I spend my first day in the lovely town of Pitlochry (more on Pitlochry later) by taking a trip to Blair Castle, the ancestral home of the Murray clan, my Scottish ancestors. It’s really interesting to go somewhere with so much family history, but it’s also just a lovely castle to visit.
After a lovely long walk from Pitlochry, I arrive in Blair Atholl, the town based around Blair Castle. Blair Atholl is a quaint little town, but there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot going on. The castle is the reason I’ve made the trek up here though, so I breeze quickly through the town and make my way up the long tree-lined driveway.
Blair Castle itself is like something out of a fairytale. Unfortunately there is some work being done on the roof while I’m there, so there’s a bit of scaffolding up which I’m sure detracts from the lovely turrets, but it’s still very pretty indeed. Besides, I’m informed that the reason the roof needs fixing is that it was damaged during a siege. The hazards of having an interesting history I suppose.
Blair Castle originally would have been more of a medieval styled castle, but it was damaged numerous times during sieges and when the second Duke rebuilt it in 1740, he turned it into the lovely mansion that’s here today instead of just a big fortress.
After gazing at the outside for a while, I begin my tour of Blair Castle’s 30 rooms. There’s no photography allowed inside unfortunately so you’ll have to make do with my observations. The first two rooms are information points that go into the general history of the castle, so I start by reading a bit about the history of the Murrays, who I keep having to remind myself that I’m related to. The family tree they have displayed isn’t detailed enough to get as far as me unfortunately, but one thing I’m immediately struck by is that first Duke had A LOT of children.
During the first Jacobite uprising, the 1st Duke and most of his sons supported and fought against the government for the Jacobite cause. The Duke’s son James, who succeeded him remained loyal to the government. The family was divided during the second uprising. James, now the 2nd Duke, supported the government cause but most of his clan supported the Jacobites and fought for them under the command of his brother Lord George Murray. The Jacobite forced laid siege to Blair Castle in 1746 (hence the roof repairs), but were called away to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie in Inverness where they were defeated at the Battle of Culloden.
Blair Castle is the only castle in Europe that still has a private army. The Atholl Highlanders escorted Queen Victoria on her tour of Perthshire and in recognition of their service the Queen gave the regiment official status.
I continue my tour of the rooms stunned that my ancestors were fancy enough to live in a place like this. Everything is extremely posh. Most of the rooms remind me of Pride and Prejudice, but even more grand. Aside from the expected flash bedrooms and dining areas, there’s a room for books, a room for tea, a room for ‘treasure’, and a room that appears to be dedicated to weird taxidermy. Several stuffed birds and one rabbit are dotted about the tables, all of them wearing frivolous hats. Not sure what that’s about. Castles do have their oddities.
Hunting is a big feature of the place. Along with the standard heads mounted on walls there are chandeliers made out of antlers. Castle life aye? The armory is also well stocked of course. Multiple rooms have an impressive array of weapons arranged into interesting patterns on the wall. Some of these are weapons that were used at the Battle of Culloden. In another room I find the Murray ‘Sword of Justice’. I don’t even want to know what that is for.
Information points inform me on an array of royal visitors the castle has had over the years. Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria where among the more famous ones of course, but the castle has played host to many a royal in its time. A considerably less royal visitor also catches my eye. Stephane Grappelli played a concert here. I wonder if he was entertained in the same tea room as Queen Victoria?
The castle also played a role in both World Wars which I didn’t realize. In WWI it was used as a hospital and in WWII it was used as a school and house for people who had been evacuated from Glasgow.
Once I’ve had my fill of luxurious furnishings, I come back outside to check out the gift shop. Some guy has started playing bagpipes outside the castle in traditional dress. Unfortunately he seems to be having serious issues with his pipes. I’m no bagpipe expert, but I’m pretty sure they’re not supposed to sound like that and he looks very stressed out. Poor guy. I take a picture of him anyway before hurrying off to buy postcards. He still LOOKS pretty sweet.
The castle grounds are even more lovely than the castle itself in their own way. My favorite part is Diana’s Grove. This patch of forest is centered around a statue of Diana the huntress and filled with lots of lovely big old trees. A lot of them come from North America oddly enough. The largest tree is a Douglas Fir measuring in at 59 m. There used to be a Great Fir in the grove that was the tallest tree in Britain but the top got knocked off in a lightning storm and now it’s slightly shorter than the Douglas Fir (catching up though, so maybe it will be the tallest tree again one day). Down the hill is a baby Redwood named Wellingtonia. Apparently one of the relatives went over to North America for some war or other and brought back seedlings along with some other treasures. One of the treasure rooms in the castle has a display case of Native American artifacts. There are old arrow heads, tomahawks, moccasins, and a few other bits and pieces. The trees are definitely the best souvenirs though in my opinion.
After a long wander in Diana’s Grove, I take a walk in the Hercules Garden, which is closer to the manicured castle garden that I was expecting but still wild enough for my tastes. It has an array of pretty flowers and shrubs arranged around large pond. There are ducklings around at the moment as well, a nice bonus. It’s not as impressive as Diana’s Grove, but still worth a look.
My feet are very tired by this point, so I start making way back to Pitlochry, with many a backward glance at the lovely castle. It’s a wonderful property to have in the family and I’m glad I’ve finally gotten the chance to see it.
Listening to: Chan Chan – The Afro-Cuban Allstars