what it feels like to inherit a castle in Scotland
The short answer is, probably not how you think. It wasn’t how I thought, anyway, the day we locked up our basement flat in Edinburgh for the last time and set off for our new life as the laird and his wife. As we turned in to the estate and caught sight of the grey turrets across the fields, I suppose I expected to feel some sort of, well, smugness, if I’m honest. Some kind of triumphalism. But I didn’t. The overwhelming feeling that dawned, that settled on me, was a sense of awesome and humbling responsibility. Perhaps it is different if you have made your own fortune and buy a castle; perhaps buyers have more of a sense of ownership. For us, moving in to a family seat where generations of my husband’s family have lived before us, it is clear that we are merely transient curators in the long scheme of things. We have a duty, both to the generations past and to those yet to come, to care for the estate as best we can, for as long as it is our turn to do so.
After all, nobody wants to be remembered as the generation that messed up.
Nor is our duty only to the family. A landed estate is a business, responsible for the livelihoods of many people whether directly or indirectly. We are always aware that the decisions we make on the running of the estate affect more people than just ourselves. Trying to pull the estate out of acute financial difficulties in the early days necessitated hard decisions: long-standing employees had to be laid off, farms closed, livestock sold. You can’t make decisions like that easily, nor should you. It was a difficult time for everybody involved, not least for the new boss, my thoughtful, decent husband, who is as far removed from the stereotype of the heartless landowner as you could imagine. Happily, those necessary changes have resulted in the better times now: everybody who left us either retired or quickly found other work locally, and the estate is generally in better shape to look after our present team, as they look after the estate.
As for the castle itself: again, inheriting is very different from purchasing. Inheriting a castle must seem like winning the lottery – especially for the spouse who, in this case, merely happened to fall in love with the man who was the son and heir! – but there is no lack of strings attached. My new home was not only my husband’s and mine; it was (and is) the focus of the entire extended family, all of whom have varying degrees of emotional investment in it. Every change one makes, however miniscule (moving a painting, re-arranging the chairs) signifies a step away from the home they remember, which can give a pang to even the most tactful relative. It means one is always fighting inertia in making any change at all. It also means that your new home is already stuffed full of other peoples’ things. Every store room and attic was filled with the leavings of generations: some treasures of the family memento variety, but an awful lot of junk. Every drawer, shelf and cupboard was occupied: with old socks, yellowed newspapers, incomplete jigsaws, discarded toys, mice-nibbled blankets, chipped crockery, outdated skirts….for the first two months here we lived out of our suitcases and packing cases, as there was no space in all the rooms of this castle into which we could unpack. We couldn’t just sweep everything into a skip, often though we longed to. I spent the first dusty year in the house with a notebook and pencil always in my back pocket, making notes of what was where and where it should go next: jumble sale, auction, stay put, archive, offer to another family member, bin… We tried to feel lucky but often felt deeply homesick for our tidy little basement flat, where we had become a family of three and where the only belongings and memories were our own.
What did it feel like to take on the family castle? How do I feel now, nearly a decade on? Awestruck. Undeserving. Apprehensive; lucky; privileged – and conscious of the moral obligations that come with privilege. Determined to try to live up to expectations. Conspicuous; self-conscious; disillusioned (occasionally); overwhelmed (often); inadequate (constantly); blessed. Blessed. Never complacent. And never, I hope, smug.