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Main Details

Primary ReferenceNJ26NW0004
NRHE Card No.NJ26NW10
NRHE Numlink 16460
HES SM No. 90282
Site Form Standing Structure
Site Condition Incomplete
Details Remains of a palace and chapel, which formed the principal residence of the Bishops of Moray from the 13th Century until the abolition of episcopacy in the late 17th Century. The largest surviving structure on the site is a massive tower in the southwest corner of the palace, known locally as 'Davy's Tower', built by Bishop David Stewart in the 15th Century. A chief feature of palace is the keep forming the southwest defence of a large irregular courtyard enclosed by walls with smaller towers at the outer three corners. The enceinte wall is now much destroyed, but in places still remain to a height of circa 7.62 m (25 ft). Against the north, east and west walls were buildings, now destroyed, while on the south side was a chapel. The East gate was defended by a portcullis. In 1985, an extensive shell midden deposit, consisting mainly of winkle and oyster shell was investigated (centred on circa NJ 228 658). Several artefacts were recovered, and it was noted that the flint scatter continued circa 150 m to the east of the observed midden. In 1987, the first major season of excavation was undertaken at the Palace, concentrating mainly in the northern sector of the palace enclosure. Little evidence of occupation survived in the main part of the north range (banqueting hall), whereas several constructional and functional changes were apparent in the adjacent area of the Watergate. Although not fully excavated and difficult to interpret, most of these phases were probably associated with service offices. A diversity of structures beyond the north wall included drains, floor surfaces, a defensive pit outside the watergate and, adjacent to it, a pavement possibly leading to the Harbour. Excavations continued in 1988, and although little occupational evidence survived, the work revealed a complex constructional sequence within the south range, including indications of two building phases pre-dating the probably 14th Century standing remains. The upper storey has been converted from a hall to a chapel and the ground floor doorway blocked, probably during the late 15th to early 16th Century modifications. Little of the south curtain wall survived but it may once have linked the south range to an early southwest comer tower and, later, to its massive extant successor. Beyond this tower and the south range were 1-2 courses of a later boundary wall, perhaps associated with the 16th to 17th Century re-occupation of the palace. Completion of work in the watergate area (started in 1987) revealed three phases of cobbled floors, probably contemporary with the adjacent late 15th Century banqueting hall, overlying two kilns or ovens, perhaps associated with the nearby west range. The third season of excavation was carried out in 1989 and focussed on three areas: an area on the south side, an area on the northwest side, and the north range. In the south area, only circa 5 m of the curtain wall (partially excavated in 1988) survived beyond the east face of 'Davy's Tower'. Its foundations comprised two layers of large, angular rubble, separated by a layer of coarse sand. The curved face of the masonry at the base of the tower's east wall did not extend into the south side of the building and is unlikely to have belonged to an earlier structure, as had previously been suggested. In the northwest area, several masonry structures were uncovered after the extensive, and often deep, overburden was removed from this area. Much of the west curtain wall survived only as rubble foundations or, in places, merely as a spread of mortar and clay. It was also apparent that at least some of the wall's standing masonry was a recent fabrication. The relationship between the north and west ranges was not clear although limited investigation suggested that there were two chambers, perhaps separated by a corridor or pend, within the excavated area. To the south, and undoubtedly part of the west range, was a vaulted basement, but little evidence of occupation was uncovered. On the north side of the area was a room measuring circa 9 m by circa 6 m, with remains of a flagged floor and a stone-sided structure which, although only partially excavated, resembled the base of a kiln. The surface of a rock-cut pit was exposed at the east end of the north range in 1987 but further investigation had to await the consolidation of the stonework within the buildings adjacent, somewhat unsafe east gable. Work was resumed in 1989 when the pit was shown to be a well, cut to a depth of 8 m into the bedrock. At a depth of 1.8 m there were four courses (1.2 m high) of a tightly jointed curved ashlar lining, supported on two massive sandstone lintels that spanned faults in the rock. Numerous carved stone blocks, similar to those used in the well's lining, were found within the lower levels of infill, suggesting that the shaft was originally lined as far as (and probably beyond) the present ground surface. The infill comprised voided rubble, much of it worked sandstone, and dark silts which contained several large fragments of leather but few other artefacts. At the base of the shaft was an almost complete ceramic jug, of probable 17th Century date, suggesting that the well was still in use towards the end of