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Earthwork (Period Unassigned)

Site Name Altyre

Classification Earthwork (Period Unassigned)

Alternative Name(s) Auld Kirk Wood

Canmore ID 347669

Site Number NJ05NW 425

NGR NJ 03546 55355

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2021.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Moray
  • Parish Rafford
  • Former Region Grampian
  • Former District Moray
  • Former County Morayshire


Publication Account

The site of Altyre Castle is on the east side, and overlooks, the Altyre Burn, a stream which flows northwards through Altyre Woods in the direction of Forres. The site is completely enclosed by woodlands, and is not accessible except on the occasional open day of Altyre Estate. Just to the north of the Castle is a small ruined chapel (NJ05NW 32) which was the parish kirk up to 1651, shortly after which it was abandoned.

No visible masonry survives at Altyre Castle, which consists of a large mound adjacent to the burn. The mound is heavily overgrown with trees, and a winding path climbs the mound in a clockwise direction starting at the south, and turning a complete circle. On the north face of the mound, rhododendrons have completely overgrown this track. A second track rises from the ruined chapel through a pair of conifer trees. In some places around the perimeter of the crown of the mound, what may be rough masonry is revealed through the damage caused by tree roots, but if this is the case, then the quality of the mortar is very poor and sandy. It is possible that the stonework may be part of a retaining wall, or the base of a barmkin wall, but it is also a possibility that it is just a high concentration of stones in the mound.

The ruined chapel is thirteenth century in style, which would suggest that if occupied at the same time (as seems likely) the mound may well have acted as a motte with some kind of perimeter wall. This would certainly be consistent as far as timescales are concerned, but the only image we have of a castle at Altyre is on Pont’s map of the late sixteenth century, which considerably post-dates the erection of the mound and the chapel. This image shows a two storey tower adjacent to a smaller, lower building. What is interesting about this is that the location is shown next to a junction in the burn, which is much closer to the site of the later Altyre house (demolished in 1962) than the old site. It is also shown to be separate from the kirk. This suggests that by Pont’s day, the mound was no longer occupied, and that the tower house he depicts had been built elsewhere. Roy’s map of the eighteenth century also seems to suggest this. Unfortunately the demolition of Altyre House means that any remnants of the old tower house which may have been associated with it or its ancillary buildings have also disappeared.

The earliest mention of the Cumings of Altyre is in 1286, when they are known to have also possessed lands in Strathdallas. This would seem to indicate that the family had been granted the lands of Altyre during the period of the family’s dominance of the north during the middle of the thirteenth century, and following their part in the final repression of the MacWilliam dynasty. It may be that the lands had previously been held by men who had opposed the Crown. However, the lands themselves do not appear on record until the late fourteenth century, when Sir Richard Cuming, the Kings Forester, was asked to leave his dwelling at Darnaway in favour of the Earl of Moray.

The new Earl of Moray had been confirmed in an earldom much reduced in size and scope from that held by his predecessors, and which had been held by the Crown for several years before it was granted to him. During this time, it appears that Sir Richard Cuming had managed to return to royal favour, holding this coveted position directly from the King. However, given the return of an Earl of Moray, Sir Richard had to find somewhere new to live. It seems likely that he chose to stay at the small castle on the mound at Altyre. Given his high social standing, it is likely that Sir Richard needed to repair and renovate the existing buildings at Altyre, so that they matched his position after being ejected from Darnaway.

Since Altyre Forest was a hunting ground, it would be likely that some sort of lodge already occupied the site at this time, possibly consisting of a perimeter wall with a gateway of some description, and perhaps a larger tower or hall-house, with a small settlement centred on the kirk and mill. By this time, the Cuming family were no longer considered threats to the crown, (most of the surviving family had been forfeited for opposing the Bruce dynasty), and continued to flourish in the area. Sir Richard was succeeded by Ferquhard, who was the first to use the name Cuming of Altyr, and then by Sir Thomas, who was forced to surrender the Mill of Altyre to the Prior of Pluscarden in 1456 under pain of excommunication.

Sir Thomas appears to have been quite wealthy, building other tower houses in the area, and it seems likely that he was responsible for the building of the modest tower house illustrated by Pont; although his main residence was at the more impressive castle at Dallas, dating from c1419. It is by no means certain, but quite possible, that the tower house was erected upon the top of the mound, possibly adapting earlier buildings erected or repaired by Sir Richard. The Cumings, (later Cummings), of Altyre were involved in arguments with their neighbours during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and it seems likely that Altyre was attacked by the Brodies in the feuding of 1550.

The Cumings of Altyre supported the Gordons at the battle of Glenlivet, with the laird of Altyre commanding a troop of cavalry, and in 1640 again the Cuming laird of Altyre is mentioned as being part of a military force under the Seaforth and Montrose as supporters of the Covenant. However it seems to be the case that the remote location of Altyre meant that it was not targeted by any of the opposition.

By the Jacobite period, it seems that the settlement at the Milltown had dwindled away, as no marks suggest its presence on Roys map. The tower at Altyre seems to have been considered a hunting lodge of the family, until in 1795 Sir Alexander Penrose-Cumming built a new residence in front of the old lodge. An illustration from 1826 shows a view of Altyre which shows two buildings; a modest house, and a plain-looking tower with a small annex. Shortly after this an east wing was added, followed by a west wing in 1859. In the twentieth century the House was used by Gordonstoun school for accommodation, but the school closed in 1962, shortly after which the whole building was razed to the ground. The site of Altyre House is now occupied by large prefabricated cattle sheds.

Simon Forder 2013


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