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A Brief History of Rothes Glen

The house was designed by Alexander Ross, one of Scotland’s most distinguished architects, in partnership with Charles Chree, world-famous for his distillery work, and is now listed as a building of architectural importance. At the end of World War One Rothes Glen was let annually for the grouse shooting and was rented by a number of distinguished people, including a future Prime Minister and, on another occasion, the Speaker of the House of Commons. The house was requisitioned by the Army during World War Two and required a good deal of repair so, the Dunbar-Nasmith family decided to sell. It became an extremely good hotel, being subsequently sold to two more hoteliers. Having been built to entertain a large number of guests and visitors who came to enjoy the hospitality and the delights that Moray provided, the recent acquisition by Damian and Pippa Riley-Smith, will ensure that Rothes Glen will once again fulfil that purpose.


There was a settlement at Rothes on the banks of the River Spey as early as AD600. By the 12th-century, the Rothes barony was held by a Norman Scots family who were introduced by King William The Lion to police the area. This family also held a grant of land in Pollock, Renfrewshire, from which they acquired their surname. Peter de Pollock chose his site in Morayshire well as throughout the Middle Ages it guarded an important highway. Around the year 1220, Peter de Pollock’s daughter Muriel married Walter Mortlach who was given Rothes as her dowry. Similarly, in 1286, ten years before Edward I of England had briefly occupied the castle on his invasion of the north, the barony passed to Walter and Muriel’s daughter Eva when she married Sir Norman Leslie of Garioch.


Thus the inheritance of this strategic jewel of Morayshire land passed to a family which, in the passage of time, acquired the title of Earls of Rothes. These Leslies already owned extensive properties in Garioch and Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. In the Kingdom of Fife, they purchased land which in the 20th century became the site of the New Town of Glenrothes. In the early 18th-century, however, the Glen of Rothes estate was purchased by the Grants of Elchies and, half a century later, sold on to their kinsman, the Earl of Findlater, thus passing into the extensive holdings of the earldoms of Seafield.

Painting of Rothes Glen

Rothes Castle

Captain Edward Dunbar

Above the village of Rothes are the ruins of an ancient fortalice. Dating from the mid-15th century, the picturesque remains of Rothes Castle can still be found at the top of a round and precipitously faced hill on the northwest side of the vale. The neck of land which connects its side to the fields below has been cut by a ditch and is crossed by a drawbridge. The old keep once stood several stories high and was vaulted to the top, with a number of subsidiary buildings connected.


A historical timeline tells us that Edward I of England stayed at Rothes Castle on 29 July 1296. In the 17th century, it was occupied by Covenanters and came under attack from the Marquis of Montrose and his Royalist supporters. When Rothes Castle was finally abandoned by its owners in the early 17th century, it is said to have become a refuge for tramps and outlaws which prompted the villagers to take matters into their own hands. Some of the stones of the castle were removed by local folk to facilitate the building of some of the existing houses in the village.

The Water of Life

It was the pure, uncontaminated quality of the water flowing from the surrounding hills, added to the quantity of rich farmland, which led to distilling at Rothes. This and close proximity to Garmouth, a mile inland from where the River Spey meets the Moray Firth. For three centuries up until 1700, Garmouth was a significant sea port exporting all manner of materials along the coastline. This made for the relatively straightforward distribution of the locally distilled uisge beatha. The first distillery at Rothes was Glen Grant which began production in 1840.There followed Glen Rothes in 1878, Glen Spey in 1885, Speyburn in 1897, and Caperdonich (under Glen Grant ownership) in 1897. Since 1933, a major employer in the town has been Forsyths which today fabricates for the alcoholic beverages and North Sea oil and gas industries.

The Dunbar Ship

Rothes Glen

Doig illustration, 1892

The completed Scottish Baronial mansion of Rothes Glen (known as Glen of Rothes from 1893 to 1946) is characterised by its square central tower, four stories high on the eastern side, and the corbelled and crow-stepped gables. The main entrance remains a Neo-Jacobean door piece and the vestibule opens into an imposing reception hall with a fine stone staircase. All of the reception rooms include panelled ceilings and stylish marble fireplaces. The reception hall has a fine mosaic tiled floor and the wrought iron balustrade cast in an intricate pattern on the staircase today leads up to a galleried landing.


