The Castle of Rait

Sir Gervaise de Rathe and his brother Andrew lived in the Nairn area of the province of Moray some 750 years ago. Their story is known only from the few snippets of extant contemporary documents that still survive and that have been embellished and interpreted by writers several hundred years later in Victorian times.

Sir Gervaise was Constable of Nairn (or Invernairn) Castle in the 1290s and since his brother Andrew inherited (or at least was granted) his lands in 1297, then we could presume that Andrew also inherited the position of Constable of the Castle. The original castle of Nairn, built in the 1100s and extant in the time of Malcolm I was described as “a tower on a peninsula of extraordinary height”. It stood near the mouth of the river and though it was demolished in 1585, the remains were still visible at spring tides towards the end of the 18th century.

During the Scottish Wars of Independence, the Rose family, unlike their neighbours the de Rathes, supported Robert the Bruce, and Sir William Rose was responsible for capturing Invernairn Castle for him in 1306. It is not known whether Andrew de Rathe (or possibly a son) was still Constable at this time, but it is from this date that it is stated in some sources that the de Rathes had their castle confiscated from them by Robert the Bruce.

It would appear, though, that there are some date discrepancies with possession of the lands and castle by the de Rathe or Rait family. For instance, it would appear that the lands of Rait (including presumably the castle) were recorded in Nairn in 1238 as belonging to the Thane of Rait, but were in the possession of Mackintosh between 1240, the Cummins after 1274, de Rathe before 1306, Chattan after 1306, Robert Bruce (2nd  baron of Clackmannan) before 1393, Rait up to 1405, Cummin again in 1411. However, it is presumed that Gervase de Rathe was in Rait Castle in or before the 1290s, his brother Andrew was presumably there at the same time and in the 1300s, and a descendant Alexander Rait was there around 1400.

But what lands did Gervase, Andrew and later Alexander actually possess? Possibly only the grounds of their castle near  Nairn – although King Edward I’s charter does grant Andrew de Rathe his brother’s lands in Scotland (which, by the way, could imply that not only did he have no sons and heirs of his own, but that he also had lands in England or, more likely, that Andrew was residing at that time in England since he was in the service of the king.) But which lands exactly were these? We never hear of specific lands belonging to Gervase, either acquired or exchanged. And was Gervase or his father actually the Thane of Rait? The word thane was used in Scotland until the 15th century to describe a hereditary non-military tenant of the Crown. The dynastic dignity of thane was the equivalent, in Scotland, of a feudal baron holding lands from the Crown. A thane was frequently the chieftain of a clan, always the administrator of his district, usually an influential individual with power of life and death, and was only answerable to the King or to his deputy or to God. But there seems to be some dispute by scholars over the use of the epithet, as well as their powers and duties. It is also not clear whether a thanedom took its name from a particular area or location or whether a thane lent his name to the area. Was the first thane of Rait actually called Rait or Rathe or did he assume his surname from a locality? I think now that Rait was the place name and the thanedom was named after it.


Part of this difficulty might be because later writers may have confused locations, and spellings, even on maps, have not been precise. When Rait (or Raite, Raites or Raitts) is referred to, is it the area outside Nairn containing Rait Castle, or is it the area near Kingussie in Invernessshire containing the old township of Raitts (or Rate, Raite, Rait or Raites?) Both locations were then in Moray and both apparently had a functioning castle with chapel nearby, as well as a burn. The latter is in Badenoch, but the domain of the Lordships of Badenoch apparently extended over into Nairnshire. So which castle is meant when it is written that it exchanged hands many times between the Comyns and the Mackintoshes? The story of the treachery and murder between the two families usually takes place at Rait Castle in Nairn, but in his Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands, Alexander Macpherson places it at the old Castle of Raitts near Kingussie, which stood on or near the site of the present mansion-house of Belleville. Shaw in his History of the Province of Moray also notes that Belleville House occupies the site of Raits Castle, the chief ancient stronghold of the Comyns (see under Raitts in other Raitt locations.) The Ordance Gazetteer of Scotland too notes that Belleville House, 2 miles SW of Loch Insh, stands where Raits Castle, the Comyns' ancient stronghold,  stood; and, built by “Ossian Macpherson” (1738-96), was the scene of his literary labours and death. So, was the Raitts/Belleville castle older or younger than Rait Castle in Nairn?


