Play­ing for keeps: our coolest cas­tles

They have been the scenes of heroic bat­tles, royal in­trigue and tales of der­ring-do. Nowa­days, they are ma­jor at­trac­tions – home to high art, the odd ghost and even a pri­vate army. But if you fancy a day out at one of Scot­land’s cas­tles, where do you star

The Herald on Sunday - - THE COOL LIST -

1Dun­not­tar Cas­tle


WITH its thrillingly dra­matic set­ting – it’s lo­cated on a high, rocky head­land jut­ting out into the sea – it’s no sur­prise that Dun­not­tar was al­ways strate­gi­cally im­por­tant and, as a re­sult, has had a long and bloody his­tory go­ing back more than 1,000 years. Which partly ex­plains why it’s now in ru­ins. King Dom­nall II was killed here by Vik­ings in 900; Wil­liam Wal­lace cap­tured it from the English in 1297; James IV and James VI both vis­ited (as did that in­vet­er­ate sofa surfer Mary, Queen of Scots); Oliver Cromwell’s troops laid siege in 1651; a size­able num­ber of Covenan­ters were im­pris­oned there 30 years later; and it fea­tured in the Ja­co­bite ris­ings of both 1689 and 1715. Is that enough his­tory for you? Even Wil­liam Shake­speare has been to stay – sort of, any­way. Franco Zef­firelli filmed parts of his 1990 film adap­ta­tion of Ham­let here, star­ring Mel Gib­son and Glenn Close. Warn­ing: there’s a 160ft drop from the cliffs, so if you’re scared of heights, this prob­a­bly isn’t the cas­tle for you. Oth­er­wise, it’s well worth its place on the Cool List.

2Cas­tle Fraser


AN­CES­TRAL home of the Frasers of Muchalls, Cas­tle Fraser was fin­ished in 1636 but is thought to sit on the site of a tower from at least cen­tury ear­lier. It’s con­structed to the so-called Z-plan for­mat – a cen­tral rect­an­gu­lar keep with smaller tow­ers on di­ag­o­nal cor­ners – though the cas­tle was mod­ernised in the late 17th cen­tury and again in 1820 and 1850, when twin gate­houses and a new en­trance were added. In 1921, own­er­ship left the Fraser fam­ily when Cas­tle Fraser was bought by York­shire-born oil­man and in­dus­tri­al­ist Weet­man Pear­son, later Vis­count Cow­dray and at one time the Lib­eral MP for Colch­ester. Much of the 19th-cen­tury work was re­moved in 1950 and in 1976 the cas­tle was handed over to the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land (NTS). The li­brary, the stone-vaulted Great Hall and the walled gar­den are the main draws, though if you’re lucky you may also catch sight of the cas­tle’s ghost: a young woman mur­dered while she slept in the Green Room and dragged down a flight of stone stairs from which (so the story goes) the blood­stains could never be re­moved. True or not, the steps were cov­ered with wood pan­elling, which re­mains to­day.

3Blair Cas­tle


YOU prob­a­bly have to be a cer­tain age – around eight, say, and prob­a­bly no older than 14 – to think it’s cool to have your own army. But if that’s you then you’ll love white­washed Blair Cas­tle. It’s home to the Atholl High­landers, a cer­e­mo­nial in­fantry reg­i­ment un­der the com­mand of the Dukes of Atholl. The cur­rent com­man­der in chief is South Africa-born Bruce Mur­ray, the 12th duke, who re­turns “home” ev­ery year to in­spect his troops. As for the cas­tle it­self, it’s steeped in Ja­co­bite his­tory. John Gra­ham of Claver­house – or

Bon­nie Dundee, to give him his nick­name – held his coun­cil of war here be­fore the Bat­tle of Kil­liecrankie on July 26, 1689 and is buried in the grounds (his Ja­co­bite troops won the day, but he took a bul­let in the armpit and died al­most im­me­di­ately). His­tory aside, it’s a grand old place, with mag­nif­i­cent walled gar­dens, one of the tallest trees in the UK and a tremen­dous col­lec­tion of por­traits, mil­i­tary knick-knacks and other es­o­ter­ica. The cafe isn’t bad, ei­ther.

