Fairburn Tower

Ross-shire, Scotland

Overview

Saving one of Scotland's most prized tower houses

Fairburn Tower, sited in a beautiful Highland landscape, is a rare survival. It was built in about 1545 for Murdo Mackenzie, a favourite at the court of King James V and Marie of Guise.

The Category A-listed structure has been a roofless, floorless and imperilled near-ruin for several hundred years, and by 2019 was on the brink of total collapse. Until Landmark’s intervention, dramatic cracks – widening at an alarming rate - ran the length of its five storeys.

Thanks to the generosity of 1,228 supporters, our two-year fundraising appeal successfully raised nearly £2million to enable its restoration. Together architects Simpson & Brown, contractor Laing Traditional Masonry, LTM Group, and many others, we’re currently working to sensitively transform the structure into a striking Landmark for up to four and we hope to welcome guests for holidays from summer 2022.

Progress so far: Scaffolding, cobbles and a global health pandemic

In January 2020 work began to scaffold Fairburn, the intervention necessary to secure and shield the fragile tower, preventing any further movement as final plans were finessed. Taking over three months to erect, the complex structure laces around the building, holding the historic masonry – particularly including the stair tower – securely in place.

While prospecting for scaffold footings, in early March 2020 an extensive area of cobbles was discovered beneath turf. Uncovered and recorded by archaeologist Tom Addyman and his team, within the substantial area are the probable outline of other structures, including the castle garth and a putative gateway. All the cobbles have been carefully graded for size, and we hope to ultimately leave an area exposed for Landmarkers to enjoy.

Swiftly following the thrilling cobbles discovery, and just as scaffold neared completion, in late March the Coronavirus pandemic hit and all construction stopped in Scotland. In addition, during the summer months a barn owl and her chicks nested in the building, bringing its own slight complications. Our works at Fairburn paused for six months, resuming in late October 2020.

High-level archaeology, masonry and joinery

With the return to work – all aspects of the programme rescheduled, strict Covid-secure procedures in place – and scaffolding finally complete, in autumn 2020 high level archaeology was undertaken for the first time. The close inspection enabled detailed planning for masonry repairs, and LTM’s skilled masons worked throughout harsh winter months and across spring 2021 to secure and rebuild the tower. This included cleaning algae off stonework before consolidating and repairing cracks, preparing and inserting new stone where appropriate plus pointing with hot lime, protecting areas of progress with hessian during the harshest weather. As the seasons have turned so too have the principal trades onsite, with LTM’s joiners preparing and installing roof timbers during summer 2021, maximising the days with longer light levels. With joinery works now well underway, soon the tower will metamorphose from a shell into a habitable dwelling once more. The roof will be tiled, floors inserted, harling applied, shutter-board window lights carefully crafted and Fairburn’s special features including surviving historic bartizans will emerge renewed.

We’ll share details of this progress in the coming months.

People behind the project

We’re delighted to be restoring Fairburn with the help of so many historic building experts. They include John Sanders, Eleanor Egan and project architect Julie Barklie; archaeologists Tom Addyman, Liz Jones, and Kenny MacFadyen; quantity surveyor Angus Simpson, partner at Ralph Ogg and Partners; structural engineers Steve Wood and Ross Livingstone of David Narro Associates; service engineers Stuart MacPherson and Finlay Ross of Irons Foulner Consulting Engineers. We’re particularly pleased that LTM have apprentices onsite, guided by site foreman Rod Mackenzie and all overseen by managing director Steven Laing.

History

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.

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 Galleway

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