The Fall and Rise of Dairsie Castle
by Chris Ruffle (April 1996)
Dairsie Castle: extracts from its history
1160 – The first documentary reference; Bishop Arnold confirms an earlier grant of the church of ‘Dervsey’ to St. Andrew’s Cathedral. The site, at the head of a bluff above a river, is typical of early church foundations. Much further back, a Bronze Age beaker has been discovered in the field West of Dairsie, and aerial photographs show enclosures and a ring ditch.
Circa 1300 – Bishop Lamberton builds, or rebuilds, various properties, including Dairsie.
1335 – A Parliament of Scotland is held at Dairsie Castle. The Scottish regents, the Earl of Moray and Robert the Steward, call a parliament at Dairsie, to decide on a strategy to meet the invasion of Edward III (a young David II then being in exile in France). The parliament broke up in confusion as the result of a dispute with the Earl of Athol. However, the tide of the Scottish war of Independence was to turn temporarily thereafter with Andrew Murray’s victory at Culbean in November 1335.
1517 – Archbishop Forman grants Dairsie to David Learmonth. The family’s origins are unclear. They claimed decent from Thomas Learmonth of Ercildoune, otherwise known as the prophetic ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, who lived in the 13th century. It was also said, however, that David Learmonth was originally a tanner. Carved wood panels from 1511 showing Provost David Learmonth’s initials and crest can be seen in the Hay Flemming collection in St. Andrew’s lending library.
David’s son, Sir James, Provost of St. Andrews, acquired the Fife estate of Balcomie in 1526 (the Learmonth arms can still be made out over the gate at Balcomie Castle). He became Treasurer of Scotland and Master of the Household to James V, being employed in two delicate embassies to Henry VIII in 1541 and 1543 to negotiate the marriage of James’ daughter Mary to Edward, Prince of Wales and secure a 10-year peace treaty. His lack of success is reflected in his fate, killed on the battlefield of Pinkie in 1547. He was an early convert to the Protestant faith and was involved in the murder of Cardinal Beaton in 1546.
Dairsie passed to the eldest son of Sir James’ second marriage. Sir Patrick of Dairsie was perhaps the most colourful (to put it kindly) of the Learmonths, and dominated St. Andrews during his 45 years as Provost.
1549 – Patrick Learmonth acquires the Isle of May, with a view to developing a profitable sideline raising rabbits there. He fortifies a building of the former Cluniac priory on the Isle by adding a round tower with gun ports to one corner – a design not dissimilar to that found at Dairsie. Two years later the island is sold on to Andrew Balfour of Mountquhanie.
1559 – Sir Patrick plays an important role in the army of the Lords of Congregation which faced down the Queen mother’s French troops at Cupar Moor, within the site of Dairsie Castle. ‘Patrick Learmonth, quho was provest of Falkland and the laird of Dairsie, came with ane guidlie companie of fyve hundredth horsmen to the Congregatioun, quhois coming gave thame glaid comfort.’
1562 – Archbishop Hamilton grants to Sir Patrick the heritable offices of steward bailie and justice general of the regality of St. Andrews, to be held by him and his heirs heritably, with an annual fee of £46 13s 4d assigned from the fruits and feu-fermes of the lands of Dairsie.
1570 – On 15th July the Lords Lindsay, Ruthven and Methven descend on Dairsie from Edinburgh with ‘thocht to have tane Sir James Balfour of Pittendriech but he was advertisit at that time and escapit narrowlie.’ Sir James was married to Patrick Learmonth’s sister Isabel, and at this time was of the Queen’s party in the civil war.
1575 – on 26th July, Lord Jon Hamilton, son of the late regent, the Duke of Chatelherault, and a leader of the Queen’s party, was ambushed at Cupar by his enemies ‘the Erle of Buchan, the Erle of Mortoun that is now, George Douglas thair brother of Lochleven, George Bishop of Murray….with fyve hundredth horsemen, accumpaneit with sunm of my Lord Lyndsayis freyndis.’ He bought time by sending his own retinue to act as a decoy, whilst he sought refuge in ‘sum fine hous.’ He was ‘immmediatelie relevit in hous of a worshipful gentilman, callit Learmonth of Dairsie; in whar he was…defendit freyndlie and manfulie to the utmost.’ He was shortly rescued by a party of his friends including ‘Erle of Angus, Rothes, Erroll and George Lord Seytoun and Hamiltons.’ His party then made a feint towards Queensferry, before slipping away north. The Regent was clearly implicated in the plot: ‘And notwithstanding of this outrage done aganis him, the Regent maid na redress, but rather doublet his malice aganis the familie.’ Hamilton followed the Queen into exile after the defeat at the battle of Langside in 1579, for which he was much to blame, but, unlike her, was restored to his properties in 1585.
