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  • Writer's pictureGreg Stewart

The Beauty of Braemore

The formidable structure of Ackergill Tower sits on a remote shoreline close to the town of Wick on the north east tip of mainland Scotland.

The lands of Ackergill were inherited by John Keith around 1354 and it is believed the tower house, the oldest part of the castle, was built by his son in the 1400's although the exact date is not known. Around a century later, a defensive enclosure known as a barmkin was constructed to protect not only the tower but a number of small structures which had been added beside it, including stables and a brewhouse. Turrets were also added to the tower providing better viewing points for the surrounding area.

In 1538, with no direct male heirs in the family line, Ackergill and its lands were passed to William Keith, 4th Earl Marischal and his wife, Lady Keith. William Keith, who was based at Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven, had built great wealth owning vast areas of land and property which is perhaps what prompted and attack of Ackergill Tower in 1547. Led by George, 4th Earl of Caithness, the Sinclairs of nearby Castle Grinigoe besieged the castle and imprisoned Alexander Keith and his servant at Grinigoe, before they were later moved to the Tower House of Braal. Surprisingly, given the position of the role of Marischal in relation to Royalty, Queen Mary granted forgiveness to the Sinclairs for their action and placed Lord Oliphant in charge of Ackergill to allow time for the situation between the Keiths and the Sinclairs to be resolved.

The castle was returned to the Keith family, yet in 1556 the Earl of Caithness launched another attack, although on this occasion he was unsuccessful in taking the tower house. George Sinclair was again granted forgiveness for this second attack, further souring the relationship between the clans.

Over the years, Ackergill may have become a distraction and inconvenience to the Earl of Marsichal. It was seized by his own brother, Robert Keith, in 1593 and then John Keith in 1598. On both occasions, the Earl had to submit complaints to the privy council to secure the return of the castle. The time and expense spent on retaining a single castle was perhaps a deciding factor when in the early part of the 1600's, Ackergill was officially sold to the Earl of Caithness.

Having gained ownership, it does not seem that the Sinclairs had much use for the castle as it is said it became rundown through lack of maintenance. It was subject to further attacks, including by the invading forces of Oliver Cromwell who are said to have used the castle as a garrison.

By the start of the 18th century, the castle was in the hands of the Dunbar family, who carried out repairs and remodelling as well as extending it to provide more comfortable living. Further additions were added to the castle, however with the cost of maintenance increasing and with much of the estate being sold reducing the revenue gained, the building again fell into a state of disrepair and was sold in 1986.

The castle underwent an extensive 2 year renovation programme which saw it once again restored to its former glory and it was later operated as a hotel and a luxury guest retreat, before returning to a private residence.

The ghost story associated with the castle is said to relate to an early clan feud with the Gunn clan dating to when the Keith family first took possession of the land. Although much disputed, legend tells that Dugald Keith of Ackergill took a fancy to Helen Gunn, the daughter of Lachlan Gunn of Braemore. She is said to have been a very attractive young woman, leading to her being known as the 'Beauty of Braemore' and, although she was already engaged to be married, Dugald made advances towards her. She refused to have anything to do with him, and in retaliation Dugald had her kidnapped the night before her wedding, and brought to Ackergill Castle where she was held prisoner. In a desperate act, Helen is said to have jumped from the tower to her death.

The phantom figure of a woman has been witnessed wandering through the castle since, which many associate with being the ghost of Helen. She is sometimes described as being tall with long black hair and wearing a long red gown, although other reports suggest she is seen dressed in green. Traditionally, a Green Lady spirit in Scotland is associated with a death connected with sadness and despair, and it is perhaps this which led people to associate the ghost with the legend of Helen Gunn.

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