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what it feels like to inherit a castle in Scotland

March 21, 2010

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.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 11:28 am

    See this is why your blog is so interesting!! As you saw I’ve put a link on my blog to yours, I’m also going to put a note at the end of today’s post for people to come and take a look here. I think loads of folk will be really interested in your life! It sounds *so* romantic but you speak about the realities too.

  2. dancingbeastie permalink
    March 22, 2010 11:54 am

    Thank you Sian. I am sticking my head above the parapet in writing this post and am rather scared of being shot at…. but this blog professes to be about living in a castle, so I thought it was time I wrote about exactly that…!

  3. March 22, 2010 2:15 pm

    Yes somtimes contentious issues attract a few comments! I think a lot of folk around the world still imagine Scotland and the Laird/tenant system to have remained unchanged since the age of the clearances! However nowadays tenant farmers have the “right to buy” crofts, forests and even entire islands, even if the Laird doesn’t want to sell. Plus they are able to buy at a reduced rate and with grant aid. So tenant farmers are no longer the underdog they were in the 19th century.

    I find your story fascinating, and am interested in the feeling of the sense of heritage, duty and responsibility for the castle, as well as your obvious love for it and the landscape. It’s also interesting to hear about the need to diversify to be able to make a living and manage the estate in a viable fashion. So keep blogging! And remember there’s always the delete key if you don’t like a comment 😉

  4. March 22, 2010 6:19 pm

    Hi dancingbeastie – what fun to find your blog! And thanks to Sian for leading me here. We loved our time in the Highlands a few years ago, and always enjoy reading about it. Someday, maybe, we’ll get back.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      March 22, 2010 7:20 pm

      Hello Mary, thank you for dropping by, all the way from Tennessee. The wonders of the internet, eh! I love it.

  5. February 21, 2011 3:48 pm

    I can’t believe I only read this post now! I think when I first came across your blog I thought ‘Wow, a castle!’ but didn’t give much thought to the hows and whys.

    No doubt it is a lot of work and a huge responsibility. Is it at all a public place or open to the public at all? It’s all very exotic to me, coming from the US.

    Sorry if my question is answered elsewhere. I’m going to have a little dig through your archives now. 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      February 21, 2011 6:53 pm

      Thank you for visiting, Michele – I’m glad that you found this post. We are open by arrangement for things like private tours, and we hold weddings here, but we are not big and grand enough to be open to the public on a regular basis. (Luckily, as I don’t think I’d be very good at that!)

  6. Kieran permalink
    February 23, 2011 12:47 am

    How exciting to find your blog!!! Can you tell us where your castle is? I don’t want to compromise your privacy, of course. But the general area? If not, I completely understand. I’m looking forward to reading all your posts!!!

    All the best,

    Kieran Kramer in South Carolina, USA (I’m a woman–I know Kieran is a man’s name over there, but that’s America for you!!!) :>)

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 23, 2011 10:35 am

      Hi Kieran (yes, you had me confused for a second there!), in answer to your question, we are in Perthshire, in the heart of Scotland.
      Thanks for visiting!

  7. Andrea permalink
    February 23, 2011 10:52 am

    Living in Canada (near Toronto) but having a Scottish heritage, I am delighted to hear of your soulful adventure in taking over the castle. What particularly caught my eye was your comment about the spirit of the land, the spirit of nature. Please don’t edit ‘purple prose’… we so need soulful entries into the landscapes where we live, to remember our roots, to reclaim our sacred connection with the earth. And, perhaps even more importantly, to assuage the loneliness that I sense the Soul of the Earth experiences at this time! Loved your most recent walk through the woods with photos and commentary, and the picture of the bluebells.
    My Scottish grandmother lived to 103, and she took my sister to visit Findhorn when she was in her 80’s. A suffragette who moved to Vancouver Island in her twenties, her fiercely independent spirit shaped her children and grandchildren’s consciousness with an sense of purposefulness. She gave me Rachel Carson’s A Sense of Wonder when I had my first child, a perfect book for a young mother, reminding me of what’s really important!
    Thank you for writing and sharing your grand adventure. I’m sure the castle is very pleased to have you living there.
    By the way, though there are no castles in Canada, I live in a heritage house that is 160 years old. It is a privilege to move forward the quiet stories of the people who built the beautiful home. Andrea

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 23, 2011 10:30 pm

      Your heartfelt comments are refreshing and touching, Andrea. I’m glad you have enjoyed your look around DB.
      Your grandmother sounds a very special woman; and I love your attitude to the ‘pre-loved’ houses in which we each live, too. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  8. March 19, 2011 4:55 pm

    Sorry this comment is so long after the event, but I’ve only just found your lovely blog by following the link from Sian’s. This is such an honest and perceptive post about something that most of us can hardly imagine. Living as I do with a hoarder, I do hope you managed to clear some of the accumulated clutter.

  9. March 19, 2011 4:57 pm

    Oh, forgot to mention that we travel through Perthshire several times a year as we go to stay on the far north coast of Scotland. Wonderful scenery.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 20, 2011 5:56 pm

      Hello, Perpetua, I’m glad you found Dancing Beastie! Thank you for such nice comments.
      The clutter…well…we cleared enough to move in properly, but there is still an awful lot clogging up spare rooms. It’s bad Feng Shui, I’m sure, but one can only face doing so much at a time! All old family houses seem to be the same in that respect. While others dream of living in a castle, we dream of a modern, minimalist, eco-friendly house…but we love this place really.

  10. Margie permalink
    March 27, 2011 2:32 am

    I am a Canadian. We lived south of London for two years (my husband worked in Aberdeen for two days each week.) We visited more castles in those two years than most people see in a lifetime! I loved them all, but would not have wanted to live in any of them – wet cold winters were bad enough in the 30 year old house we were renting. I can’t imagine how you would heat a castle! So I am fascinated about what it is like to live in a castle, manage an estate and be a caretaker of the past.

    My family (on my mother’s side) were from the Murray Clan in Scotland. The more we learned about Scotland’s history, the more we disliked living in England! My husband used to say that every time he flew into Aberdeen, he felt like he was coming home. (And he is of Swedish-Ukrainian descent, not Scottish)!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 27, 2011 4:38 pm

      Hi Margie, thanks for writing. There are some fantastic castles in Aberdeenshire, aren’t there? But I always pity the people who have to vacuum the stairs…

      There are lots of Murrays in our part of the world. I think many people share your husband’s feelings about Scotland, whatever their ancestry. My feeling is, if a man looks good in a kilt (and what man doesn’t) then I don’t care what country he’s from! 🙂

  11. October 8, 2011 9:43 pm

    I am insanely jealous!

  12. May 30, 2012 4:52 pm

    Enchanting to meet you 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      May 30, 2012 10:10 pm

      Likewise, Ritika, and thank you so much for visiting!


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