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.
The Admiral 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 became the most efficient and enterprising Highland estate manager of his day, enclosing fields, draining marshes, planting forests and, despite local scepticism, introducing fine sheep to the moorlands. There are references to John Adam working on the garden at Balnagown in c.1762 (A.A. Tait). The Admiral 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, 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. In an attempt to evade tax on the income from arms manufacturing, Ross had the Estate made a ward of the Delaware Court or, in effect, American territory. From then on he could only return to Britain on pain of imprisonment. Charles Ross died in 1942, when his last wife eventually made a Trust to keep the grounds managed and used for sporting parties.
In 1972 the present owner purchased the estate and commenced another phase of development to the castle and grounds.