Culzean Castle: Eisenhower and the castle - Scotland Magazine
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Culzean Castle: Eisenhower and the castle

Our writer explores the special relationship between a US President and Culzean Castle Words by Janice Hopper Eisenhower at Culzean Castle As the Allies celebrated VE Day in May 1945, one…

Our writer explores the special relationship between a US President and Culzean Castle

Words by Janice Hopper

Eisenhower at Culzean Castle

As the Allies celebrated VE Day in May 1945, one Scottish aristocrat, the 5th Marquess of Ailsa, showed his gratitude to one of the military’s most renowned leaders in remarkable fashion. 

The Marquess and his family, the Kennedys, gifted their home and family seat, the dramatic Culzean Castle on the west coast of Scotland, to the National Trust for Scotland in 1945, with one specific stipulation. The top floor of this handsome property had been offered by the family to General Dwight Eisenhower for his personal use for the duration of his lifetime, as recognition of and thanks from the people of Scotland for Eisenhower’s role in the Second World War. The National Trust for Scotland agreed to embrace the stewardship and preservation of Culzean Castle for the nation, and to facilitate Eisenhower’s tenure.

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General Eisenhower at Culzean Castle in 1951. Credit: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy

In its annual report in 1945, the National Trust for Scotland wrote: “In honouring this great soldier, the Trust hope that they will be doing something towards increasing the feelings of friendship and understanding between ourselves and the people of America.”

The British Prime Minster, Clement Attlee, commented on the gift that bonded Scotland with a key US ally, stating: “On behalf of His Majesty’s Government, I should like to thank sincerely the Council of the Scottish National Trust for their generous action, which well expressed the gratitude of Scotland to a great soldier and a true friend.”

The General himself warmly accepted this rather unusual Scottish gift, making his first visit to his new ‘holiday home’ in October 1946 where he was welcomed in person by the Marquess and Marchioness of Ailsa. 

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An aerial view of Culzean, showing its clifftop location. Credit: Iain Masterton / Alamy.

Archive footage reveals Dwight and his son John touring the grounds, paying particular attention to old military artefacts, including impressive cannons cast in 1813 during the Napoleonic Wars. Eisenhower and his family no doubt relaxed within the confines of their impressive suite of rooms, comprising six bedrooms and a vast oval private drawing room with five large windows offering sweeping views over the water. 

The family was also notably busy with engagements that ranged from attending a christening at St Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle and laying a wreath of poppies during a remembrance service at the Scottish American Memorial, to planting a commemorative oak tree on the grounds of Lord Rosebery’s estate near the Firth of Forth.

The American family was warmly welcomed by local people: Eisenhower received the Freedom of the Burgh from the townspeople of nearby Maybole and he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh at a glamorous ceremony in the city’s Usher Hall, before continuing up to Balmoral to visit King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. 

Eisenhower, his wife Mamie and their son John at Culzean in 1946, with the 5th Marquess of Aisla, the Earl of Wemyss, the Dowager Marchioness of Aisla, and the Marchioness of Aisla. Credit: National Trust for Scotland

In total, Eisenhower visited Culzean Castle on four occasions, including once while he was President, in 1959, and it’s said he referred to the property as his ‘Scottish White House’. His last visit, in 1962, was his longest and arguably his most relaxed. By this time, he’d retired from office and had more free time – it’s said he passed his days painting, walking in the woods and by the shoreline, and playing golf on the renowned local courses.

Culzean Castle wasn’t simply a personal escape for the US Supreme Commander, it was also a new playground for the people of Scotland. 

Through the National Trust for Scotland’s stewardship, Culzean Castle opened to the public on 1 May 1947 and attracted nearly 6000 visitors in its first year. Within two years the visitor numbers had rocketed to 40,000. 

People flocked to see the elegant 18th-century Robert Adam creation, splendidly perched on an Ayrshire clifftop with vistas over to Ailsa Craig. Today, visitors still admire the castle’s dramatic Oval Staircase – a sweeping architectural centrepiece and a high point of Adam’s design. 

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The Oval Staircase is an architectural feat by Robert Adam. Credit: Mike Bolam

Culzean Castle’s armoury is the largest of its kind, bristling with British military flintlock pistols, and second in size only to that of the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. The Round Drawing Room offers panoramic views over the Firth of Clyde, while the castle kitchen sparkles with the gleam of an extensive array of polished copper utensils. 

The grounds are equally impressive and include sandy beaches with a network of mysterious caves, a beautifully kept walled garden, a deer park, swan pond, icehouse, formal gardens, mature palm trees, fruitful glasshouses, and playgrounds for children.

The former Home Farm now dishes up meals and refreshments, and in high season the Aviary Ice Cream Parlour offers sweet treats. Two art galleries, a cosy second-hand bookshop, a gift shop, and self-catering properties on the estate make it a well thought out visitor attraction, which is best appreciated on the long approach, designed by Robert Adam as a slow reveal, with the castle framed through handsome archways. 

The story of Eisenhower is, of course, still celebrated at Culzean Castle and visitors can see a chair used by the former president positioned within a replica office, while a timeline displayed on the wall charts his visits. 

After the great man’s passing, the apartment wasn’t preserved in any kind of ‘time capsule’ fashion. Initially the rooms were maintained as a guest house for other distinguished visitors and after a major 2011 refurbishment operated as a boutique hotel until 2020 and since then it has been available on an exclusive-use basis only.

The Round Drawing Room. Credit: Angus Bremner

Lovely details within the apartment that honour the former ‘tenant’, include a black ceramic Wedgwood bust of the President, a bronze sculpture of Eisenhower wearing U.S. army dress uniform (on loan from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library/Museum in Abilene, Kansas), a copy of the 1948 portrait of General Eisenhower in army uniform painted by Thomas E. Stephens, and four Castleton china plates commemorating the first anniversary of President Eisenhower in the White House on 14th October 1953. 

To this day, anyone who uses the castle lift is using the original 1920s elevator that Eisenhower and his family would have used to reach the top floor.

Today, though, the apartment is facing a new chapter. It is currently closed as the National Trust for Scotland reimagines its future, but the NTS says its team is always keen to share the story of Eisenhower and his memorable time spent at Culzean Castle with visitors.

Just like a presidential term, a building is prone to change, although its history remains. Ultimately Eisenhower’s message of friendship and international unity, spoken in 1946 after one of the bloodiest wars the west has ever faced, remains as important as ever, transcending mere bricks and mortar.

“World neighbourliness must be achieved, else we will, in a twinkling, travel a backward route over mankind’s long and laborious progress from his ancient caves to the present,” he said, “We have come far along the road to a cooperative world, we must not turn back now.”

Go to to plan your visit. 

Read the full article in the March/April 2024 issue. Available to buy from Friday 16 February here. 

Read more from Scotland Magazine:

The Scottish Isles

The East Highlands

The Stewarts: Founding the Stewart dynasty



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