Away with the fairies
BILL BAIN AND FAMILY – INCLUDING A LITTLE PRINCESS – ENJOY THE MAGICAL SPLENDOUR OF KNOCK CASTLE, CRIEFF
ASTORM tears through the town of Crieff, near Biblical in its unrelenting ferocity. The submerged streets are abandoned, except for one striking absurdity – a solitary clown holding balloons, the upturned scarlet slash on his painted face in defiance of the overcast gloom.
So I did what any parent would do – I marched my three-year-old towards him in anticipation of a freebie. I haven’t seen the latest big-screen incarnation of Stephen King’s coulrophobia classic, It, but I have read the book – so I’m aware that shape-shifting monsters can only be seen by children. This was clearly just a guy with an unenviable job.
Robyn clung tightly to my leg as the clown’s shaking, freezing hands formed a balloon animal he alleged was a dog, but it certainly wasn’t a pedigree breed. I don’t know if Crieff is a hotbed of surrealism, but this was clearly a wellendowed giraffe with an Elvis quiff.
Giraffe-dog Elvis in hand, we sought refuge in the cosy confines of the town’s Rhubarb Cafe, and learned from the friendly staff that the clown’s ominous presence was actually part of a “fun day” long in the planning.
We weren’t here for the myriad attractions of this pretty market town, known mainly for its whisky and cattle droving history. We were here because I’d made a promise to my daughter: that she could be a princess. With her own castle. So, unable to afford Disneyland, the turreted, gothic splendour of Knock Castle – just an hour’s drive from Glasgow – would have to suffice.
Unlike the garish tackiness of the Magical Kingdom, Knock Castle and Spa is tastefully tucked away within a well-todo suburban street a few minutes’ drive from Crieff town centre. It was a pleasant surprise that this 30-bedroom grand house also boasts three acres of rolling countryside with magnificent views over the Trossachs.
Originally built in 1885, the house was sympathetically restored a decade ago by new owners the Henderson family, and today it offers all the latest mod cons while retaining its indulgent air of Victorian decadence. We appreciated the sky-high ceilings, intricate cornicing and eccentric wee gothic touches speckled all over, which will delight and surprise guests who keep their eyes open for them. The grand piano and ornate chandeliers in the entrance hallway would certainly have met Liberace’s approval – and I mean that as a compliment.
Expectations of a similarly luxuriant room were not only met but far exceeded by the Lady MacBrayne suite, named after the shipping magnate who built Knock as her family home. I’m sure the good lady herself would have been well-acquainted with the comforts of the queen-size four-poster bed – and I can certainly picture her gazing contentedly out from the room’s grand bay window, surveying her slice of the kingdom and contemplating her good fortune – in both senses.
Before our cases had hit the floor, Robyn had changed into her Disney Princess dress and was whacking my behind with a sparkly plastic wand. A character actor of the method school, she had fully embraced the role, demanding in an American accent that I serve her one of the home-made chocolates that had been left for us. That was fine, because I had my eyes on the bottle of Prosecco chilling in the ice bucket. Great parenting demands compromise.
As we traipsed down the castle’s spacious spiralling staircase, a jovial Robyn raced ahead then doubled back to inform my partner Lynsey and I that a chicken had laid a giant egg in the corridor ahead. Children tend to exaggerate, but Robyn’s story did contain elements of truth – there was indeed a 15ft egg in the corridor just beyond reception, but it certainly wasn’t organic. It turns out to be an Egg Relaxation Capsule, one of only a few in Europe. This is a futuristic-looking automated pod that provides a full body massage in 15 minutes – without the need to remove your clothes.
Enthusing about the wonders of the Egg while fulfilling duties of both hotel co-owner and head chef was Jason Henderson – a busy man, but one whose energy levels never dissipated during our stay. He took time to explain how his family’s initial revamp of the fourstar premises was aimed at offering “affordable luxury and honest hospitality for everyone”. Well, there’s everyone and then there are clients such as Jean-Christophe Novelli, the TV chef who was in town for the Perthshire On A Plate food festival and was staying in the suite next to us.
Henderson told me how Novelli had been impressed by the variety of dining options available at Knock, where guests can choose between the bar lounge for lighter, pub-style fare and more refined, intricate dishes at the picturesque Rooftop Restaurant – Knock’s unique selling point, which offers the chance to absorb a panoramic view of the Perthshire countryside while savouring Henderson’s kitchen creations.
“I was a little bit nervous cooking for Jean – he’s one of my idols!” Henderson grinned once his famous guest had left. His concern was unfounded as Novelli praised his culinary skills, commenting that Henderson was either “crazy or a genius” for using white chocolate in his risotto. I personally plant my flag in the latter camp, thanks to delightfully ambitious and successful locally-sourced creations such as monkfish with smoked cauliflower puree, samphire, king prawn and caper beurre noisette. And if you’re feeling adventurous, the restaurant’s degustation menu is a seven-course treat for all the senses, visually and gastronomically indulgent with offerings such as smoked pigeon breast on puy lentil ragout reawakening long-comatose areas of the palate.
All good things must come to an end, but three-year-olds can find this difficult to accept. There were traumatic scenes upon leaving Knock; Robyn was unable to grasp why she couldn’t stay a princess. Or maybe she thought she’d left the more challenging surrounds of Coatbridge behind forever. She had lived out her wee royal fantasy not in a land far far away, but one within touching distance and just as magical as anything Disney has to offer.
Until the day she marries Prince George, Robyn will always have the memories of her brief reign – a cherished recollection taking the edge off deep emotional scarring from her clown encounter.
It’s not just three-year-olds who are treated like royalty at Knock Castle.