1578 – The riever ‘Jok Armstrang of the Caffeild’ was lodged under Sir Patrick’s custody at Dairsie as part of an attempt to bring order to the borders.
June 27th 1583 – James VI, aged 17, escapes to Dairsie from his Ruthven captors at Falkland by pretending to go hawking. As described in Sir James Melville’s Memoirs: ‘hi Maieste…had appointed the Erle of Marche, the provost of Sanctandrowes, with some uther barrons to meit him at Darze. At quhilk meting his Maieste thoct himself at liberte, with gret joy and exclamation, lyk a burd flowen out of a kage, passing his time in hacking be the way…thinking himself then far anough.’
1593 – a challenge to the Learmonth’s grip on local municipal elections flares into violence when Patrick Learmonth is accused of ‘cuming upon the secund day of October last wes, accumpaniit with diveris evill disposit personis to the hous of Jhone and hurting of the said Jhone Smyth, Jhone Gray, Jhone Cuthbert, and certone utheris to the great effusion of thair bluid.’
The families’ fortunes started to wane with James of Balcomie, one of the principal Fife Adventurers who so disastrously sought to colonise the Hebrides. He sailed from Anstruther in 1598, but was captured at sea by Murdoch Macleod and, though ransomed, died on the return journey.
Succession passed through his brother John to another James who continued in possession of the other Learmonth estate at Balcomie, and eventually rose to be elected president of the Lords of Session (effectively head of the judiciary) in 1643 and 1647, before dying on the Bench. This is a post which was also held by a member of the next family to own Dairsie, the Spottiswoodes.
A late, even exotic, flowering of the Learmonth family occurred in Russia. Mikhail Lermontov, the 19th century warrior poet claimed descent from the Learmonths of Fife via a soldier of fortune, George Learmonth, who sided with the forces of the Tsar Mikhail Fedorovitch Romanov at the siege of Bielaya in Poland in 1613.
Why am I not a bird, the raven of the steppes
That has just flown by above me?
Why cannot I hover in the skies
And freedom alone adore?
Westwards, ever westwards would I fly,
Where flourish the lands of my forebears,
Where in an empty castle, on mist clad mountains,
Rest their forgotten remains.
On an ancient wall their ancestral shield
And rusty sword hang.
Over the sword and shield would I fly
And flick away the dust with my wing;
A Scottish Harp string would I barely touch,
And a sound would swell up to the vaults;
By rapture alone aroused,
As it rose so would it subside.
But in vain are my hopes, in vain my entreaties
Faced with the unbending laws of fate.
Betwixt me and the hills of my native land
Spread the billowing seas.
The last offspring of gallant warriors
Lies withering amid alien snows;
Here was I born, but I do not belong here in my soul.
Oh! Why am I not a raven of the steppes?…
1616, January 20th – the Learmonths sell Dairsie to Archbishop Spottiswoode (1565 – 1637). The Archbishop, the main agent of the policy of James VI and Charles I to re-impose bishops on the Presbyterian Church, used Dairsie as his base until his death in 1639, although the property was officially held by his eldest son, John. The estate was added to in 1621 when the kirklands of Dairsie were bought from the Duke of Lennox, an old acquaintance whom the Archbishop had accompanied on an embassy to Henry VI of France in 1601. The remaining priory lands, including the new mill and waulkmill of Dairsie, were granted to the Archbishop by Charles I in 1635.
The Archbishop came from a strict Presbyterian background. His father, the Superintendant of Lothian and Tweeddale, was a friend of Knox’s, and was instrumental in the drawing up of the ‘First Book of Discipline’. Spottiswoode himself seemed to have shifted to the King’s side from about 1600, perhaps influenced by his recent marriage to the daughter of the royalist Minister of Leith, David Lindsay, later Bishop of Ross. In 1603, he was made Bishop of Glasgow during James’ procession South to claim the English throne. B 1605, when he joined the Scottish Privy Council, he was already the leading church figure in Scotland, the Archbishopric of St. Andrew’s being held by the ineffectual Gladstanes ‘a wild filthy bellygod.’ In 1615 he succeeded to St. Andrews, shortly before acquiring Dairsie. Many of his extant letters from this date are signed as written at Dairsie (despite the Archbishop’s much-travelled career which include about 40 journeys to the court at London).
