Preserving Rait Castle

As part of its Climate Change Heritage Action, the May/June 2022 issue of History Scotland had a page about the process of managed decay, and asked what historic sites or monuments readers would like to see preserved. I suggested Rait Castle - and I am pleased to say that this was accepted and a brief article on the topic (based on my document below which was sent to Lord Cawdor, whose family owns the Castle) was published in the July/August 2022 issue. The accompanying images show the title page (which also has a photo of the castle) and the two page spread (at the bottom of this page).

Guide for Preserving and Surveying Rait Castle

Dr David Raitt


Rait Castle, residence of the brothers, Sir Gervaise and Sir Andrew de Rait (Rathe), and their later families from around 1150-1405, stands two miles south of the highland town of Nairn, itself about sixteen miles east of Inverness. Rait Castle is not actually a castle but a rare example of a 'hall house', a style common in the 13th century. Rait is one of only a handful of such castles still standing in Scotland, and the only one which is complete to the wall head and has no later additions. Although roofless, the domed tower still keeps out the rain but, no longer visible beneath the vegetation are a courtyard (with barmkin walls recorded as nine feet high in 1957) and the possible remains of the Chapel of St Mary of Rait. In recognition of its historical importance, Rait Castle is a Scheduled Monument and protected under the Ancient Monument act. The ghost of a girl with no hands is said to haunt the ruins!

It should be noted that Rait Castle was a category A building and was listed on 26 January 1971 and resurveyed on 8 March 1985. However, the decision was made on 16 December 2015 to remove the building from the List (of listed buildings). The reason for this was that Rait Castle was also a scheduled monument - first scheduled on 17 July 1959 and with the current entry in the Schedule dated 11 March 2002. The Castle was considered for removal as a listed building as part of the Dual Designation project - a nationwide project to review structures which have in the past been both listed as buildings of special architectural or historic interest and scheduled as monuments of national importance. This dual designation is being phased out and structures are being assigned to being either listed or scheduled depending on their individual circumstances. Removing this dual designation helps to provide clarity for the future management of the sites. The Rait Castle site was not visited and the removal assessment was desk-based, using available information and reference to recent photographs.

Although an Ancient Monument and a (former) A listed building, the Castle and its grounds are owned by the Cawdor family in whose possession it has been for some 500 years. Now somewhat overgrown, it was acknowledged some years ago that action was perhaps needed to preserve the site from the ravages of time and encroaching vegetation.

It has long been believed that if the scrub were cleared then it would be possible to see the full extent of this unique building and its grounds and some proper survey and archaeological work could then be undertaken to ascertain more about the Castle's structure, history and context. Donald Clark of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services has prepared the overlay below (in red) of a recent photo of Rait Castle showing the extent of the ruins of the building and castle grounds as surveyed by Douglas Simpson in 1935. The amount of vegetation growth since then is staggering and shows just how much of the ruins are no longer visible. In fact, modern fencing around the area gives a false impression of the actual extent of the Castle’s overall site. The blue rectangle denotes the area of interest to us and covers some 5100 square metres.

Photographs taken over the years (several from Simpson’s survey in 1935 and at least two from 1952 are in the Francis Frith collection) have shown many different views of Rait Castle's amazing and unique architecture. Indeed, a painting commissioned from a photograph taken in the 1970s shows that a substantial part of the barmkin wall was still visible at that time. Now a concerted effort is being made for undertaking necessary work in cooperation with Cawdor Estate and Historic Environment Scotland (who are responsible for scheduled monuments). Besides being the spiritual home of many Raits and Raitts throughout the world, Rait Castle is a prized part of Nairnshire’s heritage and a nationally important historic monument and it would be a pity if the Castle’s structure and grounds were to suffer from any further decay.