The Burnetts who went to the north east of Scotland did so after having been granted land there by the king, Robert the Bruce, for having supported him against Edward I of England in the War for Scottish Independence. In fact, the chief of this branch of the family, Alexander Burnard (Burnett) became an able and valued supporter of the Bruce and was rewarded with grants of part of the Royal Forest of Drum as well as neighbouring lands which had been forfeited by the Comyns.
As his badge of office as Royal Forester of Drum, Alexander was given the Horn of Leys.
On the lands to the north of the village of Banchory, there lay a stretch of shallow water known as the Loch of Banchory or the Loch of Leys. In the center of the loch was a crannog (artificial island), which had been a place of refuge for centuries. For the first 200 years of the Burnetts’ residence in the area, this crannog provided the site for the family’s principal stronghold. The loch is now drained and nothing remains but the island mound. The crannog may be deserted but the memory of the Burnetts’ first home is kept alive in the traditional Scots territorial designation of the head of the family as “Burnett of Leys”.
The crannog provided the Burnetts with security, and since the family was not politically ambitious, life was peaceful on the Loch of Leys. The family spent most of its time in the pursuit of wealth and land, through judicious marriages and friendly relations with the church, in particular the Abbey of Arbroath, whose land covered much of the territory of Kincardineshire adjoining the Burnett estates. The Burnetts did not seem to have played much of a role in national affairs, preferring to keep their estates (and their lives) in hand.
However, the 4th Laird, Robert, became Deputy Sheriff of Kincardineshire and is believed to have fought for the King against the island rebels in one of the bloodiest and most savage encounters in Scottish history (The Battle of Harlaw Hill in July 1411). His son, Alexander, was rewarded with Banchory as a free barony by fighting for James I (who was murdered three months later).
In 1521 a marriage was arranged between the 9th Laird, another Alexander, and Lady Janet Hamilton, the natural daughter of Robert Hamilton, Seigneur d’Aubigny. As her dowry Janet brought a substantial amount of church lands. In later years, much land was added to Janet’s dowry through arranged marriages and outright gifts. In 1560 Alexander and Janet decided that a better home was needed for their family, so the building of Crathes Castle began (taking 40 years). In 1563 Alexander fought for Mary, Queen of Scots, at the Battle of Corrichie.
Alexander’s son and grandson both died in quick succession after him, so his great-grandson, also named Alexander, succeeded to the lands and was finally able to complete Crathes Castle. This Alexander was a most benevolent man who built a new church in Banchory and who gave much money to the poor. The next Laird, Thomas, succeeded his father in 1619 and was knighted by James VI. Charles I later made him a Baronet of Nova Scotia. Thomas’ son had died as a child, so his grandson, another Alexander, was his successor. This Alexander was one of the few Burnett “black sheep”. He was described at the age of sixteen as being “dissolute and naughty” and had managed to father at least 6 children by the time of his death at age 26.
The 3rd Baronet, Sir Thomas, who with his wife Margaret produced 21 children in 22 years, was a member of the Scottish Parliament and after the Act of Union with England in 1707 was a member of the Westminster Parliament as well. Alexander, the 14th Laird and 4th Baronet, was mainly famous for refusing to join either of the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745. (An interesting sidebar in regards to the “Forty-Five” is that Prince Charles Edward Stuart [Bonnie Prince Charlie] was sometimes referred to in cipher as “Mr. Burnett” during his time in Scotland). About 1746, a splinter of rock killed the 4th Baronet’s son during the draining of the Loch of Leys. After that tragedy, Alexander developed a “boodie fear of beasties”. In 1759, the 5th Baronet died unmarried and a seven-year battle between two rival Burnett cousins ensued. In the end, Thomas Burnett of Criggie won the legal battle for the title and Crathes Castle. His son Robert fought against the “rebels” in the American Revolutionary War and later became 7th Baronet. Three of Robert’s sons succeeded to the title and all three died unmarried. Meanwhile, the heir to the title and the castle, Sir Robert, had immigrated to California where he was an extremely successful rancher. (He once owned half of the site of what was to become the city of Los Angeles). After marrying a New York woman, he returned to Crathes to become 11th Baronet. His son James had preceded him in death, so Sir Robert’s brother, Colonel Thomas, succeeded as 12th Baronet.
Colonel Thomas’ son Major General Sir James Lauderdale Gilbert Burnett of Leys became the 13th Baronet and was at one time the Commander of the Gordon Highlanders Regiment of the British Army. He was the last in residence at Crathes Castle. The 13th Baronet’s two sons, Alexander and Roger, both died as young men, so the estate passed through his daughter Elizabeth to her son James Cecil, who was obliged to change his surname to Burnett in order to succeed to the estate. The title of Baronet passes only through the male line, so the heir to the Baronetcy of Burnett of Leys is Alexander William Burnett Ramsay, who lives in Australia.
In 1952, the 13th Baronet gave Crathes Castle and a portion of the estate to the Scottish people, where it remains under the care of the National Trust for Scotland. The current Laird, James Comyn Amherst Burnett of Leys and his family reside in the House of Crathes, a short distance from the Castle. His official title is “Representer of the House and Chief of the Name of Burnett of Leys”