Random Research: Craigevar Castle

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With my Aunt Ginger in 2010

Over the years, I’ve been to a lot of the castles around Aberdeenshire, of which there are quite a few. I figured I’d do a series of the ones I’ve visited, as some of the details will now prove useful for a project I’m working on.

One of my favourite castles is the fairy tale Craigevar Castle. It’s near Alford in Aberdeenshire, and seems to almost sprout from the rolling foothills of the countryside. Built in the Scottish Baronial style, it belonged to the Forbes family.

This is one of the best-preserved castles. It still doesn’t have electricity, so even on a summer’s day, it’s a little gloomy inside. There’s a secret staircase connecting the high tower to the great hall, and plenty of stories about the family.

The castle wasn’t quite as pink when I first went the first summer I visited Scotland, in 2005. It used to be harled in cement, but it was causing a lot of damp, so they recently reharled it in the traditional limestone. You can see the difference in these two photos, taken during different visits:

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2005
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2010
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By the Gatehouse

There’s a few good stories about the castle. Sir Red John, a man with a temper as fiery as his hair and ruddy colouring, once caught a member of the rival Gordon clan sneaking up to visit his daughter. They dueled about the bedroom, and Red John forced him from the tower to fall to his death. I borrowed a bit of this story for the tale of the Phantom Damselfly shared in the Pavilion of Phantoms in Pantomime. This murdered Gordon supposedly haunts the halls, as well as a phantom fiddler.

There’s another interesting tale, though I didn’t find out about it at the castle, but by researching Pantomime. Sir Ewan Forbes, the 11th Baronet of Craigevar Castle, was born Elizabeth Forbes-Sempill. He may have been born with an intersex condition, for after an “uncomfortable upbringing,” he began living as a man as an adult, and studied medicine at the University of Aberdeen, traveled Europe, learned the harp, and recited Doric poetry. He didn’t officially change his gender until he was 40, in 1952, and requested an amendment to his birth certificate, and then he married his housekeeper. There was a court case about inheritance, since as a male he stood to inherit, but not as a female. Wikipedia describes it thusly:

“The re-registration passed without much public comment, and the issue of his gender would remain a private one until 1965. That December, his elder brother Lord Sempill died, leaving daughters but no sons, and thus posing a problem of inheritance. The barony was able to be passed through the female line, and so could pass directly to Sempill’s eldest daughter Ann, whilst the baronetcy – along with the bulk of the land – would have to pass to the first male heir.The family had assumed that Ewan would inherit, as the younger brother. However, this was challenged by his cousin John Forbes-Sempill, who argued that the 1952 re-registration was invalid. This would mean that Forbes was still legally considered a woman, unable to inherit the title, and so it would pass to John Forbes-Sempill.
At the time, gender re-registration was permitted in a limited set of cases; the leading case, decided in 1965, had held that re-registration of this form was only permitted when “the sex of a child was indeterminate at birth and it was later discovered … that an error had been made”. The challenge was taken to the Court of Session, where the case was heard in great secrecy – no papers were publicly filed, and the judge sat in a solicitor’s office rather than in open court to hear the case. However, the records of the case have recently been made available via the National Archives of Scotland. They show that a total of twelve medical experts were called to give evidence, and their testimony was taken by the court to indicate that Forbes was a physical hermaphrodite, which would accord with the legal requirement of “indeterminate at birth”. However, the medical evidence was not conclusive; Professor Martin Roth observed in evidence that he felt Forbes’ condition was closer to that of a transsexual, and Professor John Strong described the medical tests involved as “not wholly conclusive”. The judge ruled in favour of Forbes, though it has been suggested that the judge desired to ensure the estate and the title was inherited by the “right” candidate, and was flexible with his judgement in order to obtain this result. The ruling was appealed to the Lord Advocate, who referred the matter to the Home Secretary, James Callaghan. Callaghan finally ruled in December 1968 that Forbes was the rightful holder of the title, confirming the court’s decision.
The level of secrecy of the case, which was criticized by some contemporary observers, meant that it was not properly recorded or published, and the exact facts of the argument were not known for some time. As a result, whilst it sharply differs from later rulings such as Corbett v Corbett [1970], it was not able to be considered as precedent in later judgments on the legal recognition of gender variance.”
He died in 1991 and was the one to give Craigevar Castle to the National Trust of Scotland.

An interesting and beautiful castle.

And so I’ll leave you with this photo of 16-year-old me, who found a cat and some German children when I visited in 2005:

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