Scotland’s painted castles

The Anglocentric cliché which claims that an Englishman’s home is his castle does a notable disservice to the rest of the British Isles. If your idea of heritage keeps a special place for castles, there are plenty of excellent examples across Scotland, Wales and the island dependencies such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Two handy tips might be: go North, and look up once you’re inside. Our travels around Scotland uncovered two castles, each just outside a city, and each featuring remarkable painted decorations.

Huntingtower Castle

Huntingtower Castle
Huntingtower Castle

Three miles north-west of Perth stands a complex construction, Huntingtower. It was originally ‘the place of Ruthven’, the name deriving from a powerful family who came to the aid of William Wallace and later Robert Bruce. The reward was the position of sheriff of Perth. Around 1500, the family built two tower houses within 3m of each other, one in an L-shape. This may have been in order to provide separate accommodation for the owner and his heir.

Almost a century later, the Ruthven family was implicated in a conspiracy against James VI (later James I of England). The house, now called Huntingtower, became crown property, passing through various owners’ hands before going into State ownership in 1912. It seems the two towers became one building at some point in the 17th century. One legacy of the separate buildings is the story of the ‘Maiden’s Leap’, according to which a daughter of the owner jumped from one tower to the other, to avoid her mother discovering her with a lover. Today’s inhabitants find it easier to fly: about 200 pipistrelle bats that hibernate inside the castle and barn owls that roost just above the door of the west tower.

The merger of two towers into one castle means that Huntingtower can be confusing, with staircases, fireplaces and gunholes popping up where you might not expect them. The highlights lie in the first-floor hall of the east tower. Look up for a painted wooden ceiling (c.1540) which combines knotwork and stem-and-leaf patterns with artwork of fruit, scrolls, animal patterns and even a lion with a human head. Painted wall plaster fragments on the walls of the hall depict a male figure, possibly Adam, a running deer, a hare or rabbit and a bird in foliage.

The name of Huntingtower also survives in Scottish literature. John Buchan, now best remembered for The Thirty-Nine Steps, was born in Perth. His adventure novel Huntingtower (1922), in which a retired businessman and assorted allies rescue a Russian princess from Bolsheviks, is set in Galloway, but the eponymous large house of the title may have got its name from Buchan’s earliest memories.

Crathes Castle

Sixteen miles south-west of Aberdeen, standing within an estate of 530 acres, Crathes Castle is on a far grander scale than Huntingtower. Its long-term resident family, the Burnetts, received the estate from Robert Bruce. Alexander Burnett became Royal Forester of Drum; the ivory Horn of Leys which hangs above the fireplace in the High Hall was, according to legend, a symbol of that office which Robert Bruce gave to Alexander. The Burnetts lived in a timber fortress (known as a crannog) on a nearby artificial island for 250 years before building Crathes in the late 16th century, and living in it until making it over to the National Trust for Scotland in 1951. One of the Castle’s two reputed ghosts dates from the time of the crannog: a young lady called Bertha who stayed there while her father was fighting abroad, and died in the Castle, leading her distraught father to lay a curse on it. The second is a ‘Green Lady’ who often carries a baby as she walks across a room before disappearing into a wall beside the fireplace.

Whether or not you see either ghost or believe in their existence, the L-shaped Castle itself is a solid enough presence. The purpose of the granite exterior, covered with harling, was to keep out wind and rain. This makes for a pragmatic contrast with the round towers with conical roofs, and the square overhanging turrets which lend a romantic air and are a good example of ‘Scottish baronial’ architecture. The interior also combines the practical with the decorative; on the ground floor, the original entrance, an iron yet, must have been an intimidating obstacle for would-be burglars. If you fancy some exercise, but it’s too cold or wet to roam round the gardens, you could try the Long Gallery, which runs the full length of the top floor and features an oak-panelled ceiling, the only one of its kind to survive in Scotland outside royal palaces.

The most famous of Crathes’ features, though, are four painted ceilings, all dating from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. There’s an unretouched example in the Stair Chamber; artwork showing great historical heroes such as Hector of Troy, King David and Charlemagne in the Room of the Nine Nobles; depictions of 16 female figures, a mixture of Muses and Virtues, in the Muses’ Room; and helpful maxims such as ‘From fools no friendship crave’ in the Green Lady’s Room.

Hector of Troy, from the Room of the Nine Nobles, Crathes Castle
Hector of Troy, from the Room of the Nine Nobles, Crathes Castle

There’s plenty more to admire, both inside the Castle and in the eight sections of its beautiful walled garden (the yew hedges may date back as far as 1702). But the painted ceilings are as fine as anything you could hope to see.

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