Spend the night in a Scottish castle

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Dalhousie Castle Hotel and Aqueous Spa

Bonnyrigg, Midlothian, Scotland

44 1875 820153, www.dalhousiecastle.co.uk

Email: info@dalhousiecastle.co.uk

Flights to Edinburgh, Scotland, leave daily from DFW on American Airlines and United Airlines; www.aa.com, www.united.com

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In Scotland, there are essentially two ways to be able to spend a night in a castle: be part of royalty (either through birth or marriage), or buy your way in. Not having the ancestral advantage to accomplish the former, I chose the latter.

I had spent 10 days sightseeing in Scotland, and my traveling companion and I had logged several miles each day touring the magnificent gardens and grounds of its finer castles. We’d ventured inside whenever possible, but some castles offer limited indoor access because they are residences to some of Scotland’s and England’s royals.

These intriguing glimpses of castle life heightened the appeal of spending the night inside an ancient fortress, and we knew we didn’t want to leave the country without parking our heads on pillows in a grand palace with a notable past.

We set our sights on Dalhousie Castle, an imposing structure dating to the 13th century. It isn’t as large as some of the royal castles we had visited, but its walls have housed an impressive amount of history and scandal. As the private residence of the noted Ramsay clan for eight centuries and the former seat of the Earls of Dalhousie, it was converted into a hotel in the early 1970s.

Dalhousie’s prime location in Bonnyrigg, just eight miles from the busy, tourist-centric hub of Edinburgh, makes it a great first stop when arriving from the U.S., as well as a convenient final destination before departing the country.

Just roaming through the castle is an adventure in itself; the scars of its past — which include a six-month siege led by King Henry IV in 1400 — collide nicely with its modern amenities. The stone hallways easily transport you back in time even while they lead to rooms that have been updated for comfort and style.

Rich tweeds, tartan plaids and twill dominate the decor, keeping the Scottish heritage alive at every turn. Like the others, our room wasn’t spacious but it boasted a four-poster bed and was designed to emphasize the castle’s historic past.

For the birds

Although Dalhousie is home to Scotland’s first hydro-spa, as we began our explorations, we decided to forgo pampering for a much more unusual indigenous experience — falconry. Embracing the customs of the country, Dalhousie Castle is known for its falconry program and even offers an intensive five-day course to teach modern-day falconers how to train, handle and care for their bird.

Most visitors opt for an hour or two of learning how to hunt with these birds of prey. Regardless of why or for how long they’re in the air, the birds seem happy for any opportunity to take flight.

I wasn’t interested in learning how to hunt but did want to spend some quality time with these impressive birds. An assortment of Harris hawks, which are excellent hunters, join buzzards, eagles and several species of owls to fill up the falconry.

Our guide was Cleonne Swepp, a falconer in her third year as a trainer at the falconry, who introduced us to just a few of the castle’s 65 birds. They range from small owls like Puck, a crowd favorite who is no more than 5 inches tall and often receives repeat visits from children staying at the hotel, to Navajo, a great gray owl with piercing eyes and the ability to swivel his head some 270 degrees — which can be a little unnerving if he chooses to do this while sitting on your arm.

Bonny, the pure-white snowy owl, is perhaps the most famous of the birds, as she is often used to deliver wedding rings to a best man during wedding ceremonies held in the castle’s chapel. We also met a pair of 5-week-old snowy owls that will be raised to take Bonny’s place when she retires.

Most of my birding experience for the day involved Ziggy, a 32-year-old tawny eagle native to India. After donning the leather guard for my arm, I nervously waited while Swepp guided him onto my forearm. As one of the larger birds in the group, Ziggy is also the most intimidating, and he wasted no time in staring me down.

When I stared back, he turned his head, disinterested, then spread his mighty wings as if to flaunt his impressive wingspan. He turned his head to stare intensely at me again. I looked at his talons, each of them at least 3 inches long, and found myself being extremely grateful for the leather guard I was wearing.

After a couple of hours spent learning more about the incredible birds and gaining a new appreciation for what it takes to care for them, we were more than ready for our proper afternoon tea. This traditional event is served in Dalhousie’s library, where one of the “bookcases” opened to reveal a hidden but well-stocked bar — something we suspected would come in handy later that evening.