The Archbishop crowned Charles I King of the Scots in 1633 at Holyrood Palace, and two years later was made Chancellor, the only prelate to hold the post after the Reformation. Charles’ impolitic campaign to bring the rite of the Church of Scotland into line with those of England was already running into trouble. The introduction of a new liturgy on July 23rd 1637 caused a riot at St. Giles’ Cathedral, the Convent was soon signed and the Archbishop fled into exile, never to return, in April 1638. He was excommunicated at the Glasgow Assembly the following year.
1621 – Spottiswoode builds the church of St. Mary’s next to Dairsie Castle, on the site of an older church, as a physical illustration of those ‘Rites and Ceremonie’ which he regards as suitable for the Church. The motto which can still be read below Spottiswoode’s arms over the front door of the church is taken from Psalms 26.8: ‘Delixi decorum domus Tuae’ (‘I have loved the beauty of Thy house’). The church’s flat roof was replaced by a pitched roof in the 1790s. The last regular service was held in the church on September 4th 1966. The large bell donated by the Earl of Elgin in 1774 and some church plate are now displayed in the Church of Scotland in Dairsie village.
1622 – Montrose, later the King’s Captain General in Scotland during the Civil War, was a frequent visitor to Dairsie during his time as a student at St. Andrews. His servant’s accounts record the expenditure of 24 shillings on May 22nd ‘my Lord being invited to Darsay by the Archbishop of St. Andrews, given for three hired horses.’ The visits were to initiate a relationship with the Spottiswoode family eventually disastrous for the latter.
1632 July – Spottiswoode calls a meeting of bishops and ministers at; his house of Dairsy’ to review the new version of the Psalms.
1639 – Archbishop Spottiswoode dies on November 26th in London. In his last will and testament he makes a profession of his faith and requests to be ‘interred besides my wyf, qhere I appointed the same to be layd in the church of Dairsy…in the presence of a few loving friends.’ Ironically, he was given a full state funeral with ‘at least 800 torches’ and interred in St. Benedict’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, where he lies still. In a further irony, however, the erection of a large monument to the Earl of Middlesex and his second wife in the middle of St. Benedict’s chapel just over 6 years later removed all trace of Spottiswoode’s grave.
Spottiswoode left a considerable body of work, consisting of his masterwork ‘The History of the Church of Scotland’, written at James VI’s request with the instruction to ‘tell the truth and spare not’, as well as the tract ‘Refutatio libelli…’ letters and recorded sermons. The power of his oratory is perhaps best recorded in one of his most crucial sermons in 1618., when he persuaded the Perth Assembly to accept the ‘Five Articles’, bringing Scottish rites more into line with those of the Church of England. It illustrates well the tension in his role as both Scotland’s chief prelate, and the enforcer of royal decrees from London. ‘Had it beene in our power o have dissuaded or declined them [the new rites], most certainly we would; and if any of you thinke otherwise, yee are greatly mistaken; but now being brought to a necessitie either of yielding or disobeying him whom for my selfe I hold it religion to offend, I must tell you that the evill of novations, especially in matters of Rite and Ceremonie, is nothing so great as the evill of disobedience.’
In his personal life it would be wrong to regard Spottiswoode as a retiring cleric. In January 1595 he was involved in a fight on Edinburgh High Street in support of Sir James Sandilands. Whilst it is difficult to disentangle the truth from the slander of his political adversaries, he does appear to have enjoyed a game of cards and was not averse to travelling on the Sabbath when necessity demanded. John Law, whom he had installed as Bishop of Glasgow after him was described as his ‘old companion at football’; hinting at more robust youthful pursuits. Neither was he unworldly when it came to handling money, and his success a restoring the income of the Sees of Glasgow and St. Andrews is noted: ‘By the craftey dealing of Mr. John Spottiswoode in February this zeire (1608), the new takesmen of the customes augmentes ther deutey and payed 35, 000 merkes mae than ever was payed for them in former tymes.’
