Blazing log fires, oversized four-poster beds, 2,000 acres to call your own, fine food and wine all wrapped up in a hunk of Scottish granite and steeped in history for centuries--a perfect recipe for a magical weekend with a group of friends or family.
There are many castles available to rent for a house party throughout Scotland. In general, the farther north and more rural you go, the more authentic they are. But to find one within easy reach of Edinburgh that doesn't have tartan drapes, reproduction suits of armor, and pine floorboards is more of a challenge. They may be genuinely 16th-century outside, but some of the travesties of conservation and restoration have to be seen to be believed.
Built in 1780, Birkhill Castle is the real thing--the antithesis of tourist tackiness and just 50 minutes north of Edinburgh and west of St. Andrews. Set in rolling countryside on the shores of the River Tay estuary in Fife, it is the home of the Earl and Countess of Dundee. There are 12 bedrooms and bathrooms of varying sizes and views, but each with individual charm. The atmosphere is friendly and informal, and you feel like a houseguest rather than a tourist.
Lord Dundee is an elected peer in the House of Lords and is the Hereditary Royal Banner Bearer for Scotland. The coronation banners hang proudly in the hall. Lady Dundee runs the 2,000-acre arable farm and oversees the succession of houseguests. The house is stuffed full of paintings and antiques, and the family history is worth indulging. Lady Dundee will willingly bring the pictures of their ancestors to life with details of tragic deaths, misunderstandings in love, and stories from the battlefield. We were welcomed with a substantial afternoon tea and lazed about until the views of the garden could be resisted no longer. Then, geared up with borrowed wellies and two of the family dogs, 10 of us set off to wander until sunset. An amble through carpets of snowdrops, woodland gardens, and the family graveyard led us eventually to a stony beach on the River Tay. Such exertion required a couple of hours devoted to lavender-filled baths and a leisurely read before dinner. Seven o'clock and back to the drawing room for pre-dinner champagne. Dinner was delicious--soufflé, beef bourguignon, and bread and butter pudding served in a candlelit dining room with a roaring fire. Beside it was the games room with a billiards table and an antique soccer table, where we eventually retired with a bottle of fine port--and Scottish whiskey, of course.
Taking over the whole castle is expensive. Through Loyd and Townsend-Rose, it costs $370 per night per person--all food and drink included. A much better option is to book B&B direct with Lady Dundee. At $110/night per person and dinner at $50 it's a reasonable way to get the authenticity and charm of a genuine Scottish castle.
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