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Issue 17 - Castles that are still alive

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Castles that are still alive

Many of Scotland's finest castles are still thriving. John Hannavy picks his favourites

While it is the romantic turreted ruin sitting on a high rock which typifies most people’s image of Scotland’s castles, many of the countries most impressive buildings have been maintained and lived in for centuries. Others, sketched and painted as romantic ruins in Victorian times, have been lovingly restored and returned to their original purpose. Some have even been given a new lease of life as hotels, giving visitors the opportunity to actually live in these magnificent buildings.

And that is where we start – at Borthwick Castle, a few miles from Edinburgh and now a luxury hotel. Indeed, over 30 Scottish castles are now operated as hotels, some of them combining absolute luxury with the opportunity to stay in some of the key buildings from Scottish history.

The austere twin towers of Borthwick Castle have dominated the local landscape since 1430. Mary Queen of Scots visited the castle in 1563, and again with the Earl of Bothwell shortly after their marriage in May 1567.

The room she is believed to have slept in is now one of the hotel’s ‘feature’ guest rooms.

A later and perhaps less welcome visitor was Oliver Cromwell in November 1650, who threatened Lord Borthwick with the words: “You have harboured such parties in your house as have basely murdered our men; if you necessitate me to nemd my cannon against you, you must expect what I doubt you will not be pleased with.” The marks of Cromwell’s cannon can still be seen on the castle’s walls. Shortly after the Civil War, Borthwick was abandoned.

What greets the visitor today, however, is rather different from that which would have greeted the Victorian traveller.

By the 19th century the castle was ruinous, and today’s castle owes much to a sensitive restoration between 1892 and the First World War. Kellie Castle near Anstruther in Fife was also an abandoned ruin for centuries.

Built in the 14th century, it was the home of the Oliphant family and was passed down through generations of the family until the early years of the 19th century.

The death in 1829 of the last in line brought about a clearance of everything out of the house, and it was, in effect, abandoned. It was used as, amongst other things, a grain store, and its condition deteriorated rapidly, until Professor James Lorimer, one of Scotland’s foremost legal authorities of the day, discovered it while on holiday in nearby Pittenweem.

He leased the property and set about its internal restoration, not as a medieval castle, but returning it largely to its late 18th century character as an elegant mansion house.

He introduced Georgian panelling into the Great Hall turning it into an elegant Drawing Room, and elsewhere restored both panelling and plaster work.

His achievement was remarkable, and his work has been continued by the National Trust for Scotland in whose care the castle now resides.
Indeed, the kitchens were fitted out, only thirty years ago, as they might have looked when Lorimer’s descendants lived there in the 1930s.

The gardens, too, were restored, reportedly using Gertrude Jekyll’s account of what they looked like in the early 1900s.

Castle Fraser in Aberdeenshire is also under the care of the National Trust for Scotland, and once again has been restored to retain the sense that families lived here for centuries, each introducing styles or adding their own little touches to reflect their own times.

Although construction of the castle probably started in the late 14th century, much of what dominates the site today dates from almost 200 years later and was added to and modified over a further hundred years.

Internally modification and adaptation reflect changing tastes throughout the castle’s five centuries – most significantly a major internal
restructuring in the 1790s.

One of the most surprising of all Scotland’s castles is Drummond Castle near Crieff in Perthshire. It is surprisingly well hidden, despite
sitting at the edge of sheer volcanic escarpment. Indeed, as a schoolboy in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I passed the castle gates on the school bus every day, and never even knew it was there!

But when you get up to the castle, and walk through the small entrance gate in the curtain wall, the view is awesome.

There, spread out on the flat plain below the rock, is an elaborate Italianate parterre based on the Scottish saltire.

The gardens were originally created in the mid 17th century, and the present layout introduced in the 1830s, complete with classical statures and obelisks – one of which is an elaborate sundial which reputedly allows the time of day to be calculated for most of the capital cities of Europe.

The original tower house dates from the closing years of the 15th century, but was in ruins after Cromwell’s army attacked it in 1641. It has been burned and rebuilt twice more since them! The adjacent mansion house dates from the late 17th century.

A few miles from the head of Loch Fyne, and overlooking the loch from its western shore, stands the wonderful Inveraray Castle, a mid eighteenth century masterpiece, originally designed by Roger Morris.

While Morris may have designed the basic structure, it is the influence of William Adam and his son John which makes Inveraray such a gem.

Work started on the huge Gothick building in 1745, replacing an ancient tower house which had been the focal point of the Clan Campbell for centuries. Architecturally it is a strange mixture of Scottish castle and French chateau, but with its imposing position, the first view of it from the bridge over the River Aray it has a magical fairy-tale quality. Inside, it is sumptuous.

The castle has had a somewhat turbulent history, having to be extensively renovated and restored after a serious fire in 1877.

It underwent a major renovation in the 1950s, and again in the mid 1970s after yet another serious fire. The nearby town of Inveraray is also well worth a visit.

What Inveraray was to the Campbells, Dunvegan Castle in the north west of Skye was to the Macleods, but whereas the Campbell castle was demolished to make way for the present day Inveraray Castle, extensive traces of the Macleod clan’s mediaeval stronghold are still discernible within the 18th century castle we see today at the head of Dunvegan Loch.

The austere castle buildings are sited on a bleak rocky headland, and with Skye’s tendency to submit visitors to weather from all four seasons in a single day, it is quite easy to imagine just how harsh life here must have been six or seven hundred years ago. The 14th century tower house or keep still dominates the site, albeit extensively modified in the 1790s.

Dunvegan Castle today has a real sense of having been lived in for centuries, although the predominant feel is of the 18th century to the present day. A serious fire in the south wing in the 1930s required major reconstruction, and modifications and additions since then reflect the castle’s status as the pre-eminent tourist attraction on Skye.

Somewhere beneath the foundations of Robert Adam’s mansion, the foundations of the mediaeval Culzean Castle may still lie concealed. The house which bears the name today is a castle by inheritance rather than either purpose or architecture. This is an 18th century country house in the finest tradition.

In 1946, a flat in the top floor of Culzean Castle was converted into a flat for the personal use of Dwight D Eisenhower, as a mark of Scotland’s appreciation for his role as Supreme Commander of the allied forces during the Second World War. Twenty years later, the west wing was converted into apartments to let. So for a lucky few, experiencing castle life has become more than just a day visit.