The history of Fairburn Tower
A mid-16th century tower
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 glamourous 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.
Today, perilous cracks run from top to bottom of Murdo's once fine residence.
Its rugged exterior once contained a courtier's home
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.
This cross section helps us visualise the original disposition of rooms (MacGibbon & Ross, 1887).
'Improved' in the early 17th-century - until rebellion in 1715
The family prospered and in the early 19th-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.
‘I was not brought up a soldier’
Laird Alexander Mackenzie was more cautious when Bonnie Prince Charlie (pictured) 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.
Prophecy of the Brahan Seer
The Brahan Seer was a shadowy 17th-century figure who worked as a labourer on the Brahan estate. One prophecy was that ‘The day will come when the MacKenzies of Fairburn shall lose their entire possessions; their castle will become uninhabited and a cow shall give birth to a calf in the uppermost chamber of the tower.’ In 1851, by when the tower was used to store hay, the prophecy was fulfilled when a cow gave birth in the garret.
The tower now has no future
without your help
This rich historic site will be lost without your help. The tower’s only chance of survival is restoration as a thrilling Landmark holiday let for four people under a long lease. Fairburn Tower’s well-preserved architectural details would give it a unique place among Landmark’s existing tower houses, a rare survivor of the brief flowering of the Scottish Renaissance.
The dramatic cracks running the length of its walls can be stitched and repaired. Detailed archaeology is already underway and will allow us to recover the tower’s form. Such is its importance we already have a generous repair grant from Historic Environment Scotland – but we cannot act to make Fairburn Tower a Landmark without your help.