Ever since the first Scottish laird extended the hospitality of his castle to an overnight guest, the idea of staying in one has appealed to the collective imagination. What's not to love about spending the night in the company of history (and more often than not, a ghost or two?)
Scotland has its share of castles that have been transformed from the private estates of the aristocracy into luxurious accommodations for discerning travelers. On a recent visit, I had the chance to play lady of the manor at two of them — Inverlochy Castle in the Highlands and Dalhousie Castle, just outside of Edinburgh.
Inverlochy Castle, Fort William
This spectacular Scottish baronial estate, nestled among the glens, lochs and mountains of the West Highlands, is enough to send anyone with a Downton Abbey fetish into fits of rapture.
Built in 1863 by James Scarlett, the first Lord Abinger, it was given the royal seal of approval a decade later when Queen Victoria spent a week here, proclaiming, "I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot."
From my first sight of Inverlochy, I had to agree. It was lovely, perched on its own loch at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom.
As for romantic, what could be more so than the ruins of the original 13th-century castle, just a stone's throw from the current incarnation? Wandering among the ruins, it's easy to imagine its tumultuous history. It was the site of two battles, and the roster of famous names associated with it range from legendary warrior king Robert the Bruce to Archibald Campbell, first Marquess of Argyll and a key figure in the English Civil War.
The present Inverlochy is the perfect castle of the imagination. The bedchambers are fit for royalty, with splendid views of the grounds and surrounding mountains.
There are a number of castlelike activities — archery, falconry and shooting clay pigeons — or the staff can arrange a round of golf at Fort William Golf Course or whitewater rafting on Loch Oich. Some might wish to curl up before the fire with a good book or head to the billiards room for a game (look for the framed letter from Jefferson Davis, a thank-you note to Lord Abinger for his hospitality during a weekend shooting party.)
There is plenty of magnificent Highland scenery to explore in the vicinity of Inverlochy. The Valley of Glencoe occupies a special place in the Scottish consciousness. The largely uninhabited valley, situated between the sea-loch, Loch Leven, and the lonely expanse of Rannoch Moor, has a desolate beauty in keeping with its tragic past.
The Massacre of Glencoe occurred early on Feb. 13, 1692, when 38 members of the McDonald clan were murdered by the Campbell clan, who had been enjoying the former's hospitality. While there was bad blood between the two clans, the massacre had a more complicated origin.
The British government, attempting to suppress rebellious Highlanders, had required the clans to swear an oath to the new king, William of Orange. The Campbells took the oath; the McDonalds, supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie's claim to the throne, did not. This recalcitrance led to one of the saddest episodes in Scottish history.
If the area looks vaguely familiar, it was one of the locations for the most recent James Bond film, Skyfall. Be sure to visit the Glencoe Visitor Center, with its interactive displays and exhibits.
For more Highland history (and some of the most spectacular scenery in the world), travel along the Road to the Isles. You'll see sandy beaches, moors covered in purple and golden heather, and fantastic views across the sea to the isles of Rum, Muck, Eigg and Skye.
You'll see the lovely town of Morar and the fishing village of Mallaig, the gateway to the Isle of Skye, and Loch Shiel, with its backdrop of sweeping glens. Facing the loch is a statue of a kilted highlander, a symbol of the Jacobites who rallied around the doomed Bonnie Prince Charlie on this very spot.
If Inverlochy is the jewel of the Highlands, the Lowlands counters with Dalhousie, a 13th-century fortress set within a wooded parkland on the banks of the River Esk, just eight miles south of Edinburgh.
If these walls could talk, what tales they would tell ... of Edward I staying here before defeating William Wallace (aka Braveheart) at the Battle of Falkirk; of Henry IV trying for six months to storm the castle; and of Oliver Cromwell, who proved more successful than Henry, taking the castle in 1648.
Dalhousie is the epitome of the medieval fortress, from the ivy-covered walls to the labyrinth of passageways leading to guest chambers to the barrel-vaulted dungeon, which today serves as the property's fine dining restaurant. Like Inverlochy, Dalhousie has all the requisite activities, including an award-winning falconry school.
Dalhousie can serve as the base for a number of "must-see" attractions in the area. Chief among them is Stirling Castle, arguably the most historic in Scotland.
Perched atop a volcanic rock, the castle overlooks the battlefield where William Wallace rallied his troops to defeat Edward I in 1297, and Bannockburn Field where Robert the Bruce was victorious in 1314. Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned here at the age of 10 months, and her son, James VI, was baptized here.
It was in the Chapel Royal that James oversaw the baptism of his own son, Prince Henry, and Charles I made a coronation stop in 1833. However, nothing compares to the grandeur of the castle's Great Hall, the largest banqueting hall in Scotland.
Rosslyn Chapel has been a place of worship since 1446, but it has been a place of pilgrimage for tourists only since the publication of Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code and the subsequent film, both of which used Rosslyn — with its Knights Templar connection — as a setting.
The chapel is much more than a film location. It took 40 years to complete, which is understandable when you observe the intricacy of the stone carvings covering practically every surface of the interior.
I was especially fascinated by the Green Men, more than 100 carvings of human faces adorned with greenery, thought to be pre-Christian fertility symbols.
Another favorite of visitors to the area is Abbotsford, the palatial estate of 19th-century novelist Sir Walter Scott. The author of Ivanhoe, The Talisman and Kenilworth, Scott was the world's first best-selling novelist, the John Grisham of his day.
His considerable earnings allowed him to build and personally design Abbotsford, located on the banks of the River Tweed and surrounded by landscaped gardens. If the exterior of the house looks like a patchwork quilt of mis-matched stones, that's because it is. Scott used stones confiscated from the ruins of Scottish abbeys dissolved by Henry VIII.
A notable collector, Scott filled his home with historic relics ranging from the sword and dirk of outlaw Rob Roy to a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie's hair. Equally impressive are the collection of medieval armor and the 9,000 volume library.
As magnificent as Abbotsford is, it is more than just a house. As one admirer said, "When you touch the bricks and mortar, you are touching the soul of Scott."
Inverlochy Castle, Torlundy, Fort William: A Relais & Chateaux property with 17 individually decorated rooms and elegant dining on modern British cuisine in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Inverlochycastlehotel.com.
Dalhousie Castle, Bonnyrigg, Edinburgh: The castle has 27 rooms, many of which have been slept in by historic figures (Oliver Cromwell once slept in the room I was in). Restaurants include the atmospheric Dungeon and the modern Orangery. Dalhousiecastle.co.uk.
Learn more: Visitscotland.com