William M. Dowd photos
ABERDEENSHIRE, Scotland -- In the craggy Highlands of Scotland, and to some extent in the lusher lowlands as well, life has always been harsh.
Rough weather, generations-long disputes between family-led clans, hard-scrabble earnings pried from rocky fields and shaggy cattle, invaders from Scandinavia and England imposing their will and their rule … . All have played a part in producing a stubborn, hardy race of people known for clinging to their ethnic heritage as strongly as any people you’ll find anywhere.
Little wonder, then, that most of Scotland’s structures have been built, at least in part, of stone – the strong granite type quarried in abundance throughout this land about the size of South Carolina; stone that defies armed attacks, howling winter winds and debilitating cold and snow. Stone that can be cut and muscled into various shapes to accommodate the needs of the people.
Most types of granite tend to sparkle when wet, and in a land where “wet” is synonymous with “typical day” and where you’re never more than about 45 miles from the sea, it’s not unusual to see a certain gleam ahead when approaching a town or village after a storm.
As I traveled throughout Scotland I noted that even the meanest villages were made up mostly of stone structures. And Aberdeen, one of the major cities, is, in fact, known as the Granite City. The granite blocks are found in private homes, farm outbuildings, commercial facilities and, of course, the ubiquitous castles.
Castles have always had a special place in the life and legend of Scotland. The structures themselves vary widely, rather than automatically falling into the “Ivanhoe” or King Arthur model Hollywood created for us.
From the earliest stone fortifications, known as brochs and motte castles, to fortified manor houses (essentially tower-like structures built vertically for security reasons ) erected in the 13th through the 15th centuries and often expanded in later years -- and large, sprawling castles whose names are well known to us today –- Balmoral, summer home of the British royal family; Cawdor, scene of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”; Ardverikie House, the manor house on the BBC America television series “Monarch of the Glen,” and, of course, magnificent Edinburgh Castle that stands on an extinct volcano overlooking that ancient city – these are a legacy that punctuates the history of the nation.
Today, the castles fall into three categories:
• Those that have gone into ownership of such official agencies as Historic Scotland or the National Trust.
• Those that have become tourist accommodations as a way to pay the heavy taxes that have caused most other families to sell them off.
• Those that have fallen into disrepair and now provide mute testimony to the fate of all things made by man, no matter how immortal the feel of their stones.
Many of the historic sites were spruced up in 2009 during the national tourism promotion effort called "Homecoming Scotland."
I've come across several examples of each castle category during my travels of the country.
One of the most historically interesting was Leith Hall, built in A.D. 1650 and now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.
It’s a preserved treasure trove of Scottish memorabilia in the form of chinaware, oil paintings by the likes of Gilbert Stuart, as well as household and personal articles of the period. It’s a typical example of a residence for a Scottish laird (lord), set on a 286-acre estate in the rolling countryside of Aberdeenshire.
It stands in marked contrast to Huntly Castle, looked after by Historic Scotland. The original was built 500 years before Leith Hall. The stone structure that now stands in ruins replaced the original wooden fortifcation in about 1410, and one still can see much of the shell of the main building as well as the remnants of outbuildings -– a winery and a bakery -– and of the motte, a circular artificial defensive mound.
Huntly has always had a cursed existence, usually because its lairds were on the losing side of political and military battles, the winners continually setting the place afire and defacing much of its masonry art. It eventually became an unintended “quarry” for people stealing stones to build the nearby town of Huntly. Finally, in 1923 it passed into state care.
The best example of the third category –- a family home turned commercial enterprise -– was Ballindalloch Castle in an area known as Speyside, a large crescent of land where the river Spey meanders, and where much of the ubiquitous Scotch whisky such as The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich is distilled.
The 16th Century castle has been home to the Macpherson-Grant family since 1546. The original structure was in the traditional Z shape, but has been modified and enlarged over the centuries. It’s a good example of the evolution of a fortified tower house into a sprawling estate.
The people who own and operate Ballindalloch are the picture of British aristocracy, motion picture style.
