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Issue 4 - A phoenix from the ashes

Scotland Magazine Issue 4
September 2002


This article is 16 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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A phoenix from the ashes

Roddy Martine pays a visit to the newly renovated Fenton Tower, a castle given a new lease of life

The rich, flat farming land of East Lothian encroaches upon all sides, the surrounding grassland literally swaying in the wind that sweeps across it. To the far distant north is Edinburgh; to the south, Dunbar and Berwick upon Tweed. To the west is the market town of Haddington, and to the east, the North Sea. Strategically, Fenton Tower could not be better placed, but after all, this is what it was built for.

One of the countless small 15th century peel towers and L-shaped keeps that you find dotted all over the Scottish Borders, Fenton may not have had a distinguished career as castles go, but it has certainly had an interesting one.

According to Dr Alison Sheridan of the National Museums of Scotland, there was a settlement here 4000 years ago and a small fortification was built by the Anglo-Norman De Vaux family in the 12th century, probably made of wood and later stone. The present tower was constructed in the late 15th century, possibly by Patrick Whytelaw, a son of the forfeited Lord Ruthven of Gowrie Conspiracy fame, and subsequently lived in by Sir John and Lady Carmichael. Sir John was Warden of
Scotland's Middle March, with duties that included the policing of the Scottish Border. In 1591, King James VI sought refuge at Fenton Tower from the rebel army of the Fifth Earl of Bothwell.

Sir John was killed in a skirmish at Carter Bar in 1600, and three years later the Tower was gifted by the King to Sir Thomas
Erskine, who later became Viscount Fentoun and eventually Earl of Kellie. Not much is known of its history from this period, but if would appear to have been used as a well fortified retreat throughout the turbulent passage of Scotland's history.
By 1631, Fenton Tower had passed to Sir John Maxwell of Innerwick who defended it against Oliver Cromwell when his Republican forces swept into Scotland in 1650. In 1663, the land and tower were acquired by Sir John Nisbett, with whose family they remained until they passed to the Simpson Family in the 20th century.

And it was in 1998 that Ian Simpson, farmer and landowner, and his childhood friend John Macaskill, a New York-based banker who grew up in Edinburgh, had the inspiration to restore the Tower, which by then had become nothing more than a picturesque ruin. John remembered it well from the carefree days of his boyhood and had always longed to see it brought back to its former glory. Working as Managing Director at Chase Manhattan Bank until 1999, then launching his own private investment management business, he began to see its potential as a private guest house. When he put the proposition to Ian, both agreed that Fenton Tower had an exciting future.

Thereafter, with the permission and guidance of Historic Scotland, and under the supervision of award-winning Edinburgh-based architect Nicholas Groves-Raines, it has now been transformed into a comfortable modern residence specifically intended for up to 11 guests coming to East Lothian to play golf or simply in search of the tranquillity of the surrounding landscape. If only Historic Scotland could encourage similar
initiatives. There are far too many derelict properties throughout Scotland that are kept as they are for their historic interest. How much more appealing they would be if they were brought back to life and lived in again.

Moreover, the excavations themselves can throw up some fascinating discoveries. Close to Fenton, for example, are two early Bronze Age burial cists, and there is an early Christian cemetery with a mediaeval chapel on the summit of the hill. The nearby village of Kingston was a thriving agricultural village with two smithies and a roadside inn and there was a large windmill on Kingston Farm. On the hill here there is also a natural cavity in the rock which goes by the name of "Katie Whiskie." If you stand in it and apply your ear to its opening, the sound of roaring surf from the sea can be heard, similar to the effect achieved with a sea shell. Whether or not there is a secret passage connecting the hill to the coast has never been ascertained.

However, during World War Two, this stretch of the East Lothian coastline was considered particularly vulnerable to attack from the sea, and there are many traces of defences in the area. Those interested in aviation history can visit the excellent Museum of Flight at East Fortune.

Today, Fenton Tower contains four luxurious bedrooms with en suite facilities (and some amazing free-standing bath and shower units, including one made of copper), a vaulted dining room with tartan-backed chairs, a garret sitting room, panelled library, and the traditional great hall with its 8ft wide log-burning fireplace and double-heighted beamed ceiling on the first floor. Underfloor heating has been installed throughout, and every detail of the interiors has been personally chosen by Claire Fortune of the interior design consultancy Phoenix Design Associates, based in Dumfries.

There are 20 acres of grounds, a small lochan, and a helicoptor pad has been installed. Wayne Moran, the personable young Manager, already has 14 years of experience in the luxury hotel business, having come from the prestigious
Greywalls Hotel in Gullane. His expertise also lies in fine wines, as well as having an intimate knowledge of the superb local golf courses. There are more than 100 within 20 to 30 miles, including Muirfield which hosted the 2002 British Open, so anybody staying at Fenton Tower can be assured of the very best advice. However, remember that this is not an hotel. For the duration of their stay, guests are expected to treat it as their very own private home.

"This is a special place," says Wayne. "Fenton Tower has a welcoming, comfortable feel about it you might not expect from an old building, but I suspect that this is because a lot of love has now been lavished on it."