The Tower

Fairburn Tower


This remarkably picturesque fortified tower that dominates the surrounding countryside was for long in the possession of the Mackenzies of Fairburn and the historical picture we are able to construct of this family reveals a number of these people to have been every bit as attractive as the Tower and surrounding landscape that they possessed.

Fairburn Tower is situated on the Fairburn Estate, 20 miles north-east of Inverness, not far from Muir of Ord and close to the Orrin River, which flows through a wooded valley of alder, birch and willow trees, all of which have been growing naturally here for many hundreds of years and form an example of an alluvial forest system which is now rarely seen in Europe.

The Blackwater from Coul Bridge. The river flows into the Conon beneath the Braes of Fairburn and Tor Achilty, the wooded slopes of which are seen to the right here

The earliest known links of Fairburn with the Mackenzies are known from when it was listed among the possessions of the formidable chieftain Hector Roy Mackenzie of Gairloch in the early 16th century and Hector is on record as having a house in what was described as Wester Fairburn (most likely the place that became known as Muirton after it came into the possession of the Mackenzies of Kilcoy).  In 1542 Murdo Mackenzie received a crown grant of lands at “Mydefairbrune” from King James V, on condition that he build a house with suitable orchards and gardens. The charter was confirmed by his daughter, Queen Mary in 1543. One of the King’s favourites and described as a “graceful youth”, Murdo followed his father, Rory Mackenzie of Achilty as James’s Gentleman of the Bedchamber.

King James V of Scotland

Rory was the third son of the Clan Chief, Kenneth Mackenzie, VII of Kintail and Agnes Fraser of Lovat.  In the charter he received for the neighbouring lands of Achilty, Rory was described as the King’s “well-beloved and familiar servant” and King James (according to the 17th century Ardintoul and Cromartie Manuscripts), delighted with Rory’s prowess (in killing the King’s Italian champion), requested him to remain at Court, but this he refused,  excusing himself on the grounds that his long imprisonment (on the Bass Rock) quite unfitted  him for Court life, “but if it pleased his Majesty he would send him his son, who was better fitted to serve him.  He was provided with money and suitable clothing by Royal command.  The King requested him to hasten his son to Court, which he accordingly did”.  This son was Murdo, one of four illegitimate sons Rory had with a daughter of William Dubh MacLeod, VII of Harris, who was legitimized in 1530 and “His Majesty became so fond of him that he always retained  him about his person, and granted him, as an earnest of greater things to follow, the lands of Fairburn, Moy, and others adjoining, also the Ferry of  Scuideal; but Murdo being unfortunately absent from the Court when  the King died, he missed much more which his Majesty had designed for him”.
The building of this defensive tower reflected the shared interest of the different branches of the Mackenzies in this area, which was mirrored in their numerous building projects in Easter Ross over the course of two centuries. It has been claimed that the hilltop sites for the Mackenzie family castles at Kilcoy and Kinkell were specially placed for mutual defence. Gerald Laing, the sculptor and renovator of Kinkell, explained how it and its sister castles of Kilcoy and Redcastle form a continuous line across the neck of the Black Isle’s peninsula and are sited for the strategic protection of its good fertile land, while other strongholds in the area, all belonging to the Mackenzies, strengthened and co-ordinated the defence of the most valuable possessions of the family. Pre-eminent was the chief’s seat at Brahan, which guarded the main routes down the River Conon; while Fairburn Tower stood to the south, right on the edge of the mountains, overseeing the routes from Strathconon and Glen Orrin (Castle Leod represented the northernmost of these Mackenzie defences). Laing wrote that “The whole arrangement is an example of defence in depth with a forward outpost. Fairburn Tower and the site of Brahan Castle, which was demolished just after World War II, are both clearly visible from Kinkell and at the top of the secondary stairtower is a small window which points exactly towards Fairburn. There are now no signs of beacons on any of the castles in this area, but it is well known that these were a favourite form of signal in the later Middle Ages. They were probably used, particularly on Fairburn Tower, to give warning of impending troubles” (Gerald Laing, Kinkell, The Reconstruction of a Scottish Castle). 
A beacon was, of course, a significant symbol of the family in the form of a mountain in flames, the crest that graces many of the Mackenzies’ coats-of-arms. In her essay on the Mackenzies which appears in Lordship and Architecture in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland, Jean Munro conceded that the immediate sites of these castles were probably chosen with defence in mind, but questioned whether they were specifically placed for mutual defence, since the acquisition of lands does not seem to have followed any obvious pattern. Nevertheless, the question may be more complex, since the building of these castles did not always immediately follow the acquisition of land by specific Mackenzies. Indeed, we have already noted that Hector Roy of Gairloch had some kind of (most likely defensive) residence at Fairburn prior to the building of the Tower when his cousin acquired the land in the 1540s.
As first built, the Tower had just four floors. The lawlessness of clan rivalries meant the external door was at first floor level, with internal stairs to a vaulted basement with gun ports. More gun holes were dotted across the turnpike stair within the width of the walls that led to the upper floors. Recent archaeology conducted during the restoration project, while prospecting for scaffold footings, in early March 2020 revealed a cobbled courtyard around the Tower, with the footings of bothies and byres, probably built against a surrounding wall, with what appears to be the probable outline of other structures, including a possible gatehouse. All the cobbles were carefully graded for size, and the Landmark Trust hopes ultimately to leave an area here exposed for future visitors to appreciate.
King James, who had two French wives, can be credited with bringing the Renaissance to Scotland – something that can be seen in his building work at Stirling Castle in particular and it is no coincidence that the building of Fairburn Tower displayed similar Renaissance details, as can be seen from the evidence of the fine, crisp stonemasonry surrounding the elegant arched window heads on the inside, for example, along with its essentially defensive exterior structure during what remained often lawless times. In 1999 the renovation of Stirling Castle was completed, including restoring the outside walls of the Great Hall and neighbouring Palace and Chapel to their original colour, known as “King’s Gold”, an exuberant bright yellow that would have gleamed upon the hilltop from miles around. We don’t know the original hue of Fairburn, but a colour was chosen that was based on the nearby Mackenzie laird’s house of Allangrange – described by the builders who worked on the renovation as “Barbie pink” (the builders also experienced a poltergeist in the basement). The colour of this lime wash often traditionally replicated that of the ashlar sandstone window dressings that it surrounded. The two elegant bartizans (or round roof turrets) may reflect the courtly taste of this period. 
The family continued to prosper and in the early 17th-century, a fine stair tower was added and a usable extra storey behind the roof parapet.  