Spynie's occupation. During the fourth season of excavation, in 1990, work was concentrated mainly on the west side of the enclosure. Features within and beyond the east curtain were also investigated when rubble was cleared from against the wall's exterior. Although arch-pointed windows and a fireplace at first floor level of the west curtain indicated that there had been a stone-built west range, excavation failed to uncover further positive evidence of such a building. The construction, of a later date, of two barrel-vaulted cellars adjacent to the west curtain probably accounted for this paucity of information. The south vault, apparently the basement of a free-standing building, measured 7 m by 5.4 m. Its roof sprang from the building's north and south walls which were 1.1 m to 1.3 m wide, in contrast to the end walls which were 0.5 m wide. A secondary partition, with an off-centre doorway, divided the cellar into two rooms of unequal size, the east chamber being only 1.5 m wide. Scattered spreads of ash and burnt soil were the only evidence of occupation, and broken sandstone flags the only remnants of a floor surface. Beneath the south wall of the cellar were deposits that may have been associated with the occupation of the west range. Cutting the subsoil below these levels was a pit within which was found an intact ceramic jug of 14th or 15th Century date. The cellar was separated from the curtain wall to the west and from another barrel-vaulted basement to the north by an L-shaped passage that linked the courtyard with the basement of Davy's Tower. The passage was floored with cobbles and small flags although most of the flooring was missing from the north side. Built into the floor, alongside the curtain wall, was a V-shaped open drain that ran through the wall. In the northwest corner of the passage and below its stone floor, was the base of a kiln which was walled with clay bonded rubble and floored with sandstone flags. The other vault, to the immediate north of the passage, was the basement of a building set against the curtain wall and still standing to its second storey on the south and west sides. The north and east walls, however, were completely demolished. Measuring 5.3 m north-south by 8.5 m east-west internally, the basement was divided into two chambers by a narrow partition wall. Between the two vaults and pre-dating the passage were several large post pits that may have been associated with an early timber west range. The pits were cut into redeposited subsoil that was used to level the slope that descends northwards towards Spynie Loch. Limited excavation beyond the southeast corner of the enclosure in 1992 revealed the remains of a shallow ditch, 7 m wide and aligned east-west, that appeared to pre-date all of the extant buildings of the palace. The ditch was levelled during the construction of the south range and the southeast corner tower, the massive rubble foundations of the latter extending well into it. Several sherds of 12th Century pottery (from at least 3 vessels, including a possible Low Countries proto-stoneware vessel) were recovered from one of the ditch fills. These appeared to comprise redeposited midden material. Overlying the ditch were deposits derived from the partial collapse of the adjacent buildings, with no indication of a surface contemporary with the occupation of the palace. Further south, the drystone east-west perimeter wall built in 1820 was dismantled to reveal an underlying clay-bonded and mortar-pointed, rubble wall that survived to a length of 54 m. This lower wall is believed to have formed the boundary between the palace and its gardens and orchards. Two small trenches were opened at first floor level within the southwest corner tower to determine the depth (0.2 m) of debris that overlay the roof of the cellars below. Before a safety fence was installed on the north side of the courtyard, trenching was carried out adjacent to the south wall of the north range in an area partially excavated in 1987. The steep, natural slope that once led northwards to Spynie Loch was exposed at several points on the courtyard side of the range. Excavations continued in 1993 in 3 key areas: the interior of the Davy's Tower, the southwest corner of the courtyard adjacent to Davy's Tower, and the north side of the courtyard, against the south wall of the north range. In Davy's Tower, the removal of a thin deposit of modern detritus at first floor level revealed a layer of voided rubble and loose mortar infilling the space between the underlying vaulted cellars and the flagged floor of the hall. Only a few broken flags now project from the inside faces of the walls. In the northeast corner of the room, the foundations were revealed of the sole stair that links this level with the upper storeys of the tower. These foundations of massive dry-stone rubble had been built directly upon the vault of the circular basement below. In the southwest Courtyard, a mound of 19th - 20th Century rubble had been partially removed from the east face of the southwest tower in 1988. This task was completed in 1993, exposing the foundations of the tower, below which were the fragmentary remains of a masonry building that appears to have been destroyed by fire. On the evidence of large quantities of window glass and pottery associated with the demolished building, its construction probably dates to the 14th Century. The foundations of another