Although the afternoon tea menu mentioned scones, cream cakes, finger sandwiches and shortbread, nothing prepared us for the three-tiered towers of plates they brought us. It was enough to make us rethink (and delay) our dinner reservations, as the temptation to sample each of the delicacies proved very strong.

Afterward, we walked it off with a leisurely tour of the forested grounds surrounding the castle and along the South Esk River, which borders the Dalhousie property.

Dining in the depths

Dinner arrived soon enough and was served in the Dungeon Restaurant, which, despite the nerve-racking name, is the more formal of Dalhousie’s two restaurants. (In complete contrast, the other restaurant, The Orangery, is bright and airy and overlooks the river.) We were led back to the library, where we sipped an excellent 15-year-old scotch and waited for our table.

Neither of us was convinced that we’d burned off our carb feast from the indulgent afternoon tea by the time we descended the steps to a dimly lit area with a much nicer ambiance than the one afforded to its original occupants and a rich menu of dishes like venison and salmon — presumably much better than the fare prisoners were offered as well.

Our waiter shared stories of the dungeon and the castle’s past, showing us marks near the top of what is now the wine cellar that reportedly dated back to the days when prisoners were lowered into the dungeon by ropes. Like any self-respecting castle, Dalhousie is the rumored home of several ghosts, among them, a shadowy visitor known as the Grey Lady.

Presumed to be the ghost of a teenage girl who was starved to death some 800 years ago when her affair with a married man was discovered by his wife, the Grey Lady reportedly roams the halls or the grand entry’s stairwell. Reports of her sightings were abundant, but the only spirits we experienced during our stay were the kind served in the library — and those were exceptional.

Despite its violent history, modern-day Dalhousie Castle has a calm and relaxing environment, and I wondered if that was due more to the addition of the spa and its serene offerings or just an old castle coming to peace with its past. Either way, we found it a charming place to spend a day (or several), and get a dose of some royal treatment.

More castles

Scotland is famous for its historic castles, with literally thousands of them dotting the hilly green landscape. From barely-there ruins to fully restored buildings, these castles provide a unique glimpse into the country’s history — and a fascinating look at both the turbulent and opulent lives of the fortresses’ residents.

While some castles have been converted into hotels and others have fallen to ruin, many castles continue to operate today as museums and attractions. Among some of the country’s most popular castles worth visiting are:

Atholl Estates/Blair Castle and Gardens

Where: Pitlochry, Perthshire

Claim to fame: The brilliant white facade of this castle lies in striking contrast to the lush green countryside of its location in the Atholl Estates, and it has many activities that make it a popular spot for locals on holiday. With Land Rover safaris, treks on highland ponies, excursions on walking and cycling trails, and events like the Highland Games, Blair Castle and Atholl Estates offer some of the most versatile castle experiences in the country.

Info: www.atholl-estates.co.uk

Balmoral Estates

Where: Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire

Claim to fame: The Scottish home of the royal family since Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought it in 1852, this castle still hosts visits from the royal family each year. Don’t expect to rub elbows with William, Kate or newborn Prince George, however. When the family is in town, the castle shuts down its tourist activities. While tours only allow a small glimpse inside Balmoral, visitors can enjoy a well-narrated tour of the extensive grounds and learn more about the history of the estate and the royal family. It also has one of the best castle gift shops you’ll find in Scotland.

Info: www.balmoralcastle.com

Edinburgh Castle

Where: Edinburgh, Midlothian

Claim to fame: This massive, iconic fortress dominates the skyline of the city of Edinburgh and is an anchor to “the Royal Mile,” a festive street lined with shops, bars, restaurants and street performers. Dating to the 12th century, the castle is Scotland’s most popular tourist attraction, attracting more than 1.3 million visitors a year. In addition to offering the best panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside, it houses a staggering amount of Scottish history and is home to multiple museums and memorials.

Info: www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk

Glamis Castle

Where: Glamis, Angus Glens

Claim to fame: The childhood home of Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, Glamis has been the ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore for more than 600 years. It is the birthplace of Princess Margaret and the setting for the story of Macbeth. Today, it is the home of Michael, the 18th Earl of Strathmore. Stroll the gardens, or take a tour for an extensive look into castle living, replete with historical tales and, of course, a ghost story or two.

Info: www.glamis-castle.co.uk

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