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10 Jul 2018

A ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ castle

Written by Robin McKelvie
Travel writer Robin McKelvie and family discover all that a ‘proper’ castle, Crathes, has to offer, including vaulting towers, lavishly bedecked rooms ... and ghosts?!

If only there was a castle that ticked all the boxes for everyone, whether you’re visiting with the kids or it’s just the two of you, whether you’re 9, 39 or 89 for that matter. Well, I’ve got good news for you – I’ve found one! It’s a gem that starred in July 2018 as the perfect setting for TV’s Antiques Roadshow - and for me it’s a Hollywood blockbuster of castles.

Tweet from Crathes Castle during filming of Antiques Roadshow
Tweet from Crathes Castle during the filming of Antiques Roadshow

I say I’ve ‘found’ it, but it actually took me three visits to realise the multigenerational, multifaceted appeal of Deeside’s Crathes Castle. On my first foray I studied the epic history and remarkably decorative interior for an article for the National Trust for Scotland on my own. I then returned with my wife to check out the castle, gardens and the café researching our National Geographic guide to Scotland. It was not until I more recently went back with my two wee girls, though, that I realised all that this grand old dame offers.

Let’s start with the history, as all great castles must have lashings of intrigue. Crathes proudly stands as a tower house awash with twisting turrets, vaulting towers and ornately painted ceilings. It also stands proud as a testament to one family, the Burnetts of Leys, who had their bolthole forged over four decades in the 16th century. Remarkably they lived here right through to 1951. It was King Robert the Bruce himself who granted the Burnetts the land in 1323, just nine years after his epochal victory at Bannockburn, making the area royal long before Queen Victoria set up shop at nearby Balmoral.

I love that this is a ‘proper’ castle too. Crathes may have an air of regal elegance and a Disneyesque charm, but it was built to resist force. Look out for the mighty yett, the trip step on one of the spiral staircases and the window designed to allow boiling oil to be poured out on would-be besiegers. It may not have solely been the famed diplomatic skills of the Burnetts down the centuries that meant Crathes was never seriously threatened - I reckon those sturdy defences played their deterrent role well too.

Crathes really opens up her secrets on a guided tour, and on my first visit my guide Sandy did his job brilliantly. He instantly set the tone by declaring: ‘Crathes is a castle that has evolved not only with the times, but with the tastes, fashions and lives of the family’. It has, and for those fascinated by the human stories behind castles the Burnetts have gone on to become not only generals, judges, admirals and bishops, but also even a Governor of New York.

An old photograph of the High Hall in Crathes Castle, with the Horn of Leys above the fireplace
An old photograph of the castle’s High Hall, with the Horn of Leys above the fireplace

The castle sports 13 rooms, with the highlight for me its unusually well-preserved 16th-century painted ceilings, fashioned to reinforce for guests the great wealth and power of the family. Then there are a striking trio of 17th-century Flemish brass chandeliers and lavish leather panels, echoing the time when it was fashionable for rooms to be bedecked with Spanish embossed hide. 

The most fascinating object in the castle for me is the legendary Horn of Leys. Legend has it that this beautifully carved, jewel-encrusted ivory horn was bestowed upon the Burnetts by Bruce himself in 1323 to celebrate the family’s title of ‘Royal Foresters’. If it looks familiar it’s probably because it adorns the Burnett coat of arms.

Crathes Castle’s Horn of Leys
The Horn of Leys in Crathes Castle

It’s the details and personal insights that really bring Crathes alive. Sandy came into his own in the Room of the Nine Nobles. He beamed with pride at the elegant painted ceilings that ‘show the wealth of the Burnetts at a time when a Scottish baron would have felt the need to demonstrate his status to his peers’. Gaze upwards and the beamed ceiling is awash with painted depictions of the nobles of the day. Sandy explained how the artists painted directly on to the roof with a surprising concoction of chalk and boiled animal fat as an undercoat before natural pigments brought vivid colours.  

My wife was greatly intrigued by the stories of the Burnett family, which are revealed in the Family Room. Opened to the public in 1989, its portraits tell the stories of Gilbert Burnett, the Archbishop of Salisbury, and James Burnett, or Lord Monboddo, a pivotal figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. She was struck by one set of original photographs that were saved from a larger set lost to a serious fire in 1966.

Painted ceiling in Crathes Castle
Painted ceiling in Crathes Castle

My kids are big fans of empty, ruined castles where they can run around without mum and dad hassling them to stop wrapping themselves in swaying tapestries and dislodging weapons from the walls. Crathes does deliver for kids too, as any chance of them being ‘bored’ exploring the lavish interior evaporated as soon as the ghosts appeared. Ghosts plural. They were gobsmacked that there have been so many sightings the castle staff keep an official record.

The most famous, or should I say infamous, ghoul is the ‘Green Lady’, the apparition of a former servant who mysteriously disappeared after giving birth to an illegitimate child. Her spirit was ‘dislodged’ centuries later when human remains were uncovered behind a fireplace. Not only has she been spotted by visitors, but in 2011 instruments during one sighting recorded temperatures plunging between 10pm and midnight in ‘her’ room and then coming back up, while the surrounding rooms didn’t change.

The Green Lady’s Room in Crathes Castle
The Green Lady’s Room in Crathes Castle

If Crathes were ‘just’ a castle I would visit again, but maybe not wax so lyrical about its universal appeal. That is where the café, gardens and grounds come in. The well-stocked café is a great place to fuel up and has a cosy courtyard terrace for those blue-skied sunny days that Deeside actually boasts with surprising regularity.

The gardens are truly sublime. I wandered through the Upper Pool Garden, Fountain Garden and floral Rose Garden with my wife, through the walled gardens admiring the massive yew hedges, which date back as far as the early 1700s. A gardener explained to me as we passed the glorious flora what is so unique about Crathes is that the gardens again dramatically show the influence, tastes and passing fashions of one single family over a 400-year period.

Perhaps the most famous green-fingered visitor was Gertrude Jekyll. She visited back in 1895 and left an indelible mark as she is said to have inspired Sir James Burnett and his keen gardener wife Sybil to fashion the gardens along the lines it largely follows today. Like all great gardens it remains a work in progress with ongoing attempts to bring it even closer to Sybil’s original plans. You can see this on your visit.

From the gardens you may catch sight of some of the wide variety of fauna that calls Crathes and its grounds home. This natural treasure trove ranges from soaring buzzards and noisy woodpeckers, through to endangered red squirrels and timid roe deer. The half dozen waymarked walking trails are the best way for visitors of all ages to get a real feel for the bucolic escape that the grounds offer.

Agree with me yet that Crathes Castle has something for everyone? If not quite yet, how about fine portraits by George Jamesone, one of Scotland’s first major portrait artists? Or how about the fact that Crathes works perfectly as a stop on Aberdeenshire’s ace Castle Trail? Or what about Go Ape? The most northerly outpost of this adrenaline-pumping adventure course sees high wires, zip wires and Tarzan swings thrill through the lush forest canopy. Now that is a castle with a little bit for everyone to suit all tastes. 

What are you waiting for?