The Archbishop’s younger son, Robert, studied abroad for 9 years, and was known for his skill at languages, including Hebrew and Arabic. He became the President of the Lords of Session in 1633 and later, during the Civil War, Charles I’s Secretary of State for Scotland. At the height of Montrose’s military success, upon his capture of Glasgow, Sir Robert was sent to Scotland with the warrant to make Montrose Charles’ Viceroy. He was captured when Montrose’s forces were surprised and routed at Philiphaugh and, though unarmed, executed for treason by guillotine in St. Andrews in January 1646. He wrote a letter to his children on the eve of his execution:
‘My Dear Children,
It is God’s pleasure that you be deprived of me, who I trust will not be wanting to supply my loss to you another way, especially if you seek him earnestly, which I beg of him that you may. My brother for the present will have care of you, until the country be quieted I have left the charge of you chiefly to him as nearest to me, and I doubt not but kindest to you…All that I have to bequeath you is the example of my loyalty…which I command you to imitate and never to set your faces against your prince for any cause whatsoever. I hope you shall sustain neither the infamy nor prejudice by this death of mine…I present my last goodnight.’
In 1700, Sir Robert’s grandson, Alexander Spottiswoode, Scottish Advocate and legal author, recovered the lands and barony of New Abbey once owned by his grandfather.
The Archbishop’s grandson, another John, also forfeited his life through association with Montrose. He joined Montrose in exile in Norway, participated in the ill-fated invasion via Orkney, and was captured after the rout of Carbisdale. He was executed with Montrose ‘in a furey and rage’ in Edinburgh on May 21st 1650.
From the Archbishop’s fall, Dairsie was subject to harassment by Covenant forces: in 1639 ‘Sir James Arnolt of Ferney, and some gentlemen with him, and 60 musqueteirs, commandit by one St. Clair, marched from Couper in Fyffe to Darsay; the Laird thereof, being the Archbishop of St. Andrews’ sone, was gone; his lady cause opin to them the gates, and mett them herselve. They told her they were sent to wee quhat armes and ammunition she had within. She caused oppin to them all the dors, they searched all the corners of the house, bot neither found armes nor ammunition, but onle sevin fouling pieces, and some 16 lances, which they brought with them, without any other violence offred. The searching of Darsay was done at the Earl of Rothes command.’
1641 – the minutes of the Synod of Fife on November 2nd show that ‘they find superstitious, a glorious partition wall’ at St. Mary’s Church and order its removal. Despite the rule of King Covenant’ there was obviously some resistance to such vandalism, as notes in the minutes of October 1644, May 1645 and April 1646 complain that the order had still not been complied with.
1646 – Sir John Spottiswoode sells Dairsie to his brother-in-law, Sir George Morrison.
1647 April 22nd – Sir John Spottiswoode is summoned by the Presbytery of Cupar to answer changes of keeping company with malignants: ‘being asked if he was in company with the enemie answered – He came from Cupar to them, to seik back his horses which they had taken from him…He was also enquired if he knew of any of his sons going to the enemy? Answered – That his second son went to General Ruthven when he was absent in Ingland; that he had bought five or six years since an ensign’s place for his third son, and sent him to Germany, and had never seen him since that time; but now of late, and lastly, that his eldest son went unto Montrose both against his knowledge and his will.’ Sir John is still reported alive and well, though in reduced circumstances, by the Bishop of Winchester in his 1655 introduction to the Archbishop’s History. He died in Newcastle in 1677.
1650 – Sir George Morrison was obviously tarnished with similar political preferences as the Spottiswoodes. In July he acknowledges in the Presbytery records of St. Andrews ‘that he had subscryved the Protestation against the Supplication of the Kirk; he professing his sorrow for the same…he is appointed to mak public declaration of his repentance the nixt Lord’s day in the kirk of Darsy.’
This was not the last oath which Sir George was required to take; on June 21st 1660: ‘I, Sir George Morison, doe solemnly protest and sweare by the most holy and dreadfull name of the eternal and everliving God, that I never had at any time, nor in any place, carnall dealing or copulation with Jonet Hamiltoun, sometime servant to my wyff; neither am I the father of the child brought forth by her, as she alledges.’ In November 1661 the wayward Sir George was once more summoned by the presbytery ‘for going to the single combate’ with the laird of Lathoker.
1692 – Dairsie passes to the Morrison’s largest creditor, Alexander Bruce of Broomhall, later Earl of Kincardine.
1774 – Dairsie, along with vast tracts of East Fife, is acquired by Major General John Scott of Scotstarvit (1725-1775).
The general served in the Americas from 1769, and was an MP for various constituencies from 1754 to 1775. His main claim to fame, however, was as one of Europe’s most notorious gamblers, credited with winning £500,000 in his lifetime. His extravagant tomb can still be seen in Kilrenny churchyard. His 3 daughters all inherited great wealth and married into the peerage. The eldest, Henrietta Scott, who became Marchioness of Titchford and Duchess of Portland, inherited the Fife possessions, including Dairsie.
