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A castle at night is a special thing. We pulled up at the end of the drive to Fyvie, among the rolling hills of Aberdeenshire, after the sun had set on a long Scottish summer day. The castle towered above us, a great black mass against the darkening sky, its shadow broken only by the welcoming light of a few lit windows. All was quiet except for the excited chatter of the children as we let ourselves in through the sturdy, metal-studded door and up the spiral staircase set in the thick walls of the medieval Preston Tower. There was no need to shush the young ones: we were the lairds of this castle, if only for the night.
Scotland is a great place for castles, and there has never been a better time to enjoy them for those not favoured with wealth or aristocratic inheritance. The burden of maintaining or even just heating these often challenging complexes means owners are increasingly keen to offset their outlays by opening their gates to paying guests. Travel websites now bristle with proud fortresses offering everything from five-star hotel accommodation to modest self-catering.
Owned since 1984 by the National Trust for Scotland, a conservation charity, Fyvie is open to visitors during the day and has one self-catering apartment, sleeping up to 16. Used by Scottish kings as a royal stronghold in the 13th century, Fyvie offers a fine flavour of the evolving imperatives of security, prestige and comfort that define castle design. It began as a relatively simple courtyard fortress shielded by bogs and a turn in the River Ythan. In the 14th century the castle was granted to a Sir Henry Preston in a swap for a captured English knight, and around 1400 he built the Preston Tower at its south-east corner. This was later matched by towers at the south-west corner and over the central gatehouse, paving the way for the creation at the end of the 16th century of a unified south façade bristling with bartizans — overhanging corner turrets — as well as finely carved dormers and a dramatic arch.
The new stress on show reflected increasing political stability and the declining military importance of castles in an age of artillery. Yet for many Scots lords it remained important that their ancient seats retain their martial flavour. Instructing his son on renovations at Ancrum House in 1632, for example, Sir Robert Kerr advised: “By any means do not take away the battlement . . . for that is the grace of the house, and makes it look like a castle.”
Similarly, Fyvie remained a castle even as its lairds added ground-floor windows and drained the protective bog, replacing it with parkland, shrubberies, a walled garden and an ornamental loch. As evening fell on the second evening of our stay, the day-trip visitors departed and we had all these to ourselves (bar a couple of dog walkers down by the loch). Wild garlic filled the air with its heavy scent; bluebells carpeted the banks of the loch. In the castle courtyard, which these days is undefended on two sides, an orange-beaked oystercatcher nested with aristocratic insouciance in a grand stone flowerpot.
Set over four floors, around the spiral staircase, the Preston Tower apartment has eight bedrooms ranging from the modest to the lairdly. A multitude of floor levels and the remains of vaulted arches offer reminders of centuries of use and adaptation. Some of us missed internet connectivity, but a vast freestanding bath and Edwardian bathroom fittings were sources of entertainment in themselves. My son and nephew particularly enjoyed their tower-top bedroom, with its three tiny adjoining bartizan chambers.
From one bartizan window there was a view of the nearby slopes that were the scene of Fyvie’s only major brush with military history. During the civil wars of the mid-17th century, a small royalist army led by James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, was surprised at Fyvie by a stronger force of Presbyterian Covenanters. Montrose chose not to retreat to the now-inadequately fortified castle, where his army could have been bottled up and destroyed, instead making a successful defence on a nearby wooded hill. But the castle did make one important contribution: all its chamber-pots and other pewter utensils were hastily melted down for bullets.
Aberdeenshire is the most densely castled area of the UK, and we could hardly leave without visiting another of them. After Fyvie’s comforts I felt in the mood for something more severe, so we headed for Dunnottar, on a rocky outcrop jutting into the sea south of Aberdeen.
Dunnottar has a properly bloody history. William Wallace, the hero of Scotland’s wars of independence, slaughtered an English garrison here in 1297. More than three centuries later, the Marquis of Montrose tried to seize Dunnottar after his victory at Fyvie, but failed and burnt the surrounding countryside instead.
Now Dunnottar is a romantic ruin, its tower-keep open to the sky, its vaulted, cavelike storerooms mottled with moss and lichen. Light rain swept in through gaping windows as we toured the once grandly appointed halls of the Earls Marischal. But as we left the sun came out and turned the castle’s stones red-gold against the North Sea grey and framed them with a perfect rainbow.