4Craigievar Cas­tle


WITH an in­te­rior ev­ery bit as eye-catch­ing as its won­der­ful ex­te­rior – a sort of pink­ish, crenelated struc­ture that looks like it was wished into be­ing by a fairy tale princess

– the tra­di­tional seat of Clan Sem­pill and of the Forbes fam­ily has looks as well as pedi­gree on its side. Pre­vi­ous res­i­dents have in­cluded Danzig Willy, the nick­name of Wil­liam Forbes, the man who com­pleted the build­ing of the seven-storey cas­tle in 1626, and if you tour it to­day you’ll get a flavour of how it was in his time – there’s no elec­tric light­ing above the first floor. What he didn’t have, how­ever, is two paint­ings by the great Scot­tish artist of the late Ge­or­gian pe­riod, Sir Henry Rae­burn, though to­day’s vis­i­tors can see the pair – a por­trait of the fifth Baronet, Sir Wil­liam Forbes, and the Hon­ourable Janet Sem­pill. And talk­ing of fairy tales, Craigievar is said to have been pos­si­bly been the in­spi­ra­tion for the fa­mous Cin­derella Cas­tle at Walt Dis­ney theme parks af­ter Walt Dis­ney him­self saw pho­to­graphs of it.

5Muness Cas­tle Shet­land

MUNESS Cas­tle was built on the is­land of Unst in 1598 by Lau­rence Bruce of Cult­ma­lindie, half-brother of the pow­er­ful Robert Stew­art, 1st Earl of Orkney, a fact com­mem­o­rated by an in­scrip­tion ex­tolling Bruce’s virtues that is still vis­i­ble above a door­way. Not that the Shet­landers thought him vir­tu­ous: Bruce was no­to­ri­ous for ex­ploit­ing and de­mean­ing the lo­cals. Con­structed to the tra­di­tional Z-plan de­sign, it with­stood a mini-siege in 1608 when Bruce fi­nally fell foul of Robert Stew­art’s son Pa­trick, the 2nd Earl of Orkney, but took a bat­ter­ing in 1627 when it was at­tacked and burned by pi­rates from the French port of Dunkirk. The Bruce fam­ily leased it to the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany in the early 18th cen­tury – it was used to store goods res­cued from a ship­wreck – and it had fallen into com­plete dis­re­pair by 1775. To­day it’s a roof­less ruin, al­beit an evoca­tive one, but as Scot­land’s most northerly cas­tle it fully de­serves its place on

the Cool List. But if you can’t make the trip to Unst, a fine carved oak panel from the cas­tle’s main hall is held by the Na­tional Mu­seum of Scot­land in Ed­in­burgh.

6Brodie Cas­tle


AN­OTHER colour­ful cas­tle – this one comes in a pleas­ant rose hue – Brodie Cas­tle has been the seat of Clan Brodie since the 12th cen­tury though the build­ing as it is to­day isn’t that old: the Gor­dons burned much of it down in 1645, though parts of the mod­ern build­ing, such as the guard cham­ber, date back to then. In­side, there’s an ex­quis­ite art col­lec­tion fea­tur­ing ev­ery­thing from Dutch Old Masters and Scot­tish Colourists to ce­ram­ics and an­tiques, as well as a li­brary of more than 6,000 books. There’s also a Blue Bed­room, a mag­nif­i­cent Red Draw­ing Room and a won­der­fully or­nate ceil­ing in the Din­ing Room. And don’t miss Rod­ney’s Stone, an 8th-cen­tury Pic­tish mon­u­ment lo­cated in the cas­tle’s main drive­way, or nearby Mac­beth’s Hil­lock, which is where Shake­speare’s mur­der­ous thane had his en­counter with the “weird sis­ters” – the three witches who proph­esy he will be­come king.

7Culzean Cas­tle


SIT­TING on a cliff top over­look­ing the Firth of Clyde, Culzean is the tra­di­tional home of Clan Kennedy and you will find a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of it on the re­verse of a Royal Bank of Scot­land fiver. The build­ing it­self was con­structed in the late 18th cen­tury for David Kennedy, the 10th Earl of Cas­silis, by renowned ar­chi­tect Robert Adam on the site of a smaller house, and Adam’s mag­nif­i­cent, sweep­ing Oval Stair­case forms the cas­tle’s cen­tre­piece. A few ar­chi­tec­tural nips and tucks were un­der­taken a cen­tury later by an­other Kennedy, the 3rd Mar­quess of Ailsa, and the grand­ness of the build­ing is matched by the ex­trav­a­gant grounds – 260 hectares of beech, conifers and palm trees strung along some stun­ning coastal scenery. There’s also a deer park, a swan pond and any num­ber of ram­bling fol­lies. There are ghosts too, though a cas­tle on the scale of Culzean couldn’t have just one could it? Of course not. Here, you will find seven.