Something else can be thrown into the mix - the castle of Ruthven in Badenoch, reputed to be the feat of Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, and which lies just South East of Kingussie. There is no evidence of occupation on this bit of land before the 13th century when the site was chosen as the caput, or chief seat, of the Comyns, in their Badenoch lordship. The castle may have been built of stone but, unlike the other major Comyn strongholds, for example Inverlochy, in Lochaber, and Lochindorb, near Forres, there is no early medieval masonry standing at Ruthven. In the later 14th century the castle was in the possession of Alexander Stewart, the notorious 'Wolf of Badenoch', who acquired the lordship of Badenoch in 1374 from his father Robert II; but on his death without male issue, the lordship reverted to the Crown. In 1451, John, Earl of Ross, stormed the castle and reduced it to a partial ruin. Shortly after, the ruined structure and its lands came into the possession of the Gordons and, towards the end of the 16th century, George Gordon, 6th Earl of Huntly, erected a replacement castle. Later it became well-known as Ruthven Barracks.

Has there been a confusion in later centuries between a Comyn castle at Ruthven and a Comyn castle at Raite (Raitts) - both are in Badenoch, both mentioned in the same breath as Robert the Bruce and his son, and both locations are only a mile or two distant from each other?


In a further twist, there was also an ancient castle at Rait in Perthshire - the interesting thing about this is that the lands of the district belonged to the Nairn (or Nairne) family who were heavily involved in the Jacobite schemes in 1745 and who had their estates confiscated for their pains. In a funny little book I came across entitled Nairn: a Poem founded on fact with notes and anecdotes illustrative of the manners and customs of the natives of Nairn, or Strathorde, in Perthshire, in the XVIII century by James Anderson (published 1825) it says “The estates of this noble and ancient family, were then very extensive, comprehending more than is now included in the estate, which then was and is sometimes still, called Nairn.  ....the district of Nairn or situated between five and a half and ten miles north of Perth, extending from the River Tay to Glenshie.” And if the names Rait and Nairn were not enough, there is also the name Ord(e) to be found in the vicinity in both Perthshire area as well as the Moray/Invernessshire area!

Not much is known about the ancient ruined castle itself at Rait in Perthshire; however, we do know a bit about John de Rait (Rate) in 1332 and we are led to believe that it was either he or his descendants who lost their lands to the crown and were forced to leave the area (possibly Rait castle in which they resided?) and move (flee?) to Hallgreen Castle in the 1360s. In 1396, King Robert (grandson of Robert the Bruce) granted the barony and lands of Rait in Perthshire to his cousin David Bruce. So already we can see grounds for some confusion (perpetuated in the Book of Bruce – see under Raitt Context): a Rait castle in the land of Nairn; a move of Raits to Hallgreen Castle; the name of Robert the Bruce associated with Rait; and dates in the right timeframe.

Whether or not the de Raits from Perthshire did go to Hallgreen Castle in the 1360s (to hook up with their Thomas de Rait relatives?) – even though it was not apparently built until 1376 according to a date over the door, it is obvious that the castle at Rait in the lands of Nairn in Perthshire is not the Rait Castle of the de Rathes near Nairn in old Morayshire. (For more on Rait in Perthshire, see under Other Raitt Locations - Rait.)


That still leaves us still with the problem of which castle the old historical accounts are talking about. Some writers are unequivocal about assuming that because a document was signed at Raite by Gervase de Rathe, then it had to be his castle outside Nairn that is being referred to. But, in fact, the other location near Kingussie was also known as Raite (as well as Rate, Rait and Rathe.) I should point out, though, that some records show the document was signed at Rathe. In any event, just because Gervase signed at Raite or Rathe, does not mean that the action between the Comyns and the Mackintoshes took place at the Rait Castle we know.