The civil wars of the 17th and 18th centuries were the last hurrah for British castle warfare. By the 1770s, Scotland was a centre of intellectual enlightenment and many lairds had abandoned traditional towerhouses or subsumed them within Neoclassical mansions. Yet the idea of a castle continued to have a deep emotional appeal.
A few weeks after our trip to Fyvie, my wife and I travelled to a National Trust property at the other end of the country; Culzean Castle in southwestern Ayrshire. Like Dunnottar, this was once a fortified aristocratic residence set above sea cliffs. But where Dunnottar suffered abandonment, Culzean became the site of an extraordinary essay in castellated imagination by the celebrated 18th-century architect Robert Adam. Encouraged by David Kennedy, Earl of Cassilis, to “indulge to the utmost his romantic genius”, Adam built a blend of battlements and classical style that sought to evoke a wild Scottish warrior past, even as it rejected all traditions of castle construction. Here, the crenellated wall on the seaward side was not for defence but to shield servants’ movement from the gaze of visiting VIPs.
Culzean — which is actually pronounced “cull-ane” (the “z” is a typographer’s substitute for the now archaic letter yogh, with its soft “y” sound) — divides opinion. For me, the artificiality of Adam’s exteriors, complete with fake ruined gatehouse, lacks the more organic appeal of Fyvie and its like. Adam’s Culzean interiors, however, are an unalloyed triumph, as we discovered when we checked into the Eisenhower, a six-bedroom boutique hotel the NTS runs on the castle’s upper floor. Set around a gorgeous classical oval staircase that Adam carved out between the original core of the castle and with stunning views out into the Firth of Clyde, the hotel’s rooms formed an apartment that was offered to US General Dwight D Eisenhower as a mark of Scotland’s thanks for his leadership of Allied troops in the second world war. Eisenhower stayed four times, including a trip during his time as US president, when he described the castle as his “Scottish White House”.
Comfortable rather than luxurious, the hotel’s central appeal is its unique setting. Our bathroom looked out over the courtyard and clock tower; the bedroom over the grand garden, at dinner I tucked into tasty beef in ale and horseradish while watching swallows flit back and forth a few feet outside the open dining room window. There was a childish pleasure in riding the juddering 1920s elevator down to the ground floor in the morning. Other precious moments were spent in the early evening, dozing on the lawn under the battlements amid a chorus of birdsong. But then, a castle at any time of day is a pretty special thing.
Mure Dickie is the FT’s Scotland correspondent. He was a guest of the National Trust for Scotland. A four-night break for up to 16 at the Preston Tower apartment, Fyvie Castle, costs from £1,050. The Eisenhower Hotel has double rooms from £225, or can be rented for exclusive use from £1,600 per night
More castles for hire
Rosslyn Castle, near Edinburgh The elaborately decorated chapel at Rosslyn — site of the denouement of the film The Da Vinci Code — is better known than the 15th-century castle it served. Much of that is in ruins, but the habitable rooms are now available to rent, alongside other, more remote, castles, via the Landmark Trust. Sleeps seven, from £505 for four nights; landmarktrust.org.uk
Aldourie Castle, Loch Ness A classical example of Scottish baronial architecture, Aldourie sits beside the water at the northern end of Loch Ness, 16 miles from Inverness airport. First recorded in 1626, it has been recently renovated to offer five-star accommodation. Sleeps 29, from £15,000 for two nights, exclusive use; aldouriecastle.co.uk
Barcaldine Castle, near Oban Built between 1601 and 1609 by Sir Duncan Campbell, this tower house on the shores of Loch Creran is now run as a bed and breakfast. There are five double rooms, views of the Highlands and, according to The Scotsman, a ghost. Doubles from £175; barcaldinecastle.co.uk
Visit Scotland, the national tourist board, has compiled a list of more than 100 castles available to rent or which offer rooms, see visitscotland.com. Private companies include ltrcastles.com, scottscastles.com and celticcastles.com
Photographs: Douglas MacGregor; Getty Images