The Royal Fortification of Auldearn

The following article was published in the April 2019 Spotlight Magazine – Lewis and Harris; Inverness and District; Turriff, Huntly and District; and Strathspey and District editions.

When you think of Royal Castles, you’d be excused for imagining anywhere but a quiet Highland village, particularly one that doesn’t have a castle, or even a ruin!

But don’t let the lack of visible evidence confuse you. Auldearn was once a place of powerful authority. The township was developed around an earth and wood motte, but the origins of it are mysterious. The Highland Council’s Historic Environment Record dates it as c.561(AD/CE) which was the period from which Pictish settlement begins to develop in Morayshire.

Was Auldearn Castle actually a Pictish Fort? That would be difficult to prove, but stonework in the region is a strong indicator that Picts developing territory against Alt Clut, the Anglo Saxons and the Scots from the 4th-8th century are likely to have also developed fortified strongholds there. With higher sea levels, Auldearn may have been a coastal stronghold.

There are many valid theories on the meaning of “Auldearn”. But with the progression of Christian Scots-Gaels coming northwards from Dunadd from the 6th century, and the possibility that Auldearn was a western front for the Picts of the time, the current presumed Gaelic name ‘Allt Èireann’ (stream of the Irish) may signify that the Fort was the limit of the Scots-Gaels’ north-eastern advance.

The development of Pictish fortifications in the Moray area which in later centuries led to the building of numerous castles locally, goes further to prove the tactical importance of Auldearn. Despite some historians claiming that the site is not strategically important, nothing could be further from the truth.

At the crossing point of the geographical Highland line, the south is protected by high moorland, difficult to cross with a fully laden army. To the north the sea would offer protection and tactical opportunity. For an attacking or defensive army, it would provide a well-supplied on-land route, east to west, due to natural harbours and agriculturally productive land.

This may have happened during the unknown battle that appears on the Pictish 7th/9th century Sueno’s stone in Forres. This also happened when the army of Covenanters passed through before meeting Highland levies and doubling back to face the Royalist army in battle in 1645 and both the armies of Charles Edward Stuart and William Augustus of Hanover passed through in 1746.

Some believe that a Norman developed the castle on the motte site during the reign of David I (1124-53), but the consensus is that Auldearn was re-fortified under William I (1165-1214) when revolt threatened Morayshire. It’s possible that the esplanade, now the green on Doocot Road, would have been added then. In 1180, William I signed a charter at “Eren”, as it was known, confirming Inverness as a Royal Burgh.

Despite having been partially destroyed by Donald McWilliam after 1180, in 1308 William, Earl of Ross submitted to Robert the Bruce at Auldearn. The Castle was held by the Dunbars of Cumnock from 1511 and the family developed Boath House (1830s) on the site of another older tower. The motte site became the Dunbars’ 17th century doocot.

If you have a topic you’d like to find out more about, or have local traditions and stories to share, please e-mail and visit to book your bespoke guided tour!

Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot


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