The Acheson family name dates back many centuries to a time when family history was passed down by word of mouth and not recorded by any legal documentation. They were a Sept of the Clann Gordon from the lowlands of Scotland in the area between the Firth of Forth and Hadrian's Wall. Anglo-Saxon translations differ as to the exact spelling and pronunciation of the family name but most sources agree that a common name for the Acheson's was "Sons of the Sword". Indeed it would seem they rose to prominence by their participation in the Crusades. The family crest of a double-headed black eagle suggests a connection with the Knights Templar of the Crusades.
Much of our knowledge concerning the Markethill branch of the Acheson family is derived from the Gosford archive at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. In this archive there are approximately 40,000 documents and 300 volumes mainly relating to the financial affairs of the family.
As with the monarchs that had preceded him, James I was concerned that Ireland would act as an open backdoor in the event of a Spanish or French invasion. Previous attempts to 'plant' loyal Scottish or English nobles in Ireland failed because the land grants were too large or the presence of the native Irish was too overwhelming. With the flight of the Earls of Tyrone and Tryconnell in 1607, there was no figure within the country to unite the Irish clans and the time seemed ripe for settlement.
In 1610, Henry Acheson of Edinburgh was granted 1,000 acres of land here. He constructed a bawn measuring 140 feet x 80 feet with four towers. As a condition of settlement, he brought with him nineteen Scottish families to farm the land and to form the nucleus of the community. Sir James Douglas also received 2,000 acres of land at Cloncarney but soon sold his grant to Henry Acheson, acting on behalf of his brother Archibald. Even before 1628 when Archibald's title to Henry's manor was ratified, Archibald seems to have taken control of Henry's estate sometime in 1614: letters of title granted to Archibald in 1628 over both manors seem to recognise and ratify the earlier title to him over both manors in 1614. As well as estates in Armagh, the brothers were granted estates in Cavan and Longford and probably maintained Scottish estates also, making their movements and actions difficult to pin down with any certainty in this period.
To fulfil the terms of settlement the land was first cleared of native Irish and a number of Scottish families settled within the confines of the estate to form the nucleus of a community and to till the land. Many of the inhabitants of Markethill can trace they ancestry back to these settlers. To protect these settlers Henry Acheson built a bawn of 140 feet long by 80 feet wide at Coolmalish. Archibald also constructed a bawn at Clonkearney, near the site of the present estate. In a survey of 1622 Archibald's bawn was described thus,
In addition to the fortification Archibald Acheson was in a position to raise one hundred and forty-eight men for the King's service in times of emergency. Weapons of various kinds were stored in the manor house to be distributed in case of attack. Such precautions were justified by the close proximity of the native Irish. Though removed from ownership of the land they were required by the planter settlers to work the land. But though their skills and labour could be bought their goodwill could not.
Archibald was created Baronet of Nova Scotia and continued as Secretary of State for Scotland. He married Agnes Vernor, daughter of Lord Paisley. Sir Archibald died at Letterkenny in 1634 when he was succeeded by his son Patrick. The second Baronet survived for only four years and upon his death was succeeded by his half brother George.
Sir George was married to the daughter of the Earl of Charlemont and it was during his lifetime that the estate faced its sternest challenge. Though the native Irish worked the estate on a daily basis, their anger at having been displaced for the land had never subsided. With England on the brink of civil war and the nobles in Ireland uncertain of their future, the native Irish seized their opportunity and rose in rebellion.
Markethill and the surrounding district was much affected by the rebellion of 1641. The Church at Mullabrack was damaged or destroyed and the rector murdered. The bawn on the Gosford estate was reputedly destroyed at this time and no replacement dwelling was built until the turn of the century. The Manor House when it was built was a rambling building with multiple reception rooms and bedrooms and an expansive forecourt where the Acheson ladies liked to entertain their society friends. Farm buildings in what is now the waterwheel car park surrounded the Manor House. The water to power the wheel came from an underground mill course from the ponds, which have long since been made into ornamental features. The entrance to the estate at this time was via the stone archway adjacent to the ponds.
