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Issue 91 - Contemporary Gothic in a Highland landscape

Scotland Magazine Issue 91
February 2017


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Contemporary Gothic in a Highland landscape

Charles Douglas looks in on Pitlochry's Fonab Castle

While on holiday in Scotland with his wife Joanne, Midlands-based entrepreneur Jed Clark saw the notice that Fonab Castle was for sale and remarked: “That's the castle on the old Sandeman port label!” Almost on the spot, the couple decided to buy the instantly recognizable, iconic property that sits on the outskirts of the Perthshire town of Pitlochry. But we're getting ahead of ourselves; the story really begins a few centuries earlier. The Sandeman family of Scotland emerged in Perth during the 17th Century, with one of their number subsequently owning a bleachfield at Luncarty. In 1790, George Sandeman, taking his ambitions to London, bought a wine cellar with a £300 loan and started trading from Tom's Coffee House in Convent Garden.

By the early 19th Century, George G. Sandeman Sons & Co Ltd had become well established as wine shippers and cotton merchants. Amusingly, its founder was known in the offices as ‘Old Cauliflower’ for his white wig. Having begun by importing wines from the Iberian peninsula, notably port and sherry, the company later expanded its interests into insurance and also the export of British linen and cotton goods to the West Indies, Central America and Mexico.

The Sandeman brand was registered in 1877, making it one of the oldest in the world, and enjoyed great success. So much so, in 1979 the company was sold to the Canadian drinks corporation Seagram Company Ltd.

Meanwhile, by virtue of their entrepreneurial flair the wider Sandeman family prospered and its various scions served with distinction in the British Army and Navy. The Sandemans had a family home in Wiltshire, but in 1890, having served with the 3rd Black Watch, Lieutenant Colonel George Glas Sandeman, George's grandson, purchased the Port-na-Craig estate on the River Tummel and commissioned the architect Andrew Heiton of Perth to create a romantic Gothic mansion. Designed after the manner of the master of the genre, William Burn (1789-1870), the castle sits among the woods on the shore of Loch Faskally. Here the Colonel could indulge his favourite country pursuits — he even installed a winter curling pond — and play the role of the traditional Highland laird.

Fabricated from russet-red Dumfriesshire sandstone, there emerged a timeless four-storey, fantastical family home. The name Fonab, which was taken from an earlier house, originates from a Gaelic phrase meaning ‘land of the abbot’ — the area having belonged to the monks of Coupar Angus Abbey in the 12th Century. Such was the status of the old house that, in 1822, Neil Gow Jnr, grandson of the celebrated Perthshire fiddler Niel Gow (1727-1807), composed a tune in its honour.

In 1905, the house and estate passed to the Colonel's son, Captain George A. C. Sandeman, who 10 years later was killed fighting on the Western Front during WWI. Ownership next passed to a cousin and, until 1918, the castle served as a British Red Cross auxiliary hospital. The Sandeman family thereafter occupied the castle until 1946 when it was sold to become the headquarters of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board and was known as Port-na-Craig House.

Although Category B Listed from 1971, the castle was abandoned and lay empty in such a state of neglect that it was placed on the Buildings at Risk Register, while the estate was much reduced through sale of land and the flooding of Loch Faskally to form a reservoir. Also of note is the adjacent six-acre plot that forms the Scottish Plant Hunter's Garden, known as the Explorers' Garden, which was created by Pitlochry Festival Theatre in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh in 2003. Intended as a Highland Botanic Garden, its purpose is to celebrate local flora and exotic species introduced from abroad by generations of Scotland's greatest botanists and plant collectors.

“I bought Fonab on a whim,” admits Jed Clark. For 10 years he and Joanne mused over what they might do with it until the time came and they needed a location for their daughter's wedding. It was perfect for such an event. Renovated entirely for the occasion, it has since been lavishly redecorated throughout with some of the rooms made into suites, and an extension added. The Clark family deserves the highest accolade for their imaginative investment and vision in transforming and enlarging a Victorian fantasy into a grand luxury Highland resort.

With its imposing gates situated on the A9 road as it sweeps north past Pitlochry towards Inverness, Fonab's superb location overlooking Loch Faskally, with a distance view of Ben Vrackie, is a key attraction. Further, there is easy access to walk down to the town of Pitlochry, inspect the River Tummel Fish Ladder, explore nearby woodland paths, and visit the world-renowned Pitlochry Festival Theatre, which is next door.

Today, Fonab’s interiors are designed with fashionable flair in soft heather green and purple; leather, tweed and velvet are also incorporated in order to reflect the forested hills seen through the picture windows all around. The perfect place to relax while enjoying morning coffee or afternoon tea, in the evenings guests can indulge themselves in cocktails and the specialty choice of gins and whiskies. From Wednesday to Saturday, the award-winning Sandeman Restaurant offers both five and eight-course gourmet menus.

The 26 bedrooms and suites within the castle, and in the adjoining Woodland Wing, vary in size and outlook, but all are decorated with gorgeous wallpapers. Indeed, interior design is a strong suit at Fonab as it was managed by Joanne Clark and her daughter. In close proximity to the castle grounds are golf courses and various opportunities to take part in country sports such as fishing, river rafting, shooting and wildlife safaris — there’s something nearby for all the family. Fonab Castle has come a long way since being built on the proceeds of Portuguese fortified wine. Today it remains a hidden gem of a place that, after a magical transformation, has become a shining jewel in Perthshire’s crown and a wonderfully compelling destination for visitors to the region.

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