masonry building had been cut into the subsoil nearby. There was no indication as to the function or date of this small building although its resemblance to the truncated walls below the tower suggests that the two structures may have been contemporary. Between the tower and the south range there were several post holes cut into the subsoil. There were also several larger pits, perhaps evidence of a substantial timber structure that pre-dated the extant masonry buildings of the palace. The proposed rebuilding of a large stretch of the wall on the north side of the courtyard prompted the excavation of much of that material which proved to contain huge quantities of animal bones and substantial amounts of pottery, mostly dating to the 15th or 16th Century. In 1994, a small trench was dug by Scotia Archaeology in the northwest corner of the Palace enclosure, next to the northwest tower. Two sherds of North French green glazed earthenware were found. This area had been examined in 1990 but the construction of a new spiral staircase meant that further excavation was required. One of the kilns identified in 1990 was fully excavated. The kiln bowl measured 1.8 m in diameter with clay bonded, rubble walls 0.6 m wide. The flue extended towards the east and was not fully uncovered. To the northeast of the kiln and predating it was a large pit. The pit was partially filled with humic material and large boulders but contained few artefacts or bones. In 1995 Scotia Archaeology carried out a watching brief during the initial excavation of the foundations of a new dwelling to the west of the palace enclosure. Several features of interest were uncovered resulting in a full-scale excavation of the area within a trench measuring 13 m x 11 m. Five pits were uncovered, three of which contained substantial quantities of marine shells as well as charcoal rich deposits and heat damaged stones. A linear gulley ran eastwards from the west end of the trench, returning northwards towards the cliff edge. On the south side was an extensive natural declivity, which had been levelled with substantial quantities of rubble, presumably when the adjacent metalled road was laid in the early 19th Century. A watching brief was carried out by Kirkdale Archaeology in 2004 during the excavation of a foundation trench for a forthcoming storage extension to the rear of the visitor centre. The area showed signs of modern disturbance, and no finds or features of archaeological significance were observed. A watching brief was carried out by Kirkdale Archaeology in March 2011 during excavation of four trenches to house the uprights for a new fate northwest of the ticket office. Sherds of 15th Century pottery were recovered. A walkover and topographic survey were carried out within circa 2.4ha of woodland surrounding Spynie Palace by CFA in December 2017, prior to felling of trees, in order to better understand the impacts of forestry operations on the archaeological remains and to inform a more detailed mitigation strategy for the forestry operations. Eight monuments associated with the historical use of the palace and grounds were identified and recorded. East of the palace a crescent shaped bank may have functioned as an access track. To the north of this on the inferred location of the former lochside was a large diffuse spread of irregularly shaped, rough natural stone blocks, although it was not clear whether these had formed some sort of revetting. Two blocks of stone were recorded, one dressed on two sides located east of the palace, the other rectangular on the northeast side of the palace. To the north of the palace was moss covered bank of stones, obscured by collapsed trees, but which may be the denuded remains of a stone-built structure. To the west was a north-south dressed stone wall, which terminated where it met the slope of the former lochside. North of the present access track (constructed 1825) at NJ 22974 65858 is the Bishop's Well which is believed to date from at least the 18th Century. The well was exposed to a maximum height of three courses at the southern side. Further to the west, survey recorded a corn drying kiln identified in earlier excavation work, and evident as a low U-shaped mound with a flue-like entrance to the northeast. A programme of landscape, buildings and materials analysis has been carried out as part of the University of Stirling Scottish Castles and Chapels C14 Project.
Last Update22/02/2024
Updated Bycsimpson
Date of Compilation12/08/1988

Google Map for NJ26NW0004

National Grid Reference: NJ 2302 6586

Event Details

Event DateEvent TypeOASIS ID
1985 Excavation
1990 Excavation
1992 Excavation
1993 Excavation
1994 Excavation
1987 Excavation
1988 Excavation
1989 Excavation
2011 Watching-Brief kirkdale1-171106
2004 Watching-Brief
1995 Watching-Brief
1995 Excavation
2017 Field Survey cfaarcha1-306486
2018 Research Project
1995 Watching-Brief

Excavations and Surveys

Date MDate YTypeDurationDirector / OrganisationAuspicesFundExtent
 1985 Excavation  J LEWISSDDHS 
 1990 Excavation  J. LEWIS HS 
 1992 Excavation  J. LEWIS HS 
 1993 Excavation  J. LEWIS HS 
 1994 Excavation  D. REED HS 
 1987 Excavation  J. LEWISSDDHS 
 1988 Excavation  J. LEWISSDDHS 
 1989 Excavation  J. LEWIS HS 
 1995 Excavation  SCOTIA HS 
122017 Survey  CFAHESHES 

Artefact and Ecofact


Ecofact Notes

Monument Types

Monument Type 1Monument Type 2Monument Type 3OrderProbability
JUGS  N100