posted 09-21-2004 04:10 AM
Balbithan House is in a lovely setting and is especially interesting. Standing in a secluded valley two miles north-east of Kintore, it has attained a measure of fame as being the last of the tower houses, the final fling of the fortified house tradition, built, as it were, out of time. Whether this is quite accurate however, is open to question.
The L-planned house is handsome and commodious, with an unusually wide stair tower rising in the re-entrant, the upper portion of which was itself reached by a typical smaller turret stair. There are angle turrets at the gables of each wing. The walls are harled and cream-washed, the gables have lost their crowstepping, and there are no shotholes or gunloops. The roof level has clearly been lowered, and the ceilings of the second floor rooms have been raised. The turrets no project too high above the present roof, and are no longer accessible from within the house. Also, the turret stair comes to an abrupt end, leading to nowhere, and the top of the stair tower has been altered. This would have originally contained the usual watch chamber at its head.
There is an empty panel space set above the corbelling of the stair turret, and below in the foot of the stair tower, is the main entrance. This is still provided with its long wooden bar, which slides into a deep socket in the walling when not in use. Traces of tempera wall paintings were uncovered during restoration work.
Internally, the planning is spacious and well proportioned and none of the basement apartments are vaulted. This, together with the straight type of main stairway, indicates a late date of construction. The east wall of the south wing is notably thick however, thick enough to contain a mural spiral staircase from the wine cellar to the hall above. This wall also contains a number of wall chambers, which is highly unusual in late work. The first floor houses a fine hall in the south wing, now the library, with a wall chamber and aumbry. The west wing at this level contains two intercommunicating public rooms. Above is ample private sleeping accommodation, although not as much as originally, the roof lowering and the ceiling raising no doubt doing away with an attic storey.
Most authorities describing this building have dated it as late as 1679, because this date appears on a metal sundial attached to the south turret of the west wing, with the initials I.C. for James Chalmers. However, need not relate to any building period, and does not appear to have been placed here at the time the original building was erected. It is known that the Chalmers family had been at Balbithan since before 1490, when the lands were still under the superiority of the Abbey of Lindores. They moved here from Old Balbithan on the banks of the River Don, over a mile away, for reasons of privacy. It has been presumed that this took place in 1679, due to the late features of the house, and the date on the sundial. However, there is much in the architecture of the south wing to suggest an earlier date, and the Register of the Great Seal refers to a building at Balbithan as early as February 1600.
A charter of 1635 is given at the novo loco de Balbithan – the new place. A good look at the building will show that the two wings are by no means identical, as may first appear, that to the south being plainer and more massive. It is in this south wing that the very thick walling is to be found, with the mural stair and wall chambers, and it seems likely that the original house on this site dates from the end of the 16th century. It was then largely added to, in a similar style, and greatly altered internally, in the second half of the 17th century, with still later roof alteration.
At the Reformation, the Chalmers family, long in possession, no doubt obtained the superiority from Patrick Leslie, first Lord Lindores, who obtained the Abbey lands from the Crown. During their lairdship, which continued until about 1690, they supplied many notable Aberdeenshire figures. Montrose and his colleagues made Balbithan a rendezvous during the Covenanting troubles. It is also said to have provided a refuge for Prince Charles’ followers after the Battle of Culloden. After being sold by the Chalmers, Balbithan passed through many hands, including the families of Hay, Gordon, and the Earl of Kintore. It is now restored, as far as possible, to its former excellence.