Aberdeenshire is famous for its old castles – there are supposed to be over 260 of them – so today I decided to visit some of the ones near Tarves, where, as you remember, I was staying with friends.
First was Castle Fraser, ancestral home of the Fraser clan and later the Fraser-MacKenzie clan. It is a typical old “tower house” castle. Over the centuries different lairds continually added new wings to the castle, extending the original structure horizontally and vertically. Visiting the castle involved lots of climbing up and down stairs in the tall defensive towers you can see in the photo. One of the rooms contained the “laird’s lughole” – a secret room from where the laird could eavesdrop on the conversations in the main hall.
In each room we met National Trust of Scotland volunteers, who would enthrall us with stories of the castle’s past owners. My favourite was the story of Charles Mackenzie, who lost a leg during the Napoleonic wars and then returned to Scotland to lead a long and active life. He had over twenty sophisticated artificial legs built, which impress medical experts even to this day. There were different legs for different activities – walking, dancing, horse riding. Since the laird fathered fourteen children, I wondered if there was a leg for procreation, but was too shy to ask.
Next was Haddo House, which was built in a completely different, Georgian, style – like an English country house.
It was the home of the Gordon family, and had its own stories. The house dates 1732 but most of the interior is Victorian, dating from 1880. When the newly-wed Lady Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon arrived at the house after her honeymoon, she hated the old Scottish interior so much that her husband gave her £100,000 (now worth £12-13 million) to completely remodel the house. She did a great job, but unfortunately it was not allowed to take photos inside the house. Lady Ishbel and her prime minister husband would often receive Queen Victoria, who would ride over from Balmoral Castle. Haddo House sits in very pretty gardens, which in turn are part of huge grounds that include a lake, forest and deer park.
My final castle visit was Fyvie Castle. Like Castle Fraser, this was built in the “tower-house” style.
It was the home to various families, ending up with a branch of the Gordon family who eventually gambled and drank away their fortune and sold it to Alexander Leith, a local boy (possibly a descendant of one of the original owning families), who had made his fortune in America. He installed an impressive music room but left the structure and feeling of castle unchanged. Fyvie was probably my favourite castle of the three – very atmospheric, with lots of old weapons and armour on display.
From there I headed back to Tarves for another really good dinner and long evening of reminiscing with my friends.