Historic Places

Roll out the red carpet: The best stately homes in Scotland

Expect a royal reception as Scotland’s grandest properties open their doors once more and look forward to welcoming you back

As the world locked down and we were forced to spend weeks or months at a time confined to our own homes, many of us no doubt fantasised about how much better it would be to quarantine in a Bridgerton-scale house, with a scandalously big estate all to ourselves.

The truth is, while some of Scotland’s palatial properties remain family homes, many more have been turned into heritage houses and great museums to meet the astronomical running costs, including heating, and carrying out fragile restoration projects.

Luckily, organisations such as Historic Environment Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland are there to offer a buffer to country piles that might otherwise fall to ruin or be closed off to the public.

Stately homes and castles are huge attractions to Scotland’s visitors, offering windows into the past. Without visitors, they become little more than mausoleums to past lives, gathering dust as the shutters go down and the curtains are closed. Throughout the pandemic, though locals have been able to make use of their incredible grounds for exercise, for most of the past year-and-a-half their interiors have been out of bounds. Thankfully, they are opening once again.

The National Trust for Scotland’s Chief Executive Philip Long OBE sums up the relief and excitement among custodians of these historic houses as they prepare to reopen: “Everyone at the Trust is looking forward to welcoming our visitors back to the beautiful places we protect,” he says. “Across Scotland, our teams are hard at work preparing for reopening and giving everyone a warm, and of course, safe welcome.”

Whether you can make it this year, or are planning to visit next year, here are some of the finest castles and country houses across Scotland that you should factor into your next trip.

Blair Castle

Pitlochry, Perthshire

The Drawing Room at Blair Castle, the ancestral home of Clan Murray

Though the annual Atholl Highlanders Weekend won’t take place in 2021 (it is scheduled for 28-29 May 2022), there are other reasons to visit the ancestral seat of the Duke of Atholl, the hereditary Chief of Clan Murray, before then.

The castle is currently displaying a stunning piece of Scottish history for the first time ever – a letter from Bonnie Prince Charlie to his loyal supporter and military strategist Lord George Murray, brother to the 2nd Duke of Atholl, James Murray, in which he calls Lord George an “idiot” for suggesting a war council.

Keren Guthrie, the castle archivist, says of Charlie’s letter: “So much is romanticised about Bonnie Prince Charles, but this letter catches him in a moment of utter frustration – and perhaps misguided in the belief in his own abilities. George was very loyal to the Jacobite cause and his brother William was a close confidant of the Young Pretender, so the tone is all the more remarkable.”

The letter forms part of a new long-term exhibition at the castle, A Family Divided – The Atholls and the Jacobite Risings, which includes many letters written to and from the Murray family during the 18th century, demonstrating just how conflicted they were over the Jacobites.

In another letter, Lord George Murray writes to his brother William saying that he is prepared to storm the castle and demolish the family home in the name of the cause. William, who has already been disinherited for his alliance to the Jacobites, replies saying he has no qualms about destroying family artworks in the face of public service.

As well as personal letters, the exhibition, which will run for the next few years, includes: a pardon obtained by the 1st Duke for his son George after the first Jacobite Rebellion of 1715; a compass said to have been used by Bonnie Prince Charlie; and a canon ball kept after the siege in 1746. blair-castle.co.uk

Craigievar Castle

Alford, Aberdeenshire

The turreted, fairytale castle of Craigievar. Credit: John Bracegirdle/Alamy

Visitors to the pretty-in-pink castle of Craigievar, the supposed inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle, can now walk a path that follows the castle’s 16th-century footprint for a deeper sense of what life here may have been like hundreds of years ago.

With building begun in 1576 and completed c.1626, Craigievar is one of the best-preserved examples of a Scottish Baronial tower house castle, and its exterior remains virtually unchanged. The former seat of Clan Sempill, and the Forbes’ family home for 350 years, the castle was donated to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in the 1960s.

However, a key part of the castle’s design – what is known as a Barmkin (an enclosure that would have held a courtyard) – has long been forgotten. Now, using 3D technology, archaeological studies and old plans and paintings, the NTS has been able to reveal what the lost walls and the fortifications of the castle would have looked like and visitors can now walk the defensive lines.

Dr Daniel Rhodes, NTS archaeologist, says: “To be able to take our archaeological knowledge and recreate the past for our visitors to enjoy is a fantastic opportunity. It must have been a bustling courtyard often full of livestock and people. A real comparison to today’s fairytale beauty.” nts.org.uk/visit/places/craigievar

This is an extract. Read the full feature in the July/August 2021 issue of Scotland, out on 18th June.

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Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural  beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
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