Fairburn Tower

Ross-shire, Scotland


Saving one of Scotland's most prized tower houses

Built in 1545 for Murdo Mackenzie, a Gentleman of the Bedchamber of King James V, Fairburn Tower has been left deserted and near ruin for several hundred years. The category A listed structure is roofless, floorless and has dramatic cracks running the length of its walls which had been widening at an alarming rate.

A two-year fundraising appeal has successfully raised £2million from numerous supporters to fund the restoration. Thanks to this generous support, we’re delighted to have already erected a scaffold around the fragile building. This initial phase will secure and shield the structure, preventing any further damage while we finalise our plans for the restoration programme, which we hope to begin soon.


A rich history

Built around 1545, the romance of Fairburn’s history matches that of its setting amid wide and beautiful views in the Muir of Ord, some 20 miles west of Inverness. The mid-16th century saw the flowering of the Scottish Renaissance under the Stuarts. James V inherited the throne as a baby in 1513; as an adult he married two glamorous French princesses, Madeleine de Valois and Mary of Guise. Under their influence, and as we see at Stirling Castle, the Renaissance came to the Scottish Highlands.

Yet the times were still lawless, and the pleasures of civilisation had to be combined with robust defence. Fairburn Tower was built by Murdo Mackenzie one of James’s favourites, ‘a graceful Youth’ chosen as one of his Gentleman of the Bedchamber. Murdo received a crown grant of lands at ‘Mydefairbrune’ in 1542, on condition that he build a house with suitable orchards and gardens.

As first built, the tower had just four floors. The lawlessness of clan rivalries meant the external door was at first floor level, with internal stairs to a vaulted basement with gun ports. More gunholes were peppered across the stairs and upper floors. A turnpike stairs within the width of the walls led to the upper floors.

The family prospered and in the early 17th-century, a fine stair tower was added and a usable extra storey behind the roof parapet. The two characterful bartizans (round roof turrets) may date from this or the earlier period.

But the Mackenzies backed James Stuart, the Old Pretender, when he raised the standard of Jacobite rebellion in 1715. Disgrace followed defeat, and Roderick Mackenzie sued General Wade for royal pardon in 1724. The tower was repaired. In these years, there were no doubt other buildings and structures that archaeology may uncover.

Laird Alexander Mackenzie was more cautious when Bonnie Prince Charlie invaded anew under the Jacobite flag in 1745, declining a captaincy for King George because ‘a Grasier or Farmer is all I pretend to.’ By now the estate was in decline. The adjacent dining hall added in the mid-18th century became crofters’ homes and the tower was eventually left deserted and falling into ruin.

Our plans

How we will revive Fairburn Tower

One of the delights of Fairburn Tower is the rich variety of the interior with its many doorways, window openings, gunloops, garderobes and aumbries. All these historic features will be respected and retained as part of the rich character of the interior.

The Tower is notable for gunports and shot holes, and the quality and detail of the former residential accommodation. In the early-17th century significant reordering was carried out to improve accommodation and functional amenity.

The five-storey keep will have a room on each floor and accommodate a kitchen, sitting room and two bedrooms each with ensuite bathrooms. The undercroft with its arched gun loops will be left for Landmarkers to explore. The restoration of Fairburn Tower will provide an opportunity for craft skills to be honed and passed down to the apprentices who will work on this project with our contractors.

Site news

Fundraising target met

January 2020

Thanks to the support of many individuals, our fundraising target of £1.9m has been reached and we will be able rescue and restore Fairburn Tower.

Photos by Mikey Mcmanus.



Scaffolding goes up at Fairburn Tower

January 2020

In January 2020 work began on erecting scaffolding to stabilise the structure and protect Fairburn Tower’s fragile masonry. By late March the scaffolding was nearly complete when events intervened and the decision was taken by the contractor to pause all work on site, in line with guidance from the Scottish government. The site has been secured, the project funding is safely ring-fenced, and we stand ready and eager to pick up tools again as soon as it is safe to do so.

Photos by Roddy Ritchie.

Cobbles unearthed

March 2020

We made an exciting discovery at Fairburn Tower while prospecting for the scaffold footings: an extensive area of carefully laid cobbles just beneath the turf. The cobbles were carefully graded for size as they were laid and it’s possible to make out the probable outlines of other structures in what would have been the castle garth, including a putative gateway. All the cobbles have been carefully recorded by the archaeologists and we are thrilled to have made this discovery.

With thanks

We are enormously grateful to all who gave so generously to the Fairburn Tower appeal, including:

Guardians of Fairburn Tower and other lead supporters:

Dr J and Mrs J Bull, The Hon. Elizabeth Cayzer, Mrs E Colam, Mr B Foord, Mr C Giles, Sir Angus Grossart CBE, Dame Pippa Harris and Mr R McBrien, Mr H and Mrs S Leishman, Mr A Murray-Jones, Mr D Milles, Mr G Neame OBE, Dr A Pym, Mr M and Mrs C Seale, Mr B Sealey CBE and Mrs H Sealey, Lady Stirling, Mrs Mary Stirling, The Hon. Tobias Tennant

Patrons and other generous individuals:

Mr S Ansell, Mr R Baker, Dr J Barney, Mr M Bennett, Ms M Chisholm, Mr P Corey, Miss S Curry, Mr A Baker and Ms S Darling, Mr J Darycott, Ms K Davies, Mr A Dean, Ms K Edwards, Mr A Fraser, Mr D Giles, Ms F Grimshaw, Mr R Grigson and Mr A Layng, Mr D Holberton, Mr G and Mrs A Kingston, Mrs M Jones, Mr J and Mrs J Kinross, Mrs S Lund, John Mackenzie of Gairloch, Mr J Miller CBE, Mrs D Mitchard, Mr E Saunders, Dr P Strangeway, Mrs S Wiggert, Mrs S Wrangham

Gifts in Wills and in memory:

The late Reverend J Grover, the late Mr D Lawrence, the late Mr A Peacock, the late Mr J Owen, the late Mr I Glover, the late Miss J Fry, and the late Mr W Galloway.

Charitable Trusts and other grants

The Aall Foundation, H B Allen Charitable Trust, The Architectural Heritage Fund, Bartleet Family Fund, The Binks Trust, T B H Brunner Charitable Trust, Lesley Mary Carter Charitable Trust, The Cinven Foundation, The Countess of Dunmore’s Charitable Trust, The George C Gibson Charitable Trust, The Gough Charitable Trust, Historic Environment Scotland, The John R Murray Charitable Trust, The Orrin Charitable Trust, The Pastest Charitable Trust, Thomas Rawcliffe Charitable Trust, The Rockcliffe Charitable Trust, RV and RH Simons Charitable Trust, Tulip Charitable Trust, Viewforth Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation

We thank everyone who supported the appeal, including those who have chosen to remain anonymous.


Michael Marks Charitable Trust