Here’s a question for you. Where do you find the most castles per acre in all of Europe? Apparently, it’s Aberdeenshire, which has an eye-watering 263. Most you can see, many you can visit – and some you can even stay in.
If you’re a fan of history and interesting architecture, and magnificent gardens, this beautiful part of Scotland should rank high on your wish-list.
I recently went on a tour of some of the best examples, staying in a couple of noteworthy 4-star hotels.
If you’re looking to get value out of a National Trust for Scotland membership, this is decidedly your stomping ground. I clocked up six visits in my four days.
Base one was Thainstone House near Inverurie. This hotel has the feel of a genteel aunt. Possibly a bit down-at-heel (refurbishment on the cards) but comfortable, charming and exuding grandeur. A bargain with rooms from £99.
The 18th century hotel sits on the edge of Inverurie in 44 acres of meadowland. Breakfast and dinners are taken in the elegant Georgian setting of the AA Rosette Green Lady restaurant and – cliched as it now is – they really do focus on quality local produce, with sumptuous steaks and fish from Aberdeenshire. Expect luxury touches like super- soft bedlinen and quality Scottish bathroom products.
It has a spa with a large indoor swimming pool, outdoor hot tub and sauna, and, in common with all Crerar spas, they use wonderful Ishga products. You’ll increasingly find this range in luxury hotels. Originating from Lewis, the name ‘Ishga’ is derived from the Gaelic for ‘water’ and they use all-natural ingredients in their products such as aromatherapy oils, seaweed, vitamins and anti-oxidants combined with local spring water. They smell divine and I felt suitably tranquil and detoxed after the Ishga Marine Experience – a head to toe spoiling (prices aren’t OTT either).
If you’re looking for a recommendation for dinner while in Inverurie ‘The Drouthy Laird’ serves excellent food (mouth-watering steaks) at very reasonable prices and has live music at night.
Thainstone House Hotel is close to Fraser Castle and Haddo House – two wonderful NTS properties. Home to Clan Fraser for over four centuries, Castle Fraser is a five-storey Z-plan tower house, begun in 1575 and packed with family portraits, ornaments and antiques. The walled garden includes specimen trees, herbaceous borders, a medicinal border and organically grown fruit and vegetables.
From the roof there are magnificent panoramic views and many of the features you want to find in a proper castle: secret staircases, hidden trapdoors and a spy hole.
Just 20 odd miles away is Haddo House. This is the seat of Clan Gordon Clan and was designed in 1732 by William Adam. Again, the house is packed with period furniture and family memorabilia.
Family portraits trace generations of Gordons, a key family in Scottish history: George Gordon, 1st Earl of Aberdeen was Lord Chancellor of Scotland; the 4th Earl served as Prime Minister.
Even if it’s raining don’t miss the delightful formal terraced gardens with a lavish herbaceous border and geometric flower beds. There are bird hides, woodland walks, a play park, a wildflower meadow and great picnic spots. A magnificent avenue of lime trees leads to Haddo Country Park – there’s definitely enough here to keep your interest for several hours.
Less than six miles away is the 17th century Pitmedden Garden. With almost six miles of manicured box hedging, immaculate parterres and over 200 fruit trees, Pitmedden is a delight for the senses. Fountains, topiary, sundials and a fascinating herb garden are complemented by surrounding woodland – perfect walking and picnic terrain. The on-site Museum of Farming Life will be of interest to country-minded folk and features a collection of domestic and agricultural artefacts.
Swing south for a three quarters of an hour drive and you reach Crathes Castle – every inch a classic Scottish tower house. This is a belter of a castle, set against a backdrop of rolling hills with glorious gardens. Robert the Bruce granted the lands of Leys to the Burnett family in 1323. The painted ceilings and oak panels are legendary. So too is the castle’s famous ghost – The Green Lady.
There’s the usual glut of family portraits and fine antique furniture and an outstanding walled garden, divided into eight sections. The massive yew hedges are thought to date back to 1702. Again, it’s a great place to walk with signposted trails and an adventure play park. The Go Ape zip wire experience is popular with families.
En route to my next location of Nairn (dubbed the ‘Brighton of the North’ – not so sure about that….bit genteel for that comparison) I took in Fyvie Castle – a fondant pink fortress. It has 800 years of history, renowned works of art (one of the largest private collections of Raeburns in the world) and antiquities, along with an interesting restored glass-roofed racquet court and old ice house.
The 18th-century walled garden has been redeveloped as a garden of Scottish fruits and vegetables, and in Fyvie Loch, if you’re lucky, you may see ospreys fishing.
The last of the NTS highlights on my agenda was Brodie Castle, erected by Clan Brodie in 1567. There are impressive art collections, fine decorative ceilings and remarkable antique furniture. Outside there’s a beautifully landscaped garden, nature trail and ‘The Playful Garden’ which contains Scotland’s biggest rabbit sculpture.
Note – most National trust for Scotland properties are only open Thurs – Sun so check in advance. They close for the season 31st Oct.
Now off the NTS trail was the next – and arguably my favourite – castle. Cawdor, near Nairn – the 14th century home of the Thanes of Cawdor.
The castle was built around a 15th century tower house which originally belonged to Clan Cawdor before passing into the hands of Campbells in the 16th century. Although famed for its connection to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in fact the actual 11th century events upon which ‘The Scottish Play’ is based took place many years before the castle was built.
The wonderful thing about Cawdor is it is still very much lived in – and it shows. The Drawing Room is adorned with portraits of generations of Campbells, the Tapestry Bedroom with its precious wall hangings is still in use, as is the Dining Room with its magnificent stone fireplace.
The grounds are equally impressive, taking in three beautiful gardens, and then there’s Cawdor Big Wood and a 9-hole golf course. Top tip – if you want the goss behind the aristocratic families who inhabit piles like this, head for the gift shop and find a lady of mature years who has worked on the estate for decades and knows all the skeletons in the coroneted cupboard.
I struck gold at Cawdor and found the story of how the late Thane of Cawdor caused a massive rumpus by leaving the castle upon his death in 1993 to his second wife, the Czech beauty Lady Angelika, and not his son Colin Campbell.
One of Britain’s most distinguished aristocratic families was hauled over the coals by his eldest daughter Liza who published her memoirs and, in true Macbeth Machiavellian fashion, described her father as ‘domineering’ and ‘an embittered alcoholic with a hefty cocaine habit”. She went on to claim that her father was allegedly obsessed with sex and lived on a diet of pink gin.
You don’t find that in their glossy guidebook (though it explains why there aren’t any happy family photos on display!).
My second base was the Golf View Hotel in Nairn – an impressive 4 star with fabulous views over the Moray Firth (look out for dolphins) and comfortable rooms, a spa, swimming pool and an impressive food offering. This is the hotel in Nairn yet still a bargain at £116 a night.
While there check out the restaurant The Classroom Bistro – www.theclassroombistro.com.
Thainstone House & Golf View Hotel, Nairn are part of Crerar Hotels who have just launched bespoke ‘Coorie’ packages for autumn. You can ‘Coorie In’, ‘Coorie Doon’ or ‘Coorie Up’ with the help of touches like Ishga toiletries, highland inspired candles and wine and/or whisky as a tipple. Coorie packages can be added to stays at any of the seven Crerar Hotels properties and start from £30 per room. See www.crerarhotels.com
National trust for Scotland – https://www.nts.org.uk/
Cawdor Castle – https://www.cawdorcastle.com/