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The earliest records of Kellie go back to 1150 where it is mentioned in a charter issued by King David I. The first known owner was Robert of London, the illegitimate son of King William the Lion. By 1266 Kellie had passed to the Siward family, who had hailed from Northumbria and had assisted King Malcolm Canmore to overthrow Macbeth. The Siewards supported England during the wars of independence (1296-1328) and as a result Sir Richard Sieward forfeited his lands in Scotland after Bannockburn. However his daughter Helena Sieward, “Lady Kellie” retained Kellie. None of the buildings they occupied appear to have survived.
In about 1360 Helena, or Elena, assigned Kellie to her kinsman Walter Olifard (or Oliphant) of Aberdalgie who was married to Elizabeth, a daughter of Robert the Bruce. Thus began 250 years of occupation by the Oliphant Family. The estate was signed over to a Siward relative, Walter Oliphant, in 1360 and the castle remained in the ownership of the Oliphant family until 1613. It was purchased by Sir Thomas Erskine, who had saved the life of King James VI during the Gowrie Conspiracy by killing Sir Alexander Ruthven. The King stayed at Kellie in 1617 during his only visit to Scotland after the Union of the Crowns, and he appointed Erskine as Earl of Kellie in 1619.
It is likely that the ceiling of what is now the library in the 1573 east tower was decorated in plaster in anticipation of a Royal visit by King James. This room may be the first in Scotland where plaster decoration was used ‘in the London style’ in preference to the painted beams and boarded ceilings that were generally fashionable in the early 17th century. Incorporated in the ceiling is the date "1617" and monogram "T V F" for Thomas Viscount Fenton,which title the King awarded Thomas Erskine in 1606.
Originally a simple tower house, the lower section of what now constitutes the northwest tower is the oldest part of the castle, dating from around 1360, and is said to be haunted. In 1573 a new tower was built by the 4th Lord Oliphant to the east of the original tower. It is believed that the 4th Lord built the east tower as a jointure-house (a property set aside for the wife after the husband's death) for his wife Margaret. Between 1573 and 1606 the two towers were linked by a new range, terminated by another tower in the south-west, creating the T-plan layout that remains today. The castle is a fine example of Scots Baronial domestic architecture, with an imposing mix of gables, corbelled towers, and chimneys.
The lineage of the Earls of Kellie ceased in 1829, who had fled to America. The property then seems to have fallen to James Maitland Hog of Newliston (thereafter titled "of Newliston and Kellie") but Hog made little use of the estate, and the castle lay abandoned for many years. In 1878 it was rented from the Earl of Mar and Kellie by James Lorimer, Regius Professor of Public Law at Edinburgh University, and father to Sir Robert Lorimer, the renowned Scottish architect. The Lorimer family set about restoring the castle for use as a holiday retreat, but it soon became the family home. Robert Lorimer was instrumental in much of the restoration work, restoring magnificent plaster ceilings, painted panelling and furniture.
On the death of Lady Hannah in 1916 the tenancy was taken over by their son, John Henry Lorimer the famous Scottish Painter. Robert then began work on restoring the main house, this previously having been resisted by Lady Hannah.
Upon John's death in 1936, the tenancy lapsed and the house was cleared and the castle once again became vacant. In 1936 Sir Robert's son, the sculptor Hew Lorimer and his wife Mary, renewed the Lorimer tenancy. Hew and Mary Lorimer purchased the castle in 1948 and it remained in his ownership until 1970. Between 1970 and 1990 Hew continued to live in part of the castle and used the stable block as his studio.
Hew Lorimer sold the castle, together with 6.5 hectares of gardens and an organic walled garden to the National Trust for Scotland in 1970. The walled garden is 17th century, with late Victorian additions, and contains a fine collection of old-fashioned roses, fruit trees and herbaceous plants.
The main castle contents were given into the care of the Trust by the Secretary of State for Scotland and, in 1998 the Trust purchased the Lorimer family artifacts. The castle and gardens are open to the public, and there is a permanent exhibition of Hew Lorimer's work and studio in the old stables.
It is rumoured that the 5th Earl of Kellie hid in a burnt-out tree stump in the grounds of the castle for an entire summer following the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Phoebe Anna Traquair, who was an outstanding proponent of the "Arts and Crafts” philosophy, completed the Painted Panel above the fireplace in the Drawing room in 1897. The painting is based on Botticelli's "primavera" and was completed when John Henry Lorimer occupied the Castle. However Hew and Mary Lorimer who took over the tenancy after John Henry, apparently did not like the painting and they had it covered in the late 1940s. They were careful not to damage the painting and they used cartridge paper with flour paste. The painting was restored in 1996 by the National Trust for Scotland following the death of Hew Lorimer who had remained at Kellie and lived in part of the east tower of the castle until 1990.
The tapestry now in the Dining Room is made up of at least two, possibly three, different tapestries. The centre and main element is a Flemish Tapestry (1580) that depicts ‘Europa and the Bull’. This tapestry used to be located in the Drawing Room as illustrated in a Country Life photograph taken in 1964. The beauty of Europa inspired the love of Zeus, who approached her in the form of a white bull. He carried her away from Phoenicia to Crete. The Latin inscription, which does not refer or relate to the main tapestry –‘The young man has saved his wounded father, carried him back and put him on his horse'. The borders have been added at some later time.
- Dictionary of Scottish Architects: Robert Lorimer
- Dictionary of Scottish Architects: Robert Lorimer
- National Trust for Scotland, Kellie Castle & Gardens
- Kellie Castle on Rampant Scotland
- Kellie Castle on the Gazetteer for Scotland