A century later, however, the family’s fortunes had changed. The Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 offered the Mackenzies as a whole the chance of reversing their recently declining political fortunes. The predominant interest of the family in Jacobitism at this time is evident in a letter from Robert Munro, younger of Foulis, writing to the Government minister, Viscount Townshend, from Blair Castle on 31 March 1716, in which he listed those of the name Mackenzie who were most instrumental in carrying out the rebellion: William, Earl of Seaforth, Sir John Mackenzie of Coul, William Mackenzie of Belmaduthy, Donald Mackenzie of Kilcoy, Alexander Mackenzie of Applecross, Roderick Mackenzie, younger of Applecross, John Mackenzie, younger of Applecross, George Mackenzie of Gruinard, John Mackenzie, younger of Gruinard, Kenneth Mackenzie of Achterdonald, Kenneth Mackenzie, younger of Achterdonald, Alexander Mackenzie of Davochmaluag, Colin Mackenzie of Mountgerald, Alexander Mackenzie of Ord and with them was Roderick Mackenzie of Fairburn, showing that Seaforth had enlisted the support of a very significant number of his Mackenzie cousins for the Jacobite cause. An analysis of the “King’s Army at Perth 5 Nov 1715” held among family papers in the National Library in Edinburgh shows that, of an army totalling 6,209, Seaforth accounted for 50 horse and 1,100 foot, while the Mackenzies of Applecross and Fairburn brought a further 350 and 400 foot respectively to the rebel forces. On the 14th November, at the celebrated yet indecisive Battle of Sheriffmuir, these Mackenzies supplied a formidable section of the second line of the Jacobite forces. Both sides claimed victory but Seaforth was forced to flee into exile and in 1718 the Fairburn estate was forfeit and wadsetted (a form of mortgage) to Roderick’s kinsman, Murdo Mackenzie of Sand.

In 1724, Roderick’s son, Alexander, the 8th laird of Fairburn sued General Wade successfully for royal pardon, after which the Tower is known to have been repaired. In these years too, there were no doubt other buildings and structures around the Tower, as well as an adjoining dining hall, added in the mid-18th century.