Sir George Acheson died in 1685 to be succeeded by his only son Sir Nicholas who became MP for the County of Armagh in 1695. Sir Nicholas died in 1701 and was succeeded by his eldest son Arthur. Sir Arthur Acheson and his wife Lady Anne had five sons and two daughters but are best remembered for their association with the writer and political satirist Jonathan Swift. Swift's pen immortalised the couple in verse and prose, which caused much ill feeling and resulted in Swift's permanent departure from the Gosford Estate,
Sir Arthur Acheson died in 1748 and a memorial tablet was erected to his memory in St.John's Church of Ireland at Mullabrack,
The Second Viscount of Gosford witnessed the first Twelfth of July parade through his estate in 1796 and wrote an account of its progress to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin. Sir Arthur was elevated still higher in the peerage to the title Earl of Gosford in 1806. He died the following year leaving his estate to the care of his eldest son Archibald.
Archibald Acheson was a former Governor of Canada who had married Mary Sparrow of Worlingham Hall in Suffolk in 1805. Under their tenure of the estate the present castle was commissioned. The money to finance the venture came largely from the dowry of Lady Acheson, as did the architectural image of the building. The castle was a replacement dwelling for the Manor House, which had been destroyed by fire in 1811. As construction commenced the Earl also purchased much of the property of the Richardson family of Richill thus extending his holdings to 12,000 acres. Sadly Sir Archibald and his wife separated and she returned to England where she died in 1841. Sir Archibald sent men to England to bring her coffin back to Markethill for burial but on the homeward journey the coffin was misplaced and ended up in the midlands of England. Sir Archibald continued until 1849 when he died and was succeeded by his son Archibald.
A plaque in the Church of Ireland at Mullabrack commemorates his life,
Archibald, the Third Earl of Gosford, married Theodosia, only daughter of the tenth Earl of Meath. A confirmed bibliophile he stocked the castle library with many volumes of rare books, including a first folio of the works of Shakespeare. He died in 1864 to be succeeded by his eldest son Archibald Brabazon Sparrow. A plaque in the Church of Ireland at Mullabrack commemorates his life,
The Fourth Earl of Gosford was a member of the inner circle of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. He was Lord of the Bedchamber to the prince from 1886 to 1901 when the prince ascended the throne. Sir Archibald married Lady Louisa Montagu the former Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Alexandria and daughter of the Seventh Duke of Manchester.
The Gosford family finances were already depleted due to the construction of the castle and were further plundered by the Fourth Earl to finance the lavish lifestyle of a member of the King's inner circle. To settle a racing debt he sold the contents of the family library built up by the efforts of his ancestors. Much of the collection is now in the hands of the Pierpont Morgan Library in America.
This did little to delay the inevitable admittance that the family was bankrupt but eventually the contents of the castle were auctioned in 1921 and the family left their ancestral home. The Fourth Earl of Gosford died the following year and was succeeded by his eldest son Archibald Charles Montagu Brabazon
With no ancestral home in which to dwell this generation once again took up the sword. The Fifth Earl of Gosford served with the Coldstream Guards in South Africa at the close of the nineteenth century and was wounded twice during the First World War for which he was decorated. A plaque in Mullabrack Church of Ireland commemorated him,
His nephews also served in the Wars with distinction; Nicholas Archibald served as a Lieutenant with the Royal Navy during World War Two and was killed in battle on May 29th 1941, Michael Ernest served as a Sub-Lieutenant was killed in a flying accident on active service in 1944.
The Fifth Earl of Gosford died in 1954 and was succeeded by his eldest son Archibald Alexander. He followed his father into the military as a Royal Airforce Pilot during World War Two and was Assistant Air Attachˇ in Paris at this time. In the late 1950's he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for foreign Affairs before becoming Lord in Waiting to Her Majesty the Queen from 1958-1959. He died in 1966 to be succeeded by his son Charles David Alexander John Sparrow who became the Seventh Earl of Gosford.
The Lords and Ladies of Gosford Estate have long since been lost to the district. Their ancestral home crumbles in its solitude and the Gosford vault at Mullabrack Church of Ireland closed forever from prying eyes.
Bassett, GH, County Armagh: A Guide and Directory, 1888 (Dublin, 1888)
Bell, J, Markethill and Gosford History Trail (Markethill, 1993)
Bence-Jones, M, A Guide to Irish Country Houses (London, 1988)
Binns, J, The Miseries and Beauties of Ireland (London, 1837)
Brett, CEB, Buildings of County Armagh (Belfast, 1999)
Burke's Peerage (Various editions)
Glendinning, V, Jonathan Swift (London, 1998)
Gourley, R, Gosford Estates 1610-1876 (Belfast, 1973)
HMSO, Gosford Forest Park (Belfast, 1969)