In fact, the story of the massacre at Rait Castle seems to have taken place some time after 1411 when Alexander de Rathe, if he indeed lived there, had already been gone from the place for some years. And we don’t know whether Alexander was, in fact, the last of the de Rathes to live there - he might have fled, but possibly his relatives stayed. Now, whether it was a Comyn girl who told her Mackintosh lover of the plot, or whether it was a Comyn chap who told his mate about it, is immaterial. The conversation between the latter pair is said to have taken place at the Grey Stone – a place still pointed out, and known as Clach-na-seanais, or the "listening-stone”. I have tried to find the location of this stone and all I have discovered is that the Gaelic name appears to be in Invernessshire (note – not Nairnshire.) The area around Raitts (Raite) near Kingussie does have a stone circle (the Stones of Rathe) which featured in law decisions and it could imply that the listening stone was one of these ancient stones. But the conversation between the girl and her lover is said to have taken place at a trysting stone that is now called the “stone of the maiden.” Just where this is located is not actually known, but if it is nearby Rait Castle in Nairn, then this may simply be a later convenience for the story occasioned by a large stone being in the vicinity.

                                                                                                                                       Trysting stone

                                                                                                                                       © Alastair Cunningham

On the other hand, when Alexander Comyn, who held possession of the lands of Rait and Geddes of right belonging to Mackintosh, caused several of Mackintosh's clansmen to be apprehended while passing through his lands, and had them hung, the location is commemorated by the name "Knock-na-Gillan” (the young men's hillock) given to an eminence below the site of the Castle of Raits said to have been the scene of the execution. However, all the guide books, statistical accounts and topographical dictionaries place Knock-na-Gillan at Rait Castle in Nairn. (A volume dated 1801 by the Rev. Clement Cruttwell notes “…..the remains of the castle of Rait, built probably by one of the name Rait, though at what period is uncertain. A little below this castle is a place called Knock-na-gillan, i.e. the hill where the young men were killed. Here it is said, that eighteen of the Mackintoshes were destroyed by the Cummins, who then lived at Rait, on account of some grudge that subsisted between the families.” But this could just be again a later perpetuated confusion of location and castles - though the name certainly appears on the map between Rait Castle and Nairn.

It is perhaps relevant to mention here (since I have not quoted it anywhere else) that in the New Statistical Account of Scotland,  vol 13 – Banff, Elgin, Nairn - under the Parish of Auldearn (Nairn), dated March 1842, is the following paragraph:

“The parish of Auldearn was, at one time, of much greater extent and importance than now. It was the ancient seat of the Deans of Moray. In 1650 some parts of it were annexed to Nairn, some to Cawdor, and some to Ardclach.

The only place in the parish that derives its name from an historical event is a farm called Knock-na-gillan, or, the Young Men's Hillock. Here the Cummings of Rait put to death twelve out of thirteen young men of the clan Mackintosh, whom they had apprehended while passing through the parish. This was the means of increasing a feud which subsisted between these two clans, and which ended in the extirpation of the Cummings. Some time after the event just mentioned, they met at the Castle of Rait, on the occasion of a marriage. Each of the Cummings came prepared to kill one of the Mackintoshes; but the latter, having been forewarned of the intention of the Cummings, fell on them the instant they arrived; and having put them all to death, burnt their Castle of Rait. The ruins, though not within this parish, may be seen from it, standing as a melancholy monument of the barbarism of ancient times.”

As always, no date is attached to the story, but it is noteworthy that the Castle of Rait (not Rait Castle - is that significant? Does “of Rait” mean it belonged to the Rait family or simply was located at Rait?) was supposed to have been burned and thus presumably destroyed. This is, I think, the first time I have heard this and, if it is true (it does not appear in the first Statistical Account of Scotland for the parish (1797) nor in the architectural descriptions of Rait Castle), then, if it was our known Rait Castle, it was destroyed only a hundred years or so after it was built! Some historians say the killings took place in 1442, others shortly after 1411. So was it rebuilt? And if so whom by? And does the present Rait Castle show any traces of burning or vitrification (as incidentally, does the very nearby Finlay Castle?) Has there been a(nother) confusion?

Bain writes in his History of Nairnshire: “In Castle Finlay we have undoubtedly the remains of a small vitrified hill-fort, with indications of its having been protected by ditches and earth-works. How this vitrified fort came to be called Castle Finlay is unknown. In Gaelic it is Caisteil Fhionnlaidh, Castle of Finlay (the Fair-haired Hero). There are four saints in the Irish Calendar of the name of Finnligh, and Finlay was the name of Macbeth's father. Both father and son were Maormers or Kings of Moray. It is a curious circumstance that the Gaelic name for the high ground a few hundred yards to the west is Bi-goull, "The King's Place." It is quite evident that it was a stronghold. The circumstance that vitrified stones are to be found in every part of the foundation of the wall proves that the vitrification was done by design, and not by accident.”

