Moray Was

Moray Was

Moray Was Brooding castles, ancient stone monuments, picturesque fishing villages and classical architecture. 

All provide markers in the timeline of Moray history and insight into what Moray Was.

Whilst the human history and the political and demographic landscape of Moray has changed dramatically throughout its rich history, the irrepressible spirit of the Moray people has remained a constant.

Moray Was is a whistlestop tour of that history.

Moray Was - Moray Visitor Guide

Prehistoric Moray 

Differentiating the various periods of early human history in Moray is a complex task.

As a broad overview, the ice retreat marked the end of the Paleolithic. The adoption of farming marked the end of the Mesolithic. The Neolithic period lasted until metalworking commenced.

Evidence also indicates that these events may have begun at different times in different parts of Scotland and Moray. The timelines and specific activities between the Neolithic and the later periods could be clearer.

Based on the finding of flint arrowheads, it’s reasonable to assume that prehistoric man visited or inhabited the area before about 2000 BC.

In these early times, the great ‘Atlantic Forest’ covered the lands. Extensive pine forests would have covered the hills, which changed to oak and beech woods as the altitude decreased to the lower lands that bordered the swampy coastline of the estuaries of the Spey, Findhorn, and the Lossie.

The lands of Covesea and Roseisle were separated from the mainland by a sea loch, later known as the Loch of Spynie.


From the start of the Bronze Age to about 2000 BC, there was a decline in the number of sizeable new stone buildings constructed. The archaeological records support this. At this time, the area under cultivation declined, and woodland increased, indicating a population decline.

Bronze and Iron Age metalworking was slowly introduced to Scotland and Moray from Europe over a lengthy period.

Scotland’s population and, by association, the population of Moray grew in the second millennium BC as the Bronze Age developed.

As the Iron Age emerged from the preceding Bronze Age, Celtic culture emerged in Scotland and Moray around the 1st millennium BC. The nature of the residents and their immediate predecessors remains unknown.

Dating from 800BC to AD300, the remains of substantial stone buildings from the early Iron Age have been identified throughout Scotland and particularly in the North. Whilst some sites are no more than piles of rubble, impressive towers and outbuildings remain, with the grandest being created around the 2nd century BC. The circular broch towers are the most massive constructions from this time. Often referred to as Atlantic Roundhouses, there is evidence that the early peoples of the Iron Age built Roundhouses in Moray.


Moray had been inhabited for thousands of years before the Romans arrived. However, the first reference to Moray in writing was recorded in the Greco-Roman period.

The work On the Ocean by Aristotle mentions two “very large” islands called Albion (Great Britain) and Ierne (Ireland). The Greek explorer and geographer Pytheas visited Britain between 322 and 285 BC. He may have circumnavigated the mainland, which he describes as being triangular in shape.

Originals of On the Ocean do not survive, but copies are known to have existed in the 1st century. So at the least, a rudimentary knowledge of the geography of northern Britain would have been available to Roman military intelligence.

Julius Agricola, the Roman governor of Britain, invaded Scotland in 79/80 AD. He established fortifications on a line between the rivers Clyde and Forth before invading northern Scotland in 83 AD.

Ptolemy identified 18 tribes in Scotland. Whilst contemporary accounts from the Agricolan invasion would have been his primary source of information, he likely drew on earlier sources of information.

Moray Tribes

He identifies the tribes in Moray as Vacomagi and Caledonij.

The tribes were brought together by the arrival, and the threat, of the most significant military force the ancient world had ever seen. A threat that they would face and fight under the one banner of the Caledonians.

In Moray, Ptolemy identifies a Roman military station at Tuessis. It was located near the present Gordon Castle to cover a ford on the river Tuessis (Spey). There are remains of an encampment a mile north of Castle Gordon that have every appearance of being Roman.

Ptolemy also mentions Ptoroton Stratopedon, or Castra Alta, on the Sinus Varius (Moray Firth), which, from its relative position to Tuellis, has to be present-day Burghead or Lossiemouth.

Richard of Cirencester, a monk of Westminster in the reign of Edward III, made the history of Britain the object of his studies. He drew upon Roman sources in identifying Roman stations at Banatia to the west of Ptoroton and at Varis (present-day Forres). There is a question mark as to whether Richard of Cirencester existed. That said, the sources used for the resultant De Situ Britannia are considered sound.

Roman marching camps have been identified at Auchinhove and Muiryfold. A hoard of Roman coins was found at Birnie and there is evidence of a marching camp at Longmorn.

Victory In Battle

In the summer of 84, Agricola, after sending the fleet ahead to raid the coast for supplies and establishing a series of temporary camps along the way, met Calgacus and the Caledonians in what is known as the Battle of Mons Graupius.

The Romans recorded a significant victory.

In the wake of defeat and as the winter drew in, the Caledonians must have feared for their future. However, Rome faced a more pressing military crisis on the Rhine front, and Roman politics intervened. Emperor Domitian ordered Agricola back to Rome, and the legions withdrew south.

In 208, the Roman emperor, Septimus Severus, was forced to come to Scotland to quell constant guerrilla attacks.

