Inventory Garden & Designed Landscape


Status: Designated


Where documents include maps, the use of this data is subject to terms and conditions (


Date Added
Supplementary Information Updated
Local Authority
Kilmuir Easter
NH 75764 75144
275764, 875144

The designed landscape of Balnagown Castle with its parkland, woodland, gardens and architectural features has a long historical connection with the Clan Ross and contains a 19th century Italian garden and an unusual semi-circular walled garden.

*Minor updates and corrections to record in 2017 and 2024. The Inventory site as a whole has not been reviewed.

Type of Site

A late 17th century formal designed landscape that was completely cleared and redesigned in the mid-19th century in the picturesque style with parks and policy woodlands and formal gardens including Italian and walled gardens around the castle.

Main Phases of Landscape Development

Late 17th century, cleared and redesigned in the mid-19th century.

Artistic Interest

Level of interest

The Italian and walled gardens give Balnagown high value as a work of art.


Level of interest

The long associations with the lairds of Ross and the physical remains of the stages of development of the grounds give the site outstanding historical value.


Level of interest

There is no specialist plant collection at Balnagown.


Level of interest

The designed landscape provides the setting for a number of notable architectural features, including Balnagown Castle itself and an unusual semi-circular walled garden.


Level of interest
Not Assessed


Level of interest

As the land is flat to the east of the castle, the views of the policies are limited but the policy woodlands provide some scenic value.

Nature Conservation

Level of interest

There are nature reserves on the adjacent sand flats of the Dornoch Firth. Habitats such as the old policy woodlands at Balnagown have high nature conservation value.

Location and Setting

Built to guard the Easter Ross lands, Balnagown Castle is located between the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth, commanding fine views to the southwest and east over the coastal flats. The castle stands above the narrow wooded valley of the Balnagown River on a cliff formed by a fault line and with views of the hills on the edge of Easter Ross to the west and north. The nearest town is Invergordon some 5 miles (9km) to the southwest.

The extent of the designed landscape remains similar to that shown on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1872), extending west to the kennels on Mill Hill, south to the South Lodge, and bounded by the roads to the northeast and southeast. The main views from the Castle are northwest along the wooded valley of the Balnagown River and southwest across the parks to the Firth beyond. The boundary encompasses some 403 acres (163ha) of land.

Site History

Balnagown is the historic home of the lairds of Ross. Originally a late medieval defensive stronghold, possibly with an earlier fortification on the site, the present castle and landscape have undergone many modifications dating from the 15th century through to the present.

The first laird of Balnagown was Hugh Ross (d.1374). His grandson, the 3rd laird, Walter Ross expanded the estate and acquired an extensive tract of land across to the western shores of Ross by marriage with Katherine MacTyre, the daughter of Paul MacTyre. The next generations lived in warfaring times and in 1585 the 9th laird, Alexander, was outlawed for his crimes and plundering. His son George followed his example, and in 1615 he too died an outlaw, having bankrupted the estate. His son, David, lived in quieter times and was created a Baronet.

In the second half of the 1600s, the 13th laird, David married Lady Anne Stewart and initiated a programme of rebuilding at the castle together with the creation of a formal landscape with walks and driveways.  These improvements left the estate encumbered with debts when David died in 1711 without an heir. In the ensuing legal struggle, the estate was won by the Rosses of Halkhead, while the chiefship passed to the Pitcairnie Rosses. By 1754 all of the Halkhead Rosses had died without issue and the estate passed to a distant connection, Admiral Sir John Lockhart Ross of the Lockhart Rosses.

General William Roy's Military Survey map of 1747-55 depicts the landscape at Balnagown of this period. It shows an extensive designed landscape to the west of the Balnagown River with a formal design of radiating avenues and paths through a large block of woodland sheltering enclosed parkland fields. To the south, another area of woodland is shown planted in a wide strip with a distinctive and unusual criss-crossed pattern of paths.

John Lockhart Ross (1721-90) enjoyed a successful naval career and at that time was entitled to half the booty captured from enemy vessels. This he used for the improvement of his estate, bringing with him the latest French textbooks on agriculture. He earned a reputation as an efficient and enterprising Highland estate manager of his day, enclosing fields, draining marshes and planting forests. He was an early introducer to sheep in northern Scotland on a commercial basis. There are references to John Adam working on the garden at Balnagown in c.1762 (A.A. Tait). Lockhart Ross died in 1790 and his son, General Sir Charles Ross, married Lady Mary Fitzgerald who initiated the next major phase of improvements to the castle and pleasure grounds.

Research into the work of the early 19th century garden designer, John Hay, has shown that he prepared an improvement plan for the semi-circular walled garden in 1814 (information courtesy of Dingwall 2016; see under Walled Garden, below). There is also reference to James Gillespie Graham being consulted on the improvements to the castle which were made in the Gothic Revival style, as introduced at the Brighton Pavilion, incorporating Indian style features such as the porch. The defensive slit windows at the rear of the castle were opened up to exploit the views along the river and, in 1847, the Head Gardener from Holyrood Palace was employed to lay out the Italian Gardens. The policies were cleared and replanted at this time.

Charles Ross, 9th Baronet (b.1872), succeeded in the late 19th century. An entrepreneur and inventor of the Ross Rifle, he was also a keen agricultural improver, introducing the first British silo to Balnagown, together with an early combine harvester. Involved in various legal and financial problems, he was largely resident in North America during the early decades of the 20th century and died in Florida in 1942. His widow, Dorothy Mercado, and her later second husband, Francis de Moleyns continued to keep the grounds managed and used for sporting parties.

