The Glorious Gardens of Scotland's Castles
June 20th, 2016 5:02 pm

Castles are splendid places to visit, for their history and their mysteries. A bonus which many offer is a dramatic setting, enhanced by beautiful gardens. As a castle enthusiast and as a keen gardener, I love to visit castles which have drama in both their architecture and in their landscaped grounds. High summer is approaching and this is the time for maximum impact of colour and form in castle gardens around Scotland. Here is a small selection of the best to visit, many with walled gardens. Very few attempt to replicate the planting of late medieval times – the palette of plants was very restricted compared to Victorian and modern availability – but most provide a traditional, semi-formal layout near the castle, often in a walled garden, with mature woodland in the estate.

Castle Balzieland – home to the exotic Logan Botanic Gardens

Starting in the far south west, Logan Botanic Gardens are the most exotic in Scotland, full of rare southern hemisphere plants which are able to grow in the mild climate of the Rhins peninsula. Logan may not be known for its castle, but the ruins – the tall stump of one corner – of Castle Balzieland, pictured below, which burned down in 1500, are incorporated into the wall of the late 18th-century walled garden.

Castle Kennedy Gardens – unusual plants thanks to an unusually mild climate

A little further into Wigtownshire are Castle Kennedy Gardens, 75 acres of sculptured landscapes and magnificent avenues, romantically situated on an isthmus around the ruins of Castle Kennedy, pictured below, and surrounded by the White and Black Lochs. Here the climate is so mild that giant echiums self-seed rampantly enough to have to be weeded out – elsewhere in Scotland these are almost impossible to grow outdoors.

Culzean Castle – Culzean Country Park's lush landscape

In Ayrshire, Culzean Castle, pictured below, owned by the National Trust for Scotland, is surrounded by Culzean Country Park. This extensive estate encompasses lush wo...
Threats, challenges and good news for Scottish castles!
July 28th, 2015 7:19 pm

Hello again after a rather extended summer break.
Many Scottish ruined castles are under threat from lack of investment, vandals, the weather and simply the passage of time. The sorry story of Castle Toward in Bute (the ‘new’ Castle Toward, that is), whose potential community buyout and restoration was stymied by a group of councilors recently, can be read here Mike Russell MSP has called on Audit Scotland to investigate this decision by Argyll and Bute Council. This is the latest in a long saga of councils who have seemed to be willfully set against the safeguarding of the historic built environment. Rossend Castle in Fife was only saved from demolition - councillors wanted it destroyed as a ‘symbol of feudalism’ - after a public enquiry in 1972. Apparently a bid has been made to buy Castle Toward, but it is based on ‘enabling development’ of planned housing in the grounds. Again, there is a long history of castle purchasers who are developers buying buildings with a view to rescuing them funded by ‘enabling’ plans and either failing to come up with a sustainable plan or building the new housing then not carrying through with the historic building restoration. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen in the case of Castle Toward.
It’s always heartening to hear about castles that are being rescued from further depredation by determined individuals and groups. The good news about Inchdrewer in Aberdeenshire is that it has been bought by a Swiss and Russian couple who intend to do a full restoration and bring the castle back to life after a botched attempt at restoration by a former owner in the 1980s.
Machermore Castle in Wigtownshire may look like a Victorian baronial mansion (and indeed, much of the building dates from the 19th century) but there is more to...

To harl or not to harl?
May 26th, 2015 1:50 pm

It has been an interesting experience having a feature about the restoration of our home, Barholm Castle, on the Mail Online website . What has really surprised me is the outpouring of comments below the article – more than 500, indicating a real interest in castle restoration. Many of them are positive, but there is a strong critical current, particularly about the ‘harling’ (traditional Scottish lime render) which was applied to the exterior as part of the restoration. Here is a flavour of them:

Should have put stone cladding on it

Congratulations to both of them for completely destroying any character this superb building could have maintained...The outside looks a disgrace.