He also pushed as far north as Moray but failed to win any battles. On his death, his son Caracalla made a grudged peace with the tribes and retreated south.

The Caledonians could not easily beat the Romans in battle. However, they caused them enough trouble to ensure that Scotland and Moray never became part of the empire.

The Picts

The intermittent Roman presence in Moray coincided with the emergence of the Picts. Although the evidence is circumstantial, the consensus view is they are descendants of the Caledonians. The name by which the Picts called themselves is still being determined.

The Pictish relationship with Rome appears less overtly hostile than their Caledonian predecessors. There were no pitched battles, and the conflict was limited to raiding parties from both sides of the frontier until immediately before and after the Roman retreat from Britannia.

Everyone has heard of the Picts, but we know little about them. They left no written language; the only records are their carved stones. They were a warrior people led by powerful kings and lords. They became Christianised and disappeared around 900 AD.

The Vikings were responsible for wiping out many Pictish nobility in battle in 839. The Picts came under the control of Cinead (Kenneth) MacAlpin, a Gaelic king from Dál Riata (The Scotti). He brought together the different tribes into a new kingdom of Alba which eventually became Scotland.

Evidence Of The Picts

There is much-surviving evidence for the Picts in Moray.

The two crucial ecclesiastical sites at Birnie and Kinnedar, thirteen symbol stones and the six surviving bull stones from Burghead form the more visible evidence.

Sueno’s stone is by far the most impressive symbol stone and possibly a cenotaph.

In addition, there are several forts and 13 probable burial sites.

The sheer size of the fort at Burghead indicates that it was a Pictish royal site and likely to have been the Pictish capital. It is the largest fortified site in early historic Scotland.


The Vikings arrived on Scottish shores around 800 AD, first as raiders and later as settlers. In 893, the Norwegians waged a major offensive in Scotland in which “the flower of the Pictish nobility was destroyed”.

In the aftermath of this attack, Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scottish Dalriada, found an opportunity to unify the remaining Scots and Pictish peoples.

Around the same time, Halfdan broke away from the Great Norwegian Army to attack eastern Scotland. Viking raiders, based in the Orkneys, raided into the Moray Firth.

In the 11th century, the Norwegian general Helgy attacked and captured Burghead as part of the campaign to establish settlement of Moray. It is Helgy, according to Torfeus’ history of the Orkneys, that founded Helgyn or Elgyn.

In 1010 Malcolm II defeated the Norwegians in the Battle of Mortlach at Dufftown.

The men of Moray continued to stand fast against raiders until the emergence of the Kingdom of Scotland. Its 13th century expansion to the west resulted in the 1266 Treaty of Perth, and the Hebrides and Mann was yielded to the Kingdom of Scotland.

In 1468, Orkney was pledged by the King of Norway as security against the payment of his daughter’s dowry.


In 1032 Mac Bethad mac Findláich (Macbeth) was elected Mormaer of Moray.

Macbeth engaged and defeated in battle, King Duncan I at Pitgaveney (then called Bothnagowan) near Elgin in 1040.

He was crowned King of High Scotland at Scone.

Macbeth himself was killed and defeated in 1057. His stepson Lulach claimed the Scottish throne before being killed in 1058.

Moray’s last ruling ‘king’ or ‘earl’ was Óengus (Angus). Óengus was the son of the daughter of Lulach.

Óengus (Angus) sought to challenge David I of Scotland in battle but was defeated and later killed at Stracathro in Angus in 1130.


King David I was determined, after the battle of Stracathro, to subdue and ultimately destroy the Kingdom of Moray. He founded the priory at Urquart, Royal castles and burghs were established at Forres and Elgin and a castle at Auchindoun.

As part of the suppression, he granted land in Moray to Freskin, Lord of Strathbrock, a Flemish Knight and immigrant. Duffus Castle was built by Freskin in 1140.

Birnie Kirk was built the same year and was the seat of the Bishop of Moray.

The Abbey at Kinloss was founded in 1141 and confirmed by a papal bull in 1174.

The Bishops Palace at Spynie was built around 1222, and Kinneddar Castle (a second Bishops Palace) was also built at Kinnedar in 1280.

In 1224 the foundation stone for Elgin Cathedral was ceremoniously laid, and it effectively became the seat of the Bishop of Moray.

Adjacent to the castle grounds at Kinneddar stood the ancient Kirk of Kinneddar which became the second cathedral of Moray following the move of the bishop’s seat from Birnie to Elgin.

The priory at Pluscarden was founded in 1230 by King Alexander II.

King David I of Scotland’s suppression of the Kingdom of Moray in 1130 did not diminish the province’s significance in any way. Or of the problems its management caused the kings of Scotland.


Despite the end of its line of rulers, in the early 13th century, Moray continued to be referred to as a land separate from Scotia.

Moray was still recognised as a northern province, even when the realm of Scotland was recognised as stretching as far north as Caithness.

The demise of Alexander III in 1285 led to a time of Scottish revolt and punitive attacks by King Edward. Led by William Wallace and Andrew de Moray in 1297, the First War of Scottish Independence was followed by outbreaks of plague which led to a substantial depopulation of Moray in both the Burghs and the rural areas.