Following the sale of the estate in 1972, a new phase of development began at the castle and grounds.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

Balnagown Castle is a 16th century tower house with improvements and additions in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. James Gillespie Graham is thought to have designed some of the additions in the 1820s including the striking Indian porch and a conservatory which has been lost since 1958. The stables were restored by Andrew Maitland after a fire in 1862 and have recently been completely refurbished. Other architectural features of interest include The Mains, King James Bridge and the earlier 19th century walled garden, together with the Swiss Cottage, a two-storey cottage ornee in the west of the policies, and the entrance piers and gates. There is a summerhouse above the Italian Garden, and a variety of ornamentation in the formal gardens.


An amenity herd of red deer graze the parks. There are many fine parkland trees, of oak, horse chestnut, beech and lime, some over 200 years old. The park extended right up to the Castle until the 1980s when an area near the Castle was hedged and laid out as a garden. A feature in the park near the castle is a large cage built to house one or more golden eagles. Paths lead through the park to the stables and Mains, along the riverside to the bridges, and up to the walled garden. A small bridge used to cross the river northwest of the Castle to the Laundry on the opposite bank. Walling continues westwards up to the Swiss Cottage which at one time was used as a nursery/schoolroom. To the south of this area lie arable fields with veteran limes in the hedgerows which once formed part of the formal pattern shown on General Roy's map. A lime avenue extends from the Mains back up through the south park to the castle.


The hills behind Balnagown provide a thickly forested backdrop to the parks. The policy woodlands are of birch, beech and sycamore, with more exotic species planted in the parks. There are many self-seeded, naturalised areas of woodlands dating to the period when the estate was left unmanaged for many years.

Water Features

To the southeast of the castle in the valley of the Balnagown River is the terraced, Italian Garden laid out in 1847 by the Holyrood Palace Head Gardener under the direction of Lady Mary Fitzgerald Ross. The basic structure of the garden remains today with little flights of stone steps descending the terraces and with an Italian well head and a central pond and fountain which has been planted up as a flowerbed. Old photographs show rose treillage along both main areas of the garden leading to the central fountain with small topiaried hedges cut into very detailed shapes. There are larger specimen trees of monkey puzzles in this garden and rows of Irish Yews. There is a small artificial cascade in the river, and at the southeast end of the garden the path curves under the sandstone cliffs (on which were carved Sir Charles' initials in 1847) to a small pond, fed directly from the river. The pond has an island on which shrub plants have been planted, and it provides an attractive feature, particularly from the higher path above. A small summerhouse above the Italian Garden is now in use as a garage.

The Gardens

To the south and east of the castle, an area of lawns and flowerbeds has been fenced off from the deer park. This garden was restored and redesigned from the 1970s and replanted with roses and herbaceous plants. The strictly Victorian-style of rose-beds has been softened and the shape of the beds made less formal. There are several fine trees remaining in this part of the garden, which is protected by a cypress hedge, including a weeping ash. A new shrub border has been planted in the last five years, and the aim is to provide colour from spring to autumn within this garden. A wellhead is situated to the south of the castle, and there are also some attractive urns.

Walled Gardens

The walled garden is an unusual semi-circular shape. Historic map evidence allows us to date it to after 1808, as an estate survey plan made in that year shows no garden at this location (information courtesy of Dingwall 2016). A newly discovered improvement plan of the garden by the garden designer, John Hay, dated to 1814, suggests that the garden walls may have been built by this date. There is no evidence to suggest that Hay's interior scheme was ever executed, and the precise nature and extent of Hay's involvement at Balnagown remains unknown (ibid.)

There is a glasshouse in the curve of the west wall and a gardener's cottage adjoining the south wall. The garden is kept up as a traditional kitchen garden with fruit, vegetables and cut flowers being grown in the garden and with pot plants grown in the glasshouse. There is also a fine herbaceous border along the east wall.





Ordnance Survey (Surveyed 1872, Published 1880), 1st Edition Ordnance Survey Map, Ross and Cromarty, 25 Inches to the Mile, London, Ordnance Survey.

Printed Sources

John Adam SRO ED 129/7/7 (unseen)

Alexander Walkington & Elaine Henderson, A Short History, Photo Precision 1980

Nigel Tranter, The Fortified House in Scotland 1970

W. MacGill, Rosshire and Scotland p.193-4

Glasgow Herald, March 5th 1985

A.A. Tait, 1980, p.97



NMRS, Photographs

Other sources

Further information courtesy of Christopher Dingwall, 2016

About the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes

Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for designating sites and places at the national level. These designations are Scheduled monuments, Listed buildings, Inventory of gardens and designed landscapes and Inventory of historic battlefields.

We make recommendations to the Scottish Government about historic marine protected areas, and the Scottish Ministers decide whether to designate.

The inventory is a list of Scotland's most important gardens and designed landscapes. We maintain the inventory under the terms of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

We add sites of national importance to the inventory using the selection guidance published in Designation Policy and Selection Guidance (2019)

The information in the inventory record gives an indication of the national importance of the site(s). It is not a definitive account or a complete description of the site(s). The format of records has changed over time. Earlier records may be brief and some information will not have been recorded.

Enquiries about development proposals, such as those requiring planning permission, on or around inventory sites should be made to the planning authority. The planning authority is the main point of contact for all applications of this type.

Find out more about the inventory of gardens and designed landscapes and our other designations at You can contact us on 0131 668 8914 or at


There are no images available for this record, you may want to check Canmore for images relating to BALNAGOWN CASTLE

There are no images available for this record.

Search Canmore

Printed: 30/05/2024 04:12