None of the experts who have studied the present ruins of Rait Castle (see under Raitt Locations - Architecture) have mentioned anything about fire damage - and they all say the castle is an oblong. Now, in the Survey of the Province of Moray: historical, geographical, political - printed for Isaac Forsyth, bookseller in Elgin, in 1798 - there is a passage as follows:

“Besides these Royal Forts there were in this country several Fortalices built by gentlemen for defence. Of these the following five were ancient, and built in the old form, viz.:—

    The Castle of Old Duffus, which stood on a green moat on the bank of the Loch of Spynie. It was square, the wall about 20 feet high and 5 feet thick, with a parapet, ditch, and draw-bridge. Within the square were buildings of timber built to the wall, with stables and all necessary offices. I question not but this fort (the walls whereof were built with run lime, and as yet stand pretty entire) was built as early as the time, if not sooner, of Friskinus de Moravia, in the reign of King David I.

    The Castle of Rait, in the parish of Nairn, was of the same form, and was probably the seat of Rait of that ilk.”

Others have also noted the square form of the Castle of Rait; indeed Shaw, the eminent historian, writes in his History of the Province of Moray: “Close by Geddes is Raite Castle. Here is an old Fort, built in the form of a square, which was anciently the seat of Raite of that Ilk, who, having killed Andrew Thane of Calder about the year 1404, was banished that county, and founded the family of Raite of Halgreen in the Mearns.” So was there an earlier structure, perhaps part earth and timber, that was the residence of the Raites (Raits, de Rathes)?

In fact, according to a guidebook piece on the Strathnairn Heritage Association website, there is evidence of an earlier structure. “Continue eastwards beyond crossroads at Little Urchany farm..... a footpath ... leads to Castle Finlay, ruins of a timber-laced stone-walled oval fort with traces of vitrified material: although not a hill-top site, the fort is strongly defended by an outer ditch and by marshy burns on three sides. On the summit of Urchany Hill, about 1 mile north-east of Castle Finlay, are the ruins of a dun, very denuded of stone defences. ......South-east of the [Geddes] Rait Castle. Standing where the farm fields meet the northern edge of wooded Urchany Hill, this ruined castle (a scheduled Ancient Monument) — unique in North Scotland — consists of a rectangular block with round corner tower. Arched doorways, pointed windows and mouldings date the architectural design (which has similarities to Barevan church) to the early 14th century, when the Castle was in the hands of the De Rait family — pro-English adherents during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Extensive ruined walls and foundations indicate an earlier 13th century enclosure castle.”

A brief description of Rait Castle as it appeared in 1776 is provided in a letter written at the Abbey of Beau-Lieu, 10 June 1776 by the Reverend  Charles Cordiner. He writes:

“In passing from Tarnaway to Calder, I rode up through very rugged paths to the brow of the bleak and rocky mountain of Orchady, where there is a very ancient fortress, called Rate-castle; it was a strong hold of the once-powerful Cummins and commands an extensive prospect of all the country, down to the Moray firth. It has a circular tower at one end, with Gothic windows, and is enclosed at some distance with thick walls.

In a burying-ground near the castle, on some stones, the bow and arrow characterize, in some degree, the genius of the people, and the age in which they were placed there....

This extract is taken from Letter XI in Antiquities & Scenery of the North of Scotland in a series of letters to Thomas Pennant, Esq by the Revd. Charles Cordiner, Minister of St Andrew’s Chapel, Bamff. The work was published in 1780. Beau-Lieu Abbey is Beauly Priory situated ten miles west of Inverness. Tarnaway (often apparently misspelled as Darnaway is in the parish of Dyke to the east of Nairn and Calder is, of course, Cawdor. I imagine that the rocky mountain of Orchady is, in fact, the Hill of Urchany as described above. The reference to the stones with their bows and arrows possibly characterizes the genius of the Picts, though it would seem that Little Urchany is the site of a megalithic stone circle and chambered cairn with cup-marked stones. The prehistoric burial monument dates to some 4000-4500 years ago.


