A fine example of a late medieval Tower House.
Forter Castle was built by the Ogilvys of Airlie as a fortified house in 1560.
Such ‘Tower Houses’ as they are known, were intended primarily as dwellings, but constructed so that they could be made secure and defended in times of trouble. Consequently, they have few windows and doors close to their base, and the principal rooms are at least one storey above ground level.
The principal reason for Forter’s construction was to fortify and protect the entrance to the Balloch Pass to Glenshee and the important Monega Pass to Braemar and the North.
At the time it was built, marauding bands of Caterans threatened the settled folk in this area and the clan feuds, stoked by religious differences as Protestantism came in to supplant the old Catholic religion, made it necessary to build a new ‘fortalice’ for the house of Ogilvy.
Forter Castle is an impressive four-storey Tower House with a garret, which had fallen into ruin, but which was restored around 1990.
A stair turret projects above the first floor in the main re-entrant and round turrets crown the south east and southwest angles of the main block. There are a number of small shot holes.
The castle’s commanding position made it hard to take it by surprise. It was also equipped with the best defences known at the time and, when put to the test, faired extremely well; it was only as a result of a force of some five thousand men with heavy artillery to back them up, that in the year 1640, Forter eventually fell.
The personal feud which led to the bringing down of the castle began when the Abbot of Coupar Angus, Donald Campbell, sold the lands that Forter was to be built on to the Ogilvys. James Ogilvy, the 5th Lord, was married to Dame Katerine, Donald Campbell of Argyll’s niece and, because of this fact, the Abbot showed the Ogilvys preference in selling the lands.
Before Donald Campbell sold the lands of Forter, he inserted a clause in the agreement reserving fixity for several tenants at the head of the glen, who were Campbell clan or owed allegiance to the House of Argyll. Lord Ogilvy evidently objected to these Campbell adherents and set about evicting them from the land and installing partisans of his own.
Thus a deep resentment was engendered by the two families, despite their close ties. Lord Ogilvy and his brother, Sir John Ogilvy of Craig, so incensed at the clause and stirred into a hot headed rage, decided to carry this feud even further. Early in 1591 they raised a force and, setting out from Airle Castle, raided to and plundered the Campbells in the vicinity of Coupar Angus, leaving behind at least four dead. At the same time, a religious gulf had been created by the two families for their opposing religious views. This gulf would turn to be a microcosm of what was happening in the reform of all Scotland. Argyll was fervently protestant while the Ogilvys stubbornly refused to relinquish their Catholic faith in the reformation. In fact, for years the Ogilvys supported the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and then later King Charles I.
Argyll, taking this as a personal matter, decided to take the law into his own hands. In retaliation for the Ogilvys plundering and killing on July 1591, he invaded Glenisla with a force of five hundred men. With warning of the advance, Lord Ogilvy managed to spirit away his wife and child. The glensfolk were less fortunate, losing houses, goods, and livestock; some unable to turn to the hills lost their lives in this ” barbarous crueltie.” Forter too was assaulted and, although damaged, remained stout and held off the attack.
Lord Ogilvy appealed to the privy council and the council ordered Argyll to stop these onslaughts, which he did until a month later another force of Catarans, whether ordered to do so or not, but definitely Campbell men, attacked from over the hills and more vengeance was wreaked, this time in Glenisla and Glen Clova where the old castle was destroyed. The death toll was smaller with only three or four killed, but the marauders made away with all the sheep and horses, and anything they could not carry, they burnt and destroyed. The Ogilvys at this time were finding themselves more and more isolated, surrounded on all sides by Protestants.
In 1639, the 7th Lord Ogilvy, grandson of the James Ogilvy who had built Forter, rode out in support of King Charles I. He joined the royalist army at York on the 1st of April and it was there on the following day that the grateful king created him the first Earl of Airlie. On hearing this news in Scotland, the committee challenged the new Lord Ogilvy to sign the National Covenant, which naturally he refused to do. As punishment, the Committee of Estates sent the Earls of Montrose and Kinghorn, “to the place of Airlee and to take in the same, and for that effect to carry cartows (cannons) with them”. With the Earl still in England with the King, the young Lord Ogilvy found himself in sole charge of Airle Castle when they arrived. On being confronted to surrender, he defiantly replied that his father was absent and had not given him the authority to do so and so would defend the castle to the utmost of his power. In fact, the Earl of Airle was a near kinsman to Montrose and so Montrose launched an attack with no great enthusiasm, leaving without a single casualty on either side.
This incensed Argyll so much that he would not rest until the Ogilvys had been brought down. On the 12th of June he obtained authority from the Committee to suppress the ‘malignants’ of Badendoch, Atholl and the Braes of Angus. This time his target was all three castles of Airlie, Forter and Craig.
Leaving nothing to chance, he raised a formidable force of five thousand men, armed with heavy artillery against whom there could be no real resistance. They approached Airle Castle, first from the south, and near reached its walls before their presence was known. The Earl still away in England, the duty of defence remained with his son yet again, the 8th Lord Ogilvy, who had bravely withstood the assaults of Montrose and Kinghorn earlier that year. Realizing the futility of resistance against such a force, Ogilvy withdrew his men, hoping the worst excesses of Argyll’s retribution would be stayed. This was in vain as Archibald the Grim, bent on nothing short of total destruction, took a personal hand in demolishing Airlie. Indeed it is said he took a hammer to the doors and windows, “till he did sweate for heate at his work.” Whilst Argyll busied himself with Airlee, he sent his most trusted lieutenant to raid the rich pickings of Glenisla and to make sure that Forter Castle was razed to the ground.
The Great Earl took pained step to note to his lieutenant how the demolition of Forter was to be carried out. He itemized each step, how the windows and roof should be destroyed and “make the work short, ye will fyir it.” Exacting that the last thing he should do was burn it to the ground.
The most vivid scenes recalled by the balladeer are those by the Countess Ogilvy, who is said to have been in residence at Forter during the sacking; it deemed the safest house. The countess was said to have witnessed the burning of Forter from high up on the hill; we can only imagine what she thought as she witnessed the wealth of her family go up in flames and the spoils of war be marched from under her nose. Even though it was only Lord Ogilvy and his father the Earl who had countered the wrath or Argyll, many glenfolks in the lands of Airle were seen to suffer; it was said that in all the lands of Airle there was not left “a cock to crow day.”
Tranter, Nigel, "The Fortified House in Scotland Vol 4, James Thin, 1977