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Issue 52 - Pretty in pink

Scotland Magazine Issue 52
August 2010

 

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Pretty in pink

Charles Douglas visits Craigievar Castle in Aberdeenshire.

Traditionally bull’s blood was used as a coagulant in the harling of old Scottish buildings and thus, although obviously not having used the original ingredient, the £500,000 restoration of Craigievar Castle, in Aberdeenshire, has restored this most romantic of northern Scottish fortresses to its original pinkish hew.

And thus, with its original circular tower and baronial turrets, Craigievar remains one of the most unspoiled and intact of surviving Scottish castles. Not without reason was the film-maker Walt Disney inspired after seeing photographs of this four hundred year-old fairytale dwelling amid the undulating hillsides of the north-east of Scotland. You will be too.

Having been conceived as a standard fortified house, the property, comprising not much more than two storeys, was acquired in 1610 from John Mortymer, who had fallen on hard times, by William Forbes, the younger brother of Patrick Forbes, Bishop of Aberdeen and Laird of Corse. By then, William had made a substantial fortune “merchandzing in Dantzick”, and was undoubtedly a man of taste, building upwards to create seven floors and introducing fashionable balustrades and cupolas into his acquisition.

His ideas can be clearly seen in the contrast between the upper and lower storeys with projections on the north and east sides, and circular stair turrets on the north west corner and west side, which, corbelled out into squares, seemingly defy gravity. However, there is only one single entrance into the main block and this leads to the first floor. Defence and protection were still paramount in the medieval mind when the work began.

The upper floors of Craigievar are reached by two staircases from the S-plan hall which incorporates, in the opinion of experts, the finest room in Scotland. Lined throughout in oak, there are galleries at each end, and the soaring barrel vault is richly decorated in plasterwork. A secret staircase enabled the Laird to escape from this room to the top of the Tower, no doubt very useful when entertaining became too much for him. At the recent re-opening ceremony performed by the Prince of Wales (known as Duke of Rothesay in Scotland), His Royal Highness enquired about the plumbing. “Not so good upstairs,” he was told.

The Aberdeenshire pedigree of the scions of the Forbes family is long and distinguished, with Patrick Forbes of Corse having been Armour-Bearer to James III of Scotland. In 1630, the son of Sir William Forbes, the builder of Craigevar, was created a baronet. In the Tower’s Blue Room, there is said to dwell the ghost of a member of the neighbouring Gordon family who at the time of the Civil War, is alleged to have been pushed from the window by “Red” Sir John Forbes, the third Laird. At night, the sound of a fiddle being played nearby has been heard echoing through the rooms.

Two centuries later, through his grandparent’s marriage, the eighth baronet, another Sir William Forbes, inherited the Sempill peerage from his cousin, becoming the eighteenth Lord Sempill, and thereupon the family’s surname was changed to Forbes-Sempill.

The Sempill family, another great patrician line, hail from Renfrewshire. As followers of Robert the Bruce in the early fourteenth century, they were well rewarded for their troubles with lands around Largs and in East Lothian. In 1488, Sir Thomas Sempill was killed at the Battle of Sauchieburn. His son John was created Lord Sempill during the reign of King James IV, and thereafter, fiercely loyal to the Scottish Crown, family members died at the battles of Flodden Moor and Pinkie Cleuch. During the Civil War of the seventeenth century they again supported the Royalist Cause, but thereafter, having at some point allied themselves with the Protestant Faith, fought with the British Government against the Jacobite army at the Battle of Culloden.

Representing a long line of politicians and soldiers, and marrying into virtually all of the great families of the north of Scotland, the Forbes-Sempill family continued to reside at Craigievar Castle for 350 years until 1963 when, for reasons brought on by death duty obligations and inheritance, the castle and estate, with 200 acres of adjoining farmland and woodland, were sold to a consortium which gifted it to the National Trust for Scotland. And what a prize!

A collection of family furniture remains and, with the recent refurbishment, all of the artefacts, paintings and family portraits have been re-hung as they were originally displayed. “This is an enchanted place,” I overheard somebody say on my last visit.

Certainly, it feels that way. In the grounds, there is a marked pathway which takes visitors through open woodland.

Although the appeal is perennial, I have been here in early summer when the surroundings are transformed into a carpet of bluebells. I have rarely seen anything so beautiful.