Under the lands of Rait I have given an overview of the various owners and charters granted over the years; however, we don’t really know when the name for the locations came into existence. Gervase de Rathe, is associated with Rait Castle because a document was signed at Raite/Rathe and because Rait Castle is a stone’s throw from Nairn of which he was Constable. But being Constable does not mean that he had to live in or near the place. In fact Thomas de Braytoft, the governor or keeper, possibly lived in it (he was also keeper of Cromarty Castle). The Mackintoshes were hereditary constables of Inverness castle, but didn’t appear to have their residence there. The Comyns were hereditary Constables of Scotland, as well as Slains Castle in Buchan - but spent much of their time elsewhere. The distance between Nairn and Inverness is around 26 miles; from Nairn to Kingussie it is about 35 miles; from Kingussie to Inverness is about 56 miles.

Now, the lands of Rait were often coupled with (Meikle) Geddes, which actually lies between Rait Castle in Nairn and Raitts in Badenoch (though much closer to the former.) Geddes itself is only a few miles from Nairn. Kilravock Castle, associated with the Rose family, who were neighbours of Gervase de Rathe, lies further away, though admittedly still closer to Rait Castle. Mention is also made of the fact that Gervase de Rathe witnessed a document whereby Elizabeth Bisset, the widow of Sir Andrew de Bosco and chatelaine of the castle of Kilravock and its estates, transferred the inheritance of the Kilravock property to her daughter Marie as a dowry on the occasion of her marriage to Hugh Rose who owned the property of Geddes (neighbouring the lands of Rait Castle). The document is not dated, but if Gervase died in 1297 it had to be before then. The castle, however, was not built until 1460, so presumably it was an earlier structure that was extant in the time of the Bissets, Roses and Gervase de Rathe.

So was the Rait component of Geddes and Rait referring to the lands around Rait Castle in Nairn (on balance, probably yes!) or to the lands, now known as Raitts, near Kingussie (where there is also a Rait Burn and where old maps show the place as Rait?) Were these latter, in fact, the lands belonging to the Thanedom of Rait in 1238 (which were held apparently by the Crown) and then to Gervase de Rathe in the 1290s and before? Did Gervase, in fact, actually have his residence at the old castle of Raite (Rait, Raitts) in Badenoch with its nearby chapel and in the heartland of Comyn/Mackintosh country? Was it really this castle that Robert the Bruce confiscated from the Raits in 1306 and the area where his errant son, the Wolf of Badenoch, later hung out? The Mackintoshes and Comyns do not appear to have had much to do with the burgh of Nairn, which suggests that their stamping ground was not in that area.

As a final thought in this context - in the old literature and records, the lands are invariably referred to as Meikle-Geddes and Rait (or very occasionally Rate) and as the half-lands of Rait. They are never referred to as Geddes and Rathe or the half lands of Rathe. To my mind, then, either the name Rait (existing as an old Pictish form of rath - see under Raitt Name) probably existed before Sir Gervase de Rathe came on the scene (which might just imply that he did take his name from the place name after all!) or else the lands (and thanedom) were named after, or for, some much earlier ancestor of Gervase, i.e. prior to 1238. We don’t know what age Gervase was when he died presumably in 1297. Even though he might have inherited the Thane of Rait title, he was probably not the original thane in 1238 unless he was granted the title at a very young age. Although the lands of Rait and Geddes are associated with the Mackintoshes and Comyns and others before and after 1274, they are never actually associated with Gervase de Rathe and his relatives. Perhaps this is simply a fact overlooked or not recorded or, more likely, lost in the Wolf of Badenoch’s destruction of churches and buildings in Inverness.


Rait Castle, some 2.5 miles South East of Nairn, is considered by some to have been build, at the earliest, in the early fourteen century – how early is early? Could it equally have been built in the late thirteenth century? If it was in the 1300s or 1310s, then it was built after Gervase presumably died (since his lands were given to Andrew in 1297). Andrew probably didn’t build it as he was almost certainly in England in the service of Edward I much of this time. So it could have been built by a descendant of Gervase - though since his lands were given to his brother, then possibly he had no heirs. If it was built in the 1290s or even a few years earlier, then construction could conceivably have been at least started by Gervase, and possibly even completed by him. But it would have taken some time to build (several years for a stone castle) and in the meantime Gervase and his family had to be living somewhere.