'Couple convert ruined castle into a dream-home' should have read "Couple ruin dream castle by converting it into their home!"
While I think they've done a great job restoring it, it would have looked better with stone on the exterior not pebble dash
I agree, the exterior brickwork looked far better before
Pebble dashing a castle? I've seen it all now
The ruins looked better.

Doesn't look like a castle now
A classic example of how to ruin a ruin.
I do understand and even agree that in some ways the tower looked better as a grey ruin in the landscape. It’s what we are used to when we think of a Scottish castle and we take comfort from the familiar aspect of the grey stones, even if we owe much of the appeal to the Romantic movement of the 18th century which was carried on and popularized by Walter Scott (Ellangowan Castle in Guy Mannering is supposedly inspired by Barholm Castle) and then the Victorians. Before undertaking the restoration we did pause and feel some regret at changing the ruin so radically.  Yet there is little doubt that, had we not intervened, Barholm Castle would...

SCA Ayrshire weekend - a great success!
May 11th, 2015 10:12 pm

Last weekend 40 members of the SCA enjoyed a wonderful tour of the castles of Ayrshire, led by the historian Michael Davis. Most of us stayed overnight in the Premier Inn (very good value) and on Saturday we started our day with a visit to Assloss farm, which incorporates the much altered remains of a tiny tower house, with a vaulted ground floor. This was described by Timothy Pont at the end of the 16th century as belonging to James Assloss: “bot a very small thing yet his predicessors hes keipt it some hundreds of yiers”. An adjoining farm shed with several extremely cute orphan lambs and calves kept the children on the trip entertained while the adults examined the buildings. Next, we went on an exterior visit to Carnell House, one of many Scottish mansions with a 16th century tower as an adjunct. The main house was designed by the architect William Burn in Scots baronial style in 1843.
At lunchtime we were given a warm welcome by Adity and Simon Craufurd of Craufurdland Castle . The castle has been in the Craufurd family for over 850 years and in order to keep the estate running successfully the Craufurds run a number of commercial activities, including woodland burials, boarding kennels, fishing and mud running. They generously allowed us to explore their home in the old laird’s tower (the ‘new’ castle was being let out to visitors) and gave us a delicious lunch before waving us on our way to Sorn Castle, via Sornhill House, a laird’s tower that has recently been very successfully restored.
Sorn Castle was my personal favourite from among the many interesting buildings that we visited. It is a private home that is regularly open to the public and we had a great guided tour from Shona. The castle has as its core an old tower, which was extended in Scots baronial style by David Bryce in 1864 and magnificently redesigned internally by HE Clifford in 1909, stands on a cliff above the River Ayr.
On Sunday mo...

The Historic Environment Scotland (HES) Board
April 27th, 2015 8:21 pm

As many of you will know, I was appointed in January to the Board of the new body HES, which will replace both HS and RCAHMS in October. The model for the new organisation is a Non Departmental Public Body (NDPB) which will be expected to apply for charitable status. This would give it a greater degree of independence than executive agencies in how it operates and bring it closer in line with sector partners including the National Library; Galleries and Museums of Scotland; Creative Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage - all of whom are NDPBs.
The new Board has already swung energetically into action, meeting for the first time in February and establishing a pattern of monthly Board meetings and visits, under the guidance of the excellent Chair, Jane Ryder. I find the other Board members to be knowledgeable and hardworking & I greatly enjoy working with such a diverse body of interesting people. We are looking to understand fully the range of and depth of activities and opportunities for HES as the new lead body: this covers everything the award of grants (£14 Million a year) a statutory role as regulator and as adviser to Ministers, as well as looking after the 345 Properties in care and drawing on in-house specialist skills to provide advice to others. HES’s statutory role is to investigate, care for and promote Scotland’s historic environment and it is intended to be the lead body, drawing on the established strengths of Historic Scotland and RCHAHMS. Of course looking after the properties and collections has always been a core function of HS and RCAHMS, but the new role as lead body focuses on working with and enabling others as part of a more collective approach. That requires crossing some conventional barriers and some creative thinking, including as to how we can best facilitate and engage with others, so that the collective approach which is laid out in Scotland’s new heritage document Our Place in time