A watercolour of Dairsie Castle by the antiquary Captain Francis Grose from around 1780 (now in the National Gallery in Edinburgh), shows that only the Northern half of the castle is still occupied and that a temporary conical roof has been put over the South tower, probably following its conversion to a ducat. A drawing of the castle by John Clerk of Eldon from about the same period, shows St. Mary’s with its original flat roof (it was replaced by the present roof in 1784). In 1804 a farmer called Christie discovered a large key whilst clearing the site (the key is now held at the District Museum Service in Cupar).
Dairsie now passed through several hands in quick succession, being sold by the Duchess of Portland’s trustees to John Barnes in 1804, who sold it to John Gibson in 1806, thence to Henry Trail in 1810, and subsequently to the Erskine family.
1992, May – Chris Ruffle, whilst residing in Taiwan, bought Dairsie Castle from Andrew Logan, sight unseen, as part of the sale of Dairsie Mains. After an unpromising start, when Dairsie is referred to as an ‘unsuitable candidate for restoration’ by Historic Scotland, Ruffle achieves planning permission to rebuild the castle within a year of the purchase.
The application process was complicated by the ruin being both a listed building and also a scheduled monument. This therefore entailed private funding of a 3 – month long archaeological dig led by Mrs. Edwina Proudfoot. Although the excavation was inconclusive it indicated that the surviving fabric was earlier than previously believed, with no evidence of additions by Archbishop Spottiswoode. Finds during the excavation included fragments of Yorkshire pottery from the 14th century, Venetia glass, 17th century clay pipes and a canon-shaped water-spout. The remains of a garden, including rigs and a paved surround were also uncovered. The main find of the dig, however, was ‘the striking lack of many architectural fragments’ which ‘indicates much robbing of the Castle.’ Failure by the new owner to meet a later request for a further £20,000 to fund an academic report on the subject led to the withdrawal of a £3,500 grant from Fife Regional Council – the only public funding received during the whole restoration project.
The owner’s aim in rebuilding Dairsie Castle was to create a comfortable home for his family, whilst still retaining much of the character of the original castle. Where the original fabric no longer survived, reconstruction was therefore carried out in a double layer of insulated cement block. Under-floor heating was installed in the poured cement floors. All casement and sash-and-case windows were double-glazed. Modern lighting and plumbing were installed throughout.
All new sections of the building were faced with sandstone, as demanded by Historic Scotland in a departure from the policy adopted in the 1980’s, when it funded several castle rebuilds in harled cement block or brick. Historic Scotland has requested that the stone be harled. This stone cladding included a whole tower of curved ashlar, for which there is little precedent in modern Scotland. All door and window jambs in the surviving fabric were repaired with stone cut on-site. A number of new built windows, however, were rebuilt in hand-worked reconstituted stone, for its greater strength and lower cost, for which the owner was prosecuted by Historic Scotland and fined £250. Other areas of dispute included a back door, on which the fire office insisted, but which Historic Scotland found not in the spirit of the castle, and a lift.
The completion certificate for the rebuilding of Dairsie Castle was finally received on March 15th 1996, one day before the ‘castle warming’ party.
To the South of the Castle a herb garden and parterre were completed in 1997. To the north of the castle, a courtyard and garage has been completed.
The design and reconstruction team for Dairsie Castle included:
Agent – Tim Heale
Architects – Ian Begg Associates and Montgomery Forgan Associates
Architectural supervision – Dr. Richard Fawcett, Historic Scotland
Archaeology – St. Andrews Heritage Services, Scotia Archaeology
Historic Research – Dr. Athol Murray, David Scott, Douglas Hall
Engineer – William Crowe
Masons – Dod McArthur, Stan Walker, Alf Hill, Peter and Martin Reilley
Labourers – Billy Lowther, Scott Blair, Andy Gibson, Stephen Bard
Joiners – Ronnie Leadbitter, Jonathan Heale, Sean Bidmead, Keith Potts, Ivor Neville
Plumbing – Ian Davidson
Electrics – Meakin & McNab
Slaters – Niven & Sons
Plasterers – Donaldsons
Lighting – George Begemann
Artwork – Robert Koenig, Jenny Merredew, Martin Rayner, Renny Tait, Jack Morocco
The stone for cladding the castle was mainly sourced from the demolition of Lathockar House, the same estate whose 17th century owner was challenged to a duel by Sir George Morisson.
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