Stately Homes and Castles - Scotland, Grampian and the North
Not the most interesting of castles. Make sure there
isn't a wedding when you plan a visit
is described as one of the grandest castles of Mar and we
were looking forward to our visit. There has been a tower
house here from the C15th. The sixth Laird extended the
tower and added a second and larger round tower. His son
continued the work by building two new wings to enclose a
courtyard. The castle was modernised in the C18th when a new
entrance was added on the south side and larger sash windows
fitted throughout. The estate was sold at the end of the
C19th and was used as a shooting lodge. A partial
restoration by the last owners Major and Mrs Smiley removed
much of the C19th work. It is now in the care of National
Trust for Scotland, who do not allow photographs inside the
It was a Saturday and the car park was busy. Our hearts sank when we saw the wedding group around the front entrance to the house, which explains why there are no photographs.
I know weddings are major money spinners for historic houses, but they often mean that parts of the house are shut to ‘ordinary’ visitors. This was very much the case when we visited as the kitchens, great hall, dining room and peacock hall were shut. Normally entry is by the front door. When there is a wedding you are re-routed and use the exit at the back of the house, up a spiral staircase.
This isn’t a good introduction as, not only is it a rather depressing introduction, you also also have to contend with visitors coming down the staircase as they leave the house. At the top we were greeted by two closed doors and two members of staff hovering. There is no reception desk and tickets are shown on the spiral staircase, again with people descending. This isn’t the welcome we expect from NTS and by now we were beginning to feel very much second class citizens.
The tour begins up the spiral staircase past a room described as the CHAPEL. This was originally the charter room used to store important documents and there are the remains of the trap door to a secret room in front of the fireplace. The room is furnished with chests and doesn’t look much like a chapel.
The tour then goes into what is described as the ‘WORKED ROOM’ because of the hand sewn tapestry bed head, hangings and chair seats. The huge wooden door frame and carved lintels, is a survivor of the C16/17th building. In a corner is a secret lug. This is a medieval Scots word for ‘ear’, and is where the Laird could hide and eavesdrop on the conversations of visitors in the great hall below.
Another elaborately carved doorway leads into the NORTH BEDROOM which is a smaller room and feels quite dark with a dark patterned carpet (a copy of a C19th design) and dark red drapes around the four poster bed. A huge chest of drawers and glass fronted display cabinet make the room feel cramped. The garderobe off this was later turned into a built in wardrobe.
Next is the PORTRAIT GALLERY which was added in the C19th to give access to all the rooms, when people understandably felt it was no longer acceptable for rooms to be reached through each other. On the walls are C17/18th pictures of Scottish Kings and Queens.
At the end of the corridor and admired through a roped off doorway is the GREEN ROOM in the south tower. The round room was squared off by building cupboards into the thickness of the walls. It has a four poster bed, crib, hip bath and metal jug for hot water. On a wash stand is a flower patterned china bowl and jug.
Continuing up the spiral staircase is the PINK BEDROOM, with a four poster bed with a patchwork quilt. The drapes and curtains are copies of an C18th pattern and the carpet is a modern copy of what is described as a Scotch flat weave. Traditionally this was made up of strips which were stitched together and was reversible for extra wear. There is a corner washstand with a set of matching bowl, jug, soap dishes and chamber pot in a blue and white design with egrets. There is a small sloping writing desk. These were provided in all the bedrooms for family visitors to write letters.
Up more spiral staircase are MAJOR AND MRS SMILEY'S ROOMS, the last owners of the castle. The painted wallpaper is a mock Chinese design with a pattern of two birds surrounded by garlands. There is a well stocked cocktail cabinet in the corner, two small chairs on either side of the fireplace, large bureau bookcase and a central table with two chairs.
Continuing up the staircase is MAJOR SMILEY'S ROOM at the top of the tower. This has pictures of the estate and other family properties. Taking up nearly a whole wall is a large desk with a lot of small numbered drawers. There are glass display cases with mementoes of Major Smiley’s military career in the Rifle Brigade in World War Two. There are trunks and boxes lying around. It felt rather creepy, although some of this may have been due to the closed door next to this room with a sign proclaiming ‘BATS’. You can smell them.
The spiral staircase continues up to the roof, although views from the top are disappointing.
Returning back down the staircase, next is the LIBRARY, a big room created in 1830 from two bedrooms. This is a large room and was used for entertaining. There are antlers on the walls and a grandfather clock ticking. As well as bookcases there is a piano, card tables and trou-madame. This superseded bagatelle and was just played by the ladies. It has a table with cue and small balls. The aim was to pot these through numbered holes at one end of the board. Scores were kept by moving a peg in the notches along the side of the table. To win you had to get the exact number. If you scored too many points you had to go back to the start. Games could last a long time.
On display is the wooden leg of Charles MacKenzie Fraser who fought in the Peninsular war and was shot in the head and leg. The head wound wasn’t too bad but his leg had to be amputated. He survived this and returned home to father 14 children, dying at the age of 79. The leg is described as an ‘Anglesey Leg’ and was the latest style. He had several different ones and this was the one he used for horse riding as it could bend at the knee.
A doorway leads to the VICTORIAN SITTING ROOM, again roped off. It is a typical Victorian room with a pulley in the ceiling over the table to raise or lower a gas lamp. Next to it is the GOVERNESS'S ROOM, a depressing and cold room with little attempt to add creature comforts. There is a small half tester brass bed with lace drapes, a wash stand with with blue and white china wash set and a sampler on the wall.
This is the last room on the tour and it is back down the spiral staircase to the exit. Overall this was a very disappointing experience. I would describe most of the rooms as only average. There is a certain amount of printed information in most of the rooms and the two stewards on duty were friendly and helpful. However I felt the visit was very unbalanced with a preponderance of bedrooms. Even without a wedding, there are more interesting NTS properties in the area to visit.
The tea room is not run by NTS but is a franchise. Service was poor. Cakes were mass produced, commercial offerings and prices were expensive.
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