At the time of the next Jacobite rebellion in 1745, beside the Earl of Cromartie’s Regiment, a further 400 men were said to have been raised by the Mackenzies for the Jacobite cause, the next most significant contingent being in MacDonnell of Glengarry’s regiment, which included Captain Kenneth, brother of Fairburn. There were also handfuls of Mackenzie officers in other regiments, most notably six in Lovat’s and four in Lady Mackintosh’s. In the latter regiment was a number of men whom Lady Fortrose detached from the regiment her husband had raised for the Government. Of this wife of the Mackenzie Chief, the French envoy, the Marquis d’Eguilles, informed his Government: “On assure que son zéle ègale celuy des deux autres [Lady Mackintosh and Mrs Mackenzie of Fairburn], quoy qu’elle paroisse moins vive et moins courageuse.” He also said of Mrs Mackenzie of Fairburn that she “sold her diamonds and her vaisselle to raise 150 men who joined those raised by Lady Seaforth under her brother-in-law.” This brother-in-law of Lady Fairburn must have been either Coll MacDonnell of Barrisdale, who married her husband’s sister, or Kenneth Mackenzie, her husband’s brother, who although only a schoolboy, as we have seen was a captain in the Jacobite army. The way in which different family members of the Highland clans craftily hedged their bets at this most precarious of times is famously exhibited by the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie dined with the Chief’s wife, Lady Fortrose at nearby Brahan Castle shortly before the Battle of Culloden, while she kept her absent husband’s pro – Hanoverian cousin, Major William Mackenzie, locked in a garret there.

Lord Fortrose meanwhile had already mustered two independent companies for the Government at Brahan. The first was initially to be under Alexander of Fairburn as Captain, while two other commissions were offered to the Mackenzie lairds of Coul and Redcastle, two other leading cadets of the Clan. All three, however, declined the call to arms and the surviving correspondence regarding Alexander Mackenzie of Fairburn is particularly revealing in this regard. Typically, the family allegiances that have been outlined drew him in opposite directions. A Government commission from his Chief would have been a significant promotion to his interests; yet not only was his wife an ardent Jacobite but there was also a considerable Jacobite tradition in his own family, his mother having been Winwood Mackintosh, daughter of the famous Jacobite Brigadier, Mackintosh of Borlum; while his brother-in-law was Colonel MacDonald, in whose regiment his own brother, Kenneth Mackenzie, of course, was a captain.  Alexander therefore declined Culloden’s request that he form an Independent Company: “I will while I breathe endeavour to promote his Interest. Reasons weighty enough for this part I don’t pretend to give, but hope by [document torn here] kness and goodness to be excused. My Lord Seafort is highly displeased, yet I’ll convince his Lop I am surely his man, as any Mackenzie alive – I was not brought up a soldier – a Grasier or Farmer is all I pretend to, both which I peacablie incline to notice.”

After meeting his Chief in the neighbouring Castle of Brahan, Fairburn returned home across the River Conon to pen a touching note to President Duncan Forbes of Culloden that eloquently reveals the essence of his modest sentiments, seeking above all to avoid controversy: “I beat my march and came to my little home, wher I bless God, I’ve welcome, ease and a good will of my neighbours. The plain undisguised cause I refused to commission is that I would bring no task or imputation on the little family I represent, by shewing that I oppose the lineall heir male of the Stuart line, as this small mealling I possess was given my predecessors by King James the Fifth in free gift. So your Lordship may see the case is conscience with me. I confess to my shame I did argue wt. Myself that I ought not to let slip an opportunity, so beneficiall to my worldlie interest as an Independent Company: this was the cause that I stickled at. Poor as I am, I would give one hundred guineas I had refused it, how soon it was proposed. Now, my Lord, I take God to witness I bear you the greatest regard & esteem & tho Lord Seafort be angry at me, I’ll endeavour to support his Family while blood circulates through my veins.” It both noteworthy that Alexander referred to his Chief by his forfeit title and that the President, by all accounts a highly decent man, was sympathetic to Fairburn’s predicament and sought not to trouble his honour any further. Writing to Fortrose on 6 November, he stated that “he had no other satisfaction than to be convinced that his [Fairburn’s] affection to your Lordship continues the same as ever, & will be such to the end, tho’ a sort of nicety prevents his doing at present what your Lordship & I so much wish.”