On the first floor are now ten en-suite bedrooms, with a further four on the second floor and the tower room above. Overhead is a fine stained glass laylight. Originally there was a different layout. On the first floor and situated over the front door was the boudoir. The elegant master bedroom had a dressing room attached. Off the east and west landings were a further four bedrooms, a further bedroom suite with sitting room and another bedroom. At this level there was a further sitting room and another reception room used as a snooker room. At the back of the house was the nursery wing with a playroom, together with a housekeeper’s store; off the interconnecting inner landing, an office and kitchenette (now the first-floor lobby).


The stairs from here continued up to the second floor where there were three more bedrooms, a bedroom suite with sitting room, a further sitting room, store and the turnpike staircase to the tower room. Arranged off the inner courtyard are the stores, game larder, kennels, walk-in cold room and woodshed. Immediately surrounding the property are areas of formal lawn and rose garden, and a lochan with a small island accessed by a bridge. The property is approached by a driveway lined by a row of flowering cherry trees and which forks at the house. The main drive continues to the front of the house whilst a back drive leads past the rear to the garage and today’s staff parking area.

Rothes Glen Hotel

Glen of Rothes was leased out exclusively as a sporting estate until 1938 when, with the approach of World War Two, it was occupied briefly to house the Junior School of Gordonstoun. The house and its immediate grounds were sold in 1946 to a Mr and Mrs Sutherland who changed its name to Rothes Glen. At the time they also owned the Craigellachie Hotel (designed by Charles Doig in the 1890s). It was thereafter sold on as a privately run country house hotel to Donald and Elaine Carmichael.


Celebrity hotel guests included the actor Gordon Jackson working on a television promotion for Glenfiddich, Bernie Winters and Tommy Docherty, the Scottish football manager. Isabel Thomson, who worked at the hotel from the 1970s, remembers serving dinner to Prince Edward when he was attending Gordonstoun School. In 1996, the Rothes Glen Hotel was purchased by hoteliers Frederick Symons and Michael Mackenzie, who extensively refurbished the interiors and operated the business until 1998, when the property was bought as a private home. It changed hands two further times until in 2019 the house, now known as Rothes Glen, was sold to the publishing entrepreneur Damian Riley-Smith.

Rothes Glen hotel, c. 1970

A Speyside Whisky Hub for the 21st Century

Rothes Glen, 2023

The Riley-Smith family, founders of the John Smith Brewery of Tadcaster,
purchased the Ardfin Estate on the Isle of Jura in 1933. Tony Riley-Smith rebuilt the Jura Distillery in 1965, and made Jura House a welcome home for friends and family for many decades thereafter. Twice a year he would invite his nephew Hamish Riley-Smith, along with other family members and friends, to the island to enjoy all it has to offer. Hamish’s son, Damian Riley-Smith, started visiting the island in 1978 and it was here that whisky started energising his palate, and Scotland became a home from home.


He has regularly visited Speyside since founding Whisky Magazine in 1998 and for many years has been wanting to create a home for whisky lovers in Speyside. On 31st October 2019, his dream came true and he and his wife Pippa took ownership of Rothes Glen. Work began in earnest during 2020, with the interiors spectacularly restored and refurbished to create a comfortable retreat for lovers of Scotch Whisky and all those who simply enjoy spending time in beautiful Speyside. Located in the very heart of Scotch Whisky countryside, this remarkable survivor of the Victorian era has been returned to its original use as a luxurious home for the enjoyment, fun, laughter and entertainment of its guests.

The Ultimate Whisky experience

Rothes Glen, The Luxury Castle for Whisky Connoisseurs, offers guests the rare opportunity to experience the ultimate whisky getaway. The owner of Rothes Glen and Whisky Magazine, Damian Riley-Smith, invites whisky lovers to stay in this picture-perfect castle in the heart of Speyside to enjoy the ultimate whisky experience.

Rothes Glen, The Luxury Castle for Whisky Connoisseurs, offers guests the rare opportunity to experience the ultimate whisky getaway. The owner of Rothes Glen and Whisky Magazine, Damian Riley-Smith, invites whisky lovers to stay in this picture-perfect castle in the heart of Speyside to enjoy the ultimate whisky experience.

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