Oliver Russell, 68, a onetime banker raised in London, is the son of a highly decorated British admiral, and as a young man was what is known as an “honors page” to Queen Elizabeth II. He’s tall, slightly stoop-shouldered, with carefully combed silver-gray hair, a long handsome face and a courtly manner.
His wife, Clare Macpherson-Grant Russell, 62, through whose family the castle has been owned, is the only child of the sixth baron of Ballindalloch. She is an elegantly turned-out woman, dressed in a tailored skirt and jacket, her gray hair worn in sort of a Thatcheresque poof, hands clasped as she speaks, softly and with a clipped English inflection.
When her father died during her childhood, the family title went to his brother who passed ownership of the estate to her upon his death. However, legally the title may only be passed from male to male in the family line.
“Such a silly thing,” Lady Clare said with a dismissive wave. “The very idea that women can’t be just as accomplished as men.”
To avoid having the title die out, the Russells' elder son, Guy Ewan, 41, has officially changed his surname to Macperson-Grant which means he can eventually inherit the sobriquet.
She does, however, hold a title of her own. She is the Lord-Lieutenant of Banffshire, which means she is the Queen’s representative in the locality.
“It also means I have to be sure everything is in proper order when the Queen comes for any occasion,” she told me during a tour of Ballindalloch.
She also is the author of several published cookbooks and designed a number of the items among the jewelry, cashmeres and tartans sold as part of “the Ballindalloch Collection.”
The castle, which has undergone a continual upgrade over the 40-plus years of the Olivers’ marriage -– “I very cleverly married a banker, so he knew all the particulars of how to financially support this venture,” she said -– is a pristine place, with gilt-framed portraits, fine fabrics, heirloom dishware, draperies and silver tableware and bric-a-brac, photos delineating the more modern adventures of the family, and collections of weapons from many generations. All of which stand in stark contrast to seeing the laird and lady of the manor off in a corner stuggling mightily to overcome an office computer problem in the absence of a staff member who usually handles such chores.
Visitors wander through the house, moving through one corridor after another that range in size from two-abreast to tiny, cramped winding staircases once used by servants to stay out of sight of guests while going about their household duties.
The grounds of the estate contain about 100 stone buildings, smallish affairs that over the years served as living quarters for estate workers. Many have been refurbished to serve as guest houses. The grounds also offer salmon and trout fishing in the rivers Spey and Avon that run through the grounds, shooting and hunting on the riverbanks and in the mature hardwood forests, and golf on the private course Oliver Russell runs.
The flora and fauna of the estate are worth seeing. Flower gardens, a walk-through arbor and river walks; a herd of Aberdeen Angus, a breed developed by Lady Clare’s great-grandfather in the 1860s.
“In the States you call them Black Angus,” she explained to me as she pointed out a trio of the great beasts lounging under a shade tree, “but the true name is Aberdeen Angus and they came from right here at Ballindalloch.”
Many of the castles, such as Blair Castle at the Atholl Estates right in the heart of Scotland midway between Inverness (located at the top of Loch Ness) and Perth, are excellent family stops. Child-oriented displays and activities such as wildlife tours via Land Rover, farm tractor tours, pony treks and country fairs abound.
Next year’s “Homecoming Scotland” festivities undoubtedly will ramp up tourism throughout the country. If you’re of Scottish descent, July 25-26 will be the pinnacle when “The Gathering 2009” is projected to be the largest international clan gathering and Highland Games ever held in Scotland.
Around 8,000 clans-people from around the world are expected to take part in a parade along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and 40,000 visitors are expected to attend the Highland Games’ Heavy Event Championship.
The competition moves from country to country each year since its inception in 1980. This year’s championship was won by American Sean Betz in West Virginia, and he plans to defend his title next year in Edinburgh.
ON THE WEB
• Homecoming Scotland
• The Gathering 2009
• Scottish Tourist Board
• Clans & Castles
• Fishing In Scotland
• Golf Travel Scotland
• The Malt Whisky Trail
• Dowd's Guides