Thereafter the Mackenzies of Fairburn were to show loyalty to the Government. Alexander’s grandson, another Alexander and the 10th laird of Fairburn was a Major-General in the Army and was created a Baronet. But he was to die unmarried, the last direct male heir of the family.

By now the estate was in decline. The dining hall became crofters’ cottages and the Tower was eventually left deserted and fell into ruin. Left open to straying cattle, some say the prophecy of the Brahan Seer came true, when he predicted that “The day will come when the Mackenzies of Fairburn shall lose their entire possessions; their castle will become uninhabited, and a cow shall give birth to a calf in the uppermost chamber of the tower”.

In the 19th century, the Fairburn estate passed through the hands of various absentee landlords. The cottages adjoining the Tower were lived in until the 1950s, but by 1910 an Inland Revenue Survey reported simply: “Old Tower ruinous and of no commercial value”. Cracks opened in its walls like gaping wounds and its floors fell in. Yet even in that state, the Landmark Trust was able to recognise it as a fine and relatively well-preserved and unaltered tower residence of the Scottish Renaissance, capturing the duality of that period in both its gun ports and in the quality and detail of its accommodation. The Trust proudly quotes a Scot who put it to them that when the stars finally aligned for their involvement, Fairburn Tower was “just waiting to be asked to dance”. And what an elegant dance it now performs!


In January 2020 work began to scaffold Fairburn, in order to secure and shield the fragile tower, preventing any further movement as final plans were made, holding historic masonry securely in place, in particular that of the stair tower with its dramatic long vertical crack exacerbated by the removal of the structural framework of its staircase. Swiftly following the exciting discovery by the archaeologists of the cobbled courtyard, as scaffolding neared completion, in late March the Coronavirus pandemic hit and all construction had to stop in Scotland. In addition, during the subsequent summer months a barn owl and her chicks nesting in the building brought further complications. The restoration work at Fairburn then had to be paused for six months, resuming only in late October 2020.

With the return to work, with Covid-secure procedures in place and scaffolding finally complete in the Autumn of 2020, the Landmark Trust’s skilled masons then worked throughout the Winter and Spring of 2021 to secure and rebuild the Tower. This included cleaning algae off stonework before consolidating and repairing cracks, preparing and inserting new stone where appropriate plus pointing with hot lime, protecting areas of progress with hessian during the harshest weather.

As the seasons turned joiners arrived to introduce floors and roof timbers across the summer months of 2021, a transformative moment for the building after hundreds of years as an exposed shell. Fairburn’s historic bartizans were then rejuvenated, gutters fitted and slates laid. Throughout the Winter of 2021/22, teams used timber formwork and special concrete mixes to achieve the challenging task of reintroducing a spiral staircase, reviving the historic stair tower. Across 2022 traditional shutterboard windows were crafted and carefully installed. Harling and plastering were next applied, electricity installed and bathroom units introduced. The final stage of Fairburn’s revival saw the scaffolding come down, internal decorations completed and furnishing installed.

For the Landmark Trust, although this was a defensive structure, it was clear to them even in dereliction that Fairburn had originally been a building of no small status. As well as the evidence that survived from the fine, crisp masonry and plasterwork of its elegant openings, niches, cupboards and strong rooms, the Tower displayed a strong hierarchy to its storeys, with the suggestion of even a possible private oratory on the fourth floor. This was an age when wealthy Scots decorated their ceilings with emblematic figures, symbols and texts. Given his career at court, it was deemed likely that Murdo might well have commissioned a travelling painter and stainer to decorate his home, as had Robert Melville, whose wonderful 1592 ceilings survive at Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire. Huntingtower near Perth is a particularly comparable tower house that was also built in the middle of the 16th century, with a single room, comprising a kitchen, reception room and bedroom, on each of its floors and has retained its original colourfully painted ceiling. In the third floor sitting room, the Landmark Trust thus had the imagination to commission their own painted ceiling from the artist Paul Mowbary to evoke Murdo’s. It is based on The Tulip Room at Crathes and adds a few elements of Fairburn’s own story, including Murdo’s initials, “M M” and the Mackenzies’ coat-of-arms.

For an excellent, more detailed essay on Fairbrun Tower, see the Landmark Trust’s “Fairburn Tower/ History Album” by Caroline Stanford