During the 14th century, the Loch of Spynie began to silt up, eventually denying Elgin access to its harbour at Spynie. However, the ports of Garmouth and Findhorn continued to play a significant role in the area’s economy. In 1393 the port of Garmouth became the principal port for Elgin.

Royal Authority

Royal authority over the whole of mainland Scotland was finally re-established with the crowning of King James I. The early 15th century generally saw peace return to Moray.

The 16th century was a time of exploration and the beginning of the decline of the ignorant and superstitious Middle Ages. It was also a period when the clergy were becoming more powerful and acquiring more and more land.

The Burghs continued to grow, and populations increased. The tollbooth became the centre for collecting taxes, the seat of local government, the court, the prison, and sometimes even a place of execution.


Reformation in Scotland was a complex social process. Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that, by the end of the 16th century, the established church was held in general contempt.

Before the suppression of Roman Catholicism in the middle of the 16th century, the bishops of Moray occupied a position of power in both Moray and Scotland. Most combined the functions of a politician with those of the cleric to their own personal advantage. Only sometimes in the interests of their diocese.

With few exceptions, they belonged to the great governing families of the district or the realm. Representatives of the Douglases, Inneses, Dunbars, Hepburns, and others are to be found among them. The register of the diocese also includes the name of four Stewarts who were either allied to or offshoots from the royal family of Scotland.


The change from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism in Moray passed with no friction that might have been expected in a district that owed so much material advantage to the old religion.

In 1589 James VI. seized the opportunity to convert the bishopric into a temporal lordship.

The bishopric of Moray lasted 581 years in all, and during that period, its influence upon the district had been broadly good. Moray owes almost everything from the growth of its towns and its position as a cathedral city to progress and developments made in the same period. A period that remains part of its proudest inheritance.

Scottish Civil War

From 1644–1645 a Scottish civil war was fought between Scottish Royalists – supporters of Charles I under James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose – and the Covenanters, who were allied to the English Parliament and had controlled Scotland since 1639.

The Scottish Royalists, aided by Irish troops, recorded a series of victories in 1644–45. However, they were unable to defeat the Covenanters.

The Covenanters then found themselves in direct conflict with the English Parliament. In response, they crowned Charles II at Scone and made clear their intention to place him on the thrones of England and Ireland.

Charles II landed from Holland at Garmouth at the mouth of the River Spey on 3rd July 1650. The exact spot at which the king was set ashore is now part of the village of Kingston. This was the catalyst for the Third English Civil War. Scotland and Moray were invaded and occupied by Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarian New Model Army.


On the 23rd of July 1745, Charles Edward (Bonnie Prince Charlie) landed in the Hebrides after a long and tedious voyage of over a month.

His arrival did little to shake the loyalty of Moray. A Jacobite party was formed but included few men of note within the district. The magistrates of the burghs, the ministers of religion, and all who had any stake within the county, with very few exceptions, remained faithful to the Government.

The failure of the Rising was practically assured by the Jacobite retreat from Derby (5th December 1745).

On the 18th of February, 1746, the Prince was at Castlehill, Inverness.

On 9th March 1746, the Prince marched eastward into Moray, where he spent eleven days. He stayed in Elgin most of the time and paid a short visit to Gordon Castle before returning to Inverness.


While Moray was little affected by the 18th and 19th century industrial revolution, the craze for improvement that swept through Scotland during the later 18th century was to leave its mark.

The countryside was redesigned, encompassing the fertile farmland of the coastal Laich of Moray, to the rugged highland whisky country of Strathspey. Lochs were drained, and bogs reclaimed. Fieldscapes were replanned, new crops were sown, and new farming traditions took hold.

The state of the towns continued to raise concerns. Various plans were put into action to remove the dung heaps from the main streets and generally to tidy up the towns and villages. At the same time, a Great Rebuilding was implemented and shaped to a neo-classical template.

Elgin Transformed

Elgin, in particular, was transformed, with the High Street the focus for many of its grandest buildings.

The St Giles church was built in the neo-classical style in 1825, and the Elgin Museum was built in 1842. Both symbolise the fine new buildings that made Elgin a City worth visiting.

Knockando Woolmill was listed in parish records in 1774 and still uses some machinery dating from 1870.

Johnstons of Elgin was established in 1797, and the same mill continues to produce the cashmere garments sold today.

Craigellachie Bridge was built by Thomas Telford in 1814 as part of his Highland Roads and Bridges commission.

Dr Gray’s Hospital was built in 1819 from money bequeathed by Dr Alexander Gray, who made his fortune in India.

George Alexander Anderson bequeathed the money to found The Institution for the Support of Old Age and Education of Youth in 1831.

Baxters was founded in 1868 with a grocers shop in Fochabers, and Walkers was founded in 1898 with the opening of a village bakery in Aberlour.

Gas lights were introduced in the 1830s, and the arrival of the railways did much to promote tourism and stimulate the local fishing industry. Agriculture was becoming extremely profitable with the facility to now ‘export’ produce by rail.

A wealth of information about Moray can be found at the Local Heritage Centre and Elgin Museum.