A story 800 years in the making

Triumph and tragedy, battles and dungeons, kings and queens – Dalhousie’s seen it all.

The Ramsays of Dalhousie have played a fascinating role in the long and tangled history of their beloved Scotland – and they managed to keep possession of Dalhousie longer than any other family held onto a Scottish castle. Dalhousie was built in the 13th century – the era of Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, and the Magna Carta – but only the thick foundation walls and vaults remain of the original building. The main parts of the majestic residence you see today were built around 1450, using red stone quarried from just across the South Esk River.

Back in the days when our guests arrived with swords and suits of armour, they’d enter by crossing a drawbridge over a deep dry moat. The moat remains today, and you can still see the holes where the beams for the drawbridge mechanism were above the main door, and the machicolations used by castle guards to drop nasty things on invaders below. Today’s guests are guaranteed a much friendlier welcome!

Other interesting things to look out for include the mural staircase from the banqueting hall to the vaults, and the spiral staircase leading from what was the first floor of the keep, down to the top of the ‘bottle dungeon’ -which might sound like a very secure wine cellar, but is in fact a gruesome, windowless cell into which prisoners were lowered by rope – you can still see the rope marks worn into the stonework.

When a castle’s history stretches back over 800 years, precise facts become lost in the mists of time. Some evidence suggests that the founder of the Ramsay family line and the first to have land at Dalhousie (then known as Dalwolsey) was Simundus de Ramesia, who followed King David 1st to Scotland from the village of Ramsay in Huntingdonshire around 1140. Certainly, the Ramsay name appears in Midlothian records all through the 13th century. William Ramsay, who witnessed deeds regarding land in 1280, was the first to be known as Ramsay de Dalwolsey and his name can be seen on the Ragmans Roll of 1296, paying homage for those lands to Edward I of England. The king even spent a night in Dalhousie Castle before going on to Falkirk where he defeated William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace. Later, William Ramsay switched sides, riding out with the armies of Robert the Bruce and swinging his mighty broadsword at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 – changing the path of Scotland’s history, forever.

Many more battles were fought, lost and won. The English gained possession of several Scottish castles including Dalhousie, but Sir Alexander Ramsay formed a band of loyal knights, organised a series of daring raids on the English and, by 1342, had retaken most of the occupied land and castles, including our beloved Dalhousie.

The Ramsays proved a brave bunch. Sir William Ramsay of Dalhousie defeated the English at Nisbet Moor in 1355; in 1400 a later Sir Alexander Ramsay withstood a six-month siege at Dalhousie laid by King Henry IV of England. Sadly, Sir Alexander met a sticky end two years later at Homildon Hill, a battle immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry IV (part 1).

“Ten thousand bold Scots, two and twenty knights, balk’d in their own blood…”

One Ramsay succeeded the next, generation after generation, down the centuries. Sir Alexander’s
great great grandson, also an Alexander, was slain at Flodden in 1513. When Mary, Queen of Scots, escaped from her imprisonment at Loch Leven in 1568, the Laird of Dalhousie was one of those who met her and fought for her at the Battle of Langside.

Sir George Ramsay – whose initials you can still spy on the wall of the keep – was granted a royal charter in 1618 by King James. George’s brother John was also a favourite of the King, having saved the monarch’s life by foiling a kidnap plot. In 1633 George’s son William was raised to Earl of Dalhousie and Lord Ramsay of Keringtoun. But eight years later, he’d changed sides – fighting for Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians in the civil war, and commanding a regiment at Marston Moor in 1644. Perhaps that’s why Cromwell himself moved into Dalhousie for a while, using the castle as a base for his invasion of Scotland.

The civil war had been a major drain on the family’s finances, and when the 8th Earl brought his bride home she had to pick her way to the accommodation across bare beams. Newlyweds today will find their rooms at Dalhousie a good deal more hospitable.

As the Anglo-Scottish quarrelling eased in the 1700s, the Ramsays of Dalhousie turned gradually from warfare to politics. After the 9th Earl George Ramsay fought alongside Wellington in battle, he went on to serve as Lt-Governor of Nova Scotia, sowing the seed for one of the finest educational establishments in Canada – Dalhousie University. He later became Governor-in-Chief in North America and Commander-in-Chief of India. Not a bad career.

After restoring Dalhousie to much its original grandeur, George died in 1832, mourned amongst others by his old school friend Sir Walter Scott. His youngest son, James, 10th Earl and Marquis of Dalhousie became the youngest ever Governor-General of India. According to Lord Curzon, “no man ever gave his life to his country more completely or with more consuming devotion” than James had done – he was so beloved that Queen Victoria even popped in at Dalhousie in 1840 “to take tea with her devoted servant” James.

James had no sons, so was succeeded by his cousin Lord Panmure, and since the turn of the 20th century, the Earls of Dalhousie have actually lived at Brechin castle – where James Hubert Ramsay, 17th Earl, still lives today as chieftain of Clan Maule of Panmure and Clan Ramsay of Dalhousie.

Dalhousie Castle’s rich history continued with a variety of owners in the late 20th century – it was used as a private boarding school (which must have felt rather like Hogwarts!) before being transformed into a luxurious hotel in 1972.

Today, we’re proud to continue the castle’s century-spanning tradition of dedicated service and hospitality. Although today you’ll find the comforts of modern life all around, Dalhousie’s long and fascinating history remains all around us. As you walk the halls, climb the ancient stone stairs or drift off to sleep in your four-poster bed at night, take a moment to reflect on all the life, love and drama that has unfolded in this very special place.