8Th­reave Cas­tle

Dum­fries and Gal­loway

IT isn’t the pret­ti­est, the big­gest, the old­est or even the pink­est cas­tle on our Cool List – it’s squat, ugly and ru­ined and its de­fi­antly stone­coloured – but it’s the only one you have to climb into a row­ing boat to reach, a fact that gives this 14th-cen­tury wreck a charm all of its own. Raised in the 1370s on an is­land in the River Dee by the won­der­fully-named Archibald The Grim, 3rd Earl of Dou­glas, it was the strong­hold of that branch of the fam­ily known as the Black Dou­glases un­til the mid-15th cen­tury when it was taken away from them by James II on ac­count of their per­sis­tent bad be­hav­iour and gifted to the Maxwells in­stead. Over the cen­turies it has been the sight of a no­to­ri­ous mur­der and with­stood a cou­ple of sieges, one by a force of Covenan­ters and one by James II him­self, who may have had on his side the fa­mous bom­bard can­non which now re­sides at Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle – Mons Meg. It’s a great story and like many great sto­ries it’s prob­a­bly too good to be true. File un­der folk­lore. The cas­tle, though, is an out-of-the-way treat.

9Eilean Do­nan Cas­tle


WELL known to fans of cult 1986 film High­lander thanks to its star­ring role as the home seat of Christo­pher Lam­bert’s Con­nor MacLeod, Eilean Do­nan Cas­tle can claim to be one of Scot­land’s most recog­nis­able land­marks. Founded in the 13th cen­tury on an is­land in Loch Duich, it was a strong­hold for Clan Macken­zie and Clan Macrae un­til it was de­stroyed in the wake of the 1715 Ja­co­bite up­ris­ing. A near-ruin for two cen­turies, it was bought in 1911 by Lieu­tenant Colonel John MacRae-Gil­strap and re­stored for him by Ed­in­burgh-born ar­chi­tect Ge­orge Mackie Wat­son, who also added the fa­mous bridge. To­day, it’s a lit­tle too pop­u­lar with the tourists – it notched up well over half a mil­lion vis­i­tors last year – but no Cool List would be com­plete with­out it.

10Brae­mar Cas­tle


NOW in its 11th year as a com­mu­nity-run en­ter­prise and re­cently the re­cip­i­ent of a £100,000 award from the Her­itage Lot­tery Fund, Brae­mar Cas­tle was the tra­di­tional strong­hold of the Earls of Mar and the cur­rent build­ing – a con­fec­tion of castel­lated tur­rets that looks for all the world like a space rocket stick­ing out of the ground – was built in 1628. Restora­tion is con­tin­u­ing but there are 12 rooms on view, in­clud­ing the grand din­ing room, and cas­tle geeks and fans of his­tor­i­cal trivia will en­joy learn­ing about the un­usual right-wind­ing spi­ral stone stair­case. Among the other cu­ri­ous ex­hibits are a Bronze Age sword which was found nearby, graf­fiti from gov­ern­ment sol­diers sta­tioned in the cas­tle in the years af­ter the Bat­tle of Cul­lo­den, and a seg­ment of scorched tim­ber from the fire-rais­ing done by one not very care­ful owner – John Far­quhar­son, aka The Black Colonel, who fought for the Ja­co­bites at the Bat­tle of Kil­liecrankie and burned the cas­tle in 1689 to pre­vent it fall­ing into the hands of the gov­ern­ment forces.

Dun­not­tar Cas­tle has an im­pos­ing lo­ca­tion, while Eilean Do­nan, right, is very pop­u­lar with tourists and Culzean Cas­tle, cen­tre right, claims to have seven ghosts. Craigievar, bot­tom right, is said to have been the in­spi­ra­tion for the fa­mous Cin­derella Cas­tle at Walt Dis­ney theme parks, while Muness, be­low, is Scot­land’s most northerly cas­tle, and Blair Cas­tle, op­po­site page, has its own army

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