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History of Blair Castle

Blair Castle stands on the ancestral home of Clan Murray, as it was historically the seat of their Chief. The first known structure to be built on the site dates at least to the mid-13th century, and the oldest part of the present Castle is known as Comyn’s Tower, which was built in 1269. This was commissioned by John I Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who wasn’t even the legal owner of the estate at the time. Comyn was in fact a neighbour of the rightful owner, David I Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, who started building on the Earl’s land while this was away on crusade. When the Earl came back home, he found the interloper building on his land and complained about it to King Alexander III. The Atholls won back their land, evicted the Comyns, and incorporated the tower into their own castle.

In 1322, David II Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl lost his titles and estates after his rebellion against Robert the Bruce. The title was granted to a number of individuals until, in 1457, it was given to Sir John Stewart of Belvenie, King James II’s half-brother, as a reward for fighting against the Douglasses and Macdonalds. In 1509, the castle was the scene for the beheading of Allan MacRory, a Chief who supported Angus Og, Lord of the Isles and Chief of Domhnaill, after he had besieged the Castle and taken the Earl and his Countess hostage. The siege failed and King James IV himself attended the beheading of MacRory at Blair Castle.

In 1530, the 3rd Earl built a great hall over a series of vaulted rooms on the southern side of Comlyn Tower, and therefore further extended the castle. It was here that Mary Queen of Scots stayed when she visited Blair Castle in 1564. In 1595, the 5th Earl of Atholl died without male issue, and his daughter’s son, John Murray of Tullibardine, became the 1st Murray Earl of Atholl. The title has remained with the Murray family ever since.

The castle was engulfed in warfare once more in the 17th century during to so-called Wars of the Three Kingdom. At the time, the Murrays supported the Royalists, and this led to the castle being captured by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1652. These held possession of it until the monarchy was restored in 1660. In 1676, the restored King Charles II granted the title of Marquess of Atholl to John Murray, 2nd Earl of Atholl as a reward, and the 2nd Marquess was given the title of Duke in 1703 by Queen Anne.

During the subsequent Jacobite uprisings, the Murray family was divided as to its loyalties. The 1st Duke had remained loyal to government during the first uprising of 1689. Patrick Stewart of Ballechin held the Castle even against the Duke’s older son and heir, who was a Jacobite. The castle fell under siege and the crucial Battle of Killiecrankie was fought at the Pass of Killiecrankie, two miles south-east of the castle. The Jacobites won the battle, but their leader was killed. William, the eldest of the three sons of the 1st Duke of Atholl, took part in the 1715 uprising and afterwards sought exile in France. James, the second son, inherited the title of 2nd Duke of Atholl on his father’s death in 1724. During yet another Jacobite uprising in1745, William Murray, with his youngest brother Lord George Murray, fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie, briefly staying at Blair Castle afterwards. Blair Castle was in fact occupied twice by the forces of Prince Charles Edward Stewart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, once in September 1745 and later again in February 1746. Unwisely, the Jacobites later abandoned it and government seized control of the castle once again. In 1746, Lord George Murray, together with a force of Jacobites again besieged his ancestral home in an attempt to regain possession of it, however before he could succeed he was ordered to retreat in order to fight elsewhere, at the Battle of Culloden. This was the last siege to take place on British soil. Afterwards, Lord George Murray went into exile and later died in Holland, George Murray, his oldest brother, died as a prisoner in the Tower of London, and James Murray, the 2nd Duke of Atholl, resumed residence of Blair Castle.

James Murray in fact later inherited the title of King of the Isle of Man via his maternal grandmother. The title came with a huge income and properties, which helped fund his project of transforming the medieval castle of Blair into a grand Georgian mansion, tearing down turrets and castellations, in order to create a more fashionable residence. The 3rd and 4th Dukes also prospered, and the grounds around the Castle too were transformed and improved.

In 1844, Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, visited Blair Castle and stayed there for three weeks, during which the Queen granted the Duke of Atholl permission for the founding of the Atholl Highlanders as a private army. This is today the only private Army in Europe.

The wife of the 8th Duke of Atholl, Katherine Ramsay, was the first Scottish woman to become Member of Parliament, in 1923. Later, she also became the first woman to hold a ministerial post in a Conservative government.

During the First World War, Blair Castle was used as a Red Cross hospital. The ballroom was the main part of the hospital, the family moved from the state bedchambers to more convenient private quarters elsewhere in the Castle, the Duke’s three sons were part of the Army, and even his daughters helped with the war effort. During the Second World War, the Castle was used to house a displaced private school and a number of evacuees from Glasgow. Blair Castle was one of the first private houses in Britain to open its doors to the general public, which it did in 1932. The 10th Duke of Atholl, who was unmarried, died in 1996 and was succeeded by his second cousin John Murray, who was a South African mining engineer and who had indicated that he did not wish to leave his native South Africa. Blair Castle and the surrounding estates were placed in a Charitable Trust under Scottish control. The 11th and current Duke of Atholl visits each year, while the Blair Charitable Trust runs the day to day management of the estate.