the late 17th century and that to the E is a larger window opening of later date. The tower on the NW incorporates a vaulted basement and domestic accommodation above with direct access via a blocked entrance from the hall at first-floor level. The stair turret on the SW corner of the SE tower provided direct access to the upper floors from the basement and to the hall via an entrance beside the stairs. In its primary phase the basement was lit by slit windows on the SW and SE, both of which have been blocked and there may have been a fireplace at the NE gable that has also been blocked. Whatever the original purpose, in the secondary phase the basement provided the kitchens of the house. The vaulted chamber on the W side of the basement with a deep shallow-arched fireplace against the W wall, lit by small, square windows with chamfered arises to the SW and NE was an insertion. This new chamber was accessed via a vaulted passage leading from the stairs, which also led to the workroom beyond. The narrowing of the SW wall to accommodate the passage is evident with the reworking of the slit-window opening at this point. At the far end of the passage a door led into the larger, better-lit workroom, which had a timber floor above it. It was lit by a square window opening on the NE, which was set in the back of a large press, and on the SW by a slit-window, one side of which is still visible to the SE of a 19th-century opening, and itself replaced the earlier opening referred above. Rearrangement of the upper floors is also evident in the enlargement of windows and the blocking of others, including the insertion of gunports in former window openings.

This mansion was thoroughly redesigned in the 1690s as a laird's house, the dates on the armorial suggesting that the work was largely finished by 1693. It is to this period that the creation of the balanced twin turreted structure probably belongs, without the later crenellated superstructure. A matching turret was added on the SE corner of the NW tower and the front wall of the house was rebuilt further to the S, giving a broader interior space, and the rear wall was raised on the existing NE wall to provide a third floor, visible as a narrower construction on the earlier base. The six-bay lighting of the front of the building over a central entrance belongs to this period. It may also be to this period that the unlit cellar ventilated by two small apertures at ground level on either side of the entrance dates, but no access to this could be obtained at the date of survey. At the rear a square stairwell was added that rose the full-height of the heightened three storey-structure. The broken off marble slabs of the cantilevered stair may still be seen, approached via an entrance supported by a heavily weathered red-sandstone lintel in the form of a shallow arch. According to Charles Leslie, there was still a courtyard in front of the house at this stage with a wing on either side framing the space that was closed by a low wall (Leslie 1869, I, 119), but this does not match the archaeology that has been uncovered.

This building was converted into a neo-gothic palace in 1818 with the crenellation of the wall-head, using grey granite. At the same time the sash-windows were enlarged by lowering the sill and inserting granite blocks. A new passage was constructed to the W of the stairwell, which gave access to a large bay-windowed room at the rear of the house. In the 1840s a further extension was added to the NW corner, providing two floors of additional accommodation decorated with crow-stepped gables and half-dormers in baronial style.

Fetternear was a possession of the bishop of Aberdeen from 1157 (Innes 1845, I, 5-7). Bishop Kyninmund built a palace here in the 1330s, possibly replacing an earlier structure, and it was used as a summer residence by the bishops of Aberdeen (Innes 1845, I, xxviii). The estate of Fetternear passed into the hands of the Leslie's of Balquhain at the Reformation, but had to be redeemed by Count Patrick Leslie in 1690 from the Abercrombies (Bogdan and Dransart 1996, 23). The house continued to be occupied by the Leslies until 1920 when a fire destroyed the building, which is now a dangerous ruin.

Visited by RCAHMS (PJD), 14 October 2004 .

C N Innes 1845; C Leslie 1869; H G Slade 1974; N Bogdan and P Z Dransart 1996; P Z Dransart 2005.

Aberdeen University Library Special Collections, AUL/MS/3528/11.

NJ 723 170 Prior to 2005 the focus of excavation concentrated on an area E of the drive leading northwards to the ruined Fetternear mansion and on the field N of the mansion. During the 2005 and 2006 seasons, the team partially excavated an area measuring approximately 25m 2W of the drive. Here it was discovered that the site had been investigated in the 19th century, when upper archaeological remains had been systematically removed in advance of levelling for planting as a lawn in front of the mansion. In the northern part of the excavation, cobbled surfaces and associated large, flat stones showing evidence of repeated heating and metalworking activity were located. Quantities of what are likely to be clay moulds were recovered although no accurate dating from other finds was obtained.

At the S end of the site a section of moat was located running grid E-W. Unfortunately it extended southwards beyond the excavation area so its full width could not be ascertained. The recovery of a few pottery sherds indicates that the feature had been in use during the 14th century. Similarly aligned, immediately N of the moat, were two robbed-out walls with a fragmentary stone berm surviving in situ against the southern edge of the more northerly of the two alignments.

On the western side of the excavation area there were medieval layers that had not been affected by 19th-century robbing. A section of well preserved timber palisade was found. It was the second of at least three phases of palisaded enclosures, the most recent of which was observed as a robbed-out beam slot from which a sherd of Scarborough Ware was obtained. The surviving section of palisade included reused timbers which will be of dendrochronological interest. The series of palisades was seen to have finally been replaced by a stone wall which is likely to equate with one of the ones already discussed to the E (DES 2004). N of this wall, medieval deposits contained substantial concentrations of pottery, dated 1300-50, and animal bones. To judge from a series of hearths and the remains of an oven (perhaps a bread oven), this part of the site was occupied by the service quarters of the medieval bishop's palace. The westernmost part of this area was cut by a diagonally trending (NW to SE) terraced wall, the W face of which dropped into a ditch. As with the section of moat on the S, we were unable to excavate the full width of the ditch as it extended beyond the area within which we had permission to work. This ditch is probably more recent than the moat and perhaps it served to drain water from the site. Further archaeological investigation is required to confirm whether the bishop's palace was originally moated on four sides, in addition to the section of moat on the E of the site reported in DES 2004.

We 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.

Sponsor: Castle Studies Group, Fetternear Trust, University of Liverpool.

PZ Dransart and W Lindsay, 2006.

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