From my research, I am coming round to the view that Gervase de Rathe’s seat of power in the years before 1290 (and likely the Thanedom of Rait in 1238) was not the old castle of Raite (much later, Raitts, the site of the mansion Belleville/Balvill) near Kingussie in Badenoch and that he was, instead, the possessor by grant or by force (unlikely) of the lands of Rait near Nairn. He may very well have given his name to that castle and those lands which subsequently changed hands many times in later centuries. That is to say, they may have been named after him.

Now two scenarios are plausible. If, for instance, his primary residence was, in fact, at Raite near Kingussie some distance (35 miles or so) from Nairn and travel being not so easy in those days, then upon his appointment as Constable of Nairn around 1292, he may have decided that it was perhaps better to live a little closer to civilization, particularly as Nairn was a royal burgh. Hence, he instituted the construction of a new castle (the 13th century enclosure) only a couple of miles from Nairn, which subsequently he either named after himself, or it simply became later known as, Rait Castle. In this scenario, his descendants or relatives may have lived there quite happily for a hundred years or so until 1405 when Alexander de Rait killed the Thane of Cawdor. And it may then very well be that the saga of the Comyns/Mackintosh slaughter did unfold there nearly half a century later.

This first scenario ignores the fact that Robert the Bruce allegedly took their castle away from the de Rathes/Raits as a punishment when he came to power around 1306. He couldn’t have seized it from Gervase since he was already dead we assume, so it may have been from Andrew - though he seems to have dropped out of the official records after 1304-5. As Lindsay Raitt has noted in his essay on the de Rathes of Rait Castle, Andrew may have gone back after 1314 and started the line that ended in Nairn with Alexander in 1405 or so (though he would probably be a little old.)

But in the second scenario, it may be that, given the opinion that Rait Castle dates from the early-to-mid 14th or even the 15th century, then it seems that it might not have anything at all to do with either Gervase or Andrew since it was not constructed during their lifetimes. This then assumes that the castle in question that Bruce seized was either the possible earlier 13th century enclosure castle that some suggest was located at Rait near Nairn, or else the castle at Rait/Raitts in Badenoch - a location which fits in better with the area of activities of the main protagonists, the Comyns and the Mackintoshes. Perhaps this then was the castle that Bruce confiscated. Like the other Rait Castle, just when it fell into ruin is not known. But, maybe later occupants (perhaps the Chattan that Bruce installed) decided it was too far off the beaten track and wanted something closer to Nairn. Or perhaps, as Lindsay Raitt hypothesizes, Andrew de Raite (or one of his relatives who remained in the Nairn area) went back and built a new one outside Nairn. Even maybe it was someone else (a Mackintosh, perhaps or a Comyn) who built it and it was called Rait because it was situated in the lands known as Rait.

I thought, at first, I was close to resolving which castle was which - but now I am not so sure. I still think there is some confusion over where and when events took place. It is clear that the various lairds had lordship over lands that were some distance away from their seats, thus Rait near Kingussie cannot be totally ruled out. If the present ruins of Rait Castle near Nairn are actually built on the foundations of an earlier enclosure castle, then I think it is the latter structure that will have been the home of Gervase de Rathe. The newer (present ruins) castle may very well have been built by Alexander de Rathe or a predecessor or (but) even, more likely, by the Comyns or Mackintoshes after Alexander had fled and they burnt the earlier, part wood, castle to the ground following their spate.  

Rate, Raitts near Kingussie was probably once Mackintosh land, taken from them by Comyn about the time he became Lord of Badenoch, and this was presumably a cause (of several) for the Mackintosh's grievances about the Comyns.  As the Nairnshire barony of Rath/Rait owned by the Mackintoshes was forfeit to the King and allocated to the de Rathes, it was natural for the Mackintoshes to have lumped "our" family with the hated southern aristocrats, the Comyns.  And this story is all mixed up with who supported which faction during the Balliol/Edward I era.  The upshot is, I believe, that the records from the Mackintoshes onwards are not completely reliable in these matters of where our name and the family came from.

Sunday, 17 June 2012