October 1, 2012

A Highland bastion

When I drove to the house for the first time so many years ago, I was enchanted by the beauty of the estate - the approach threads through rolling parkland and ancient woodland - and by the position of the building close to the river against a backdrop of Highland scenery. But I was not prepared for how exceptional it would prove to be close up. We all know houses which would be 'perfect' but for the odd drawback - perhaps a poor outlook, an undesirable location or proximity to a busy road. Here, I could find no such flaw. This seventeenth-century castle has all the appealing characteristics which have made tower houses so popular.

The early seventeenth century has been described as the indian summer of Scottish baronial architecture, which was inspired as much by native tradition as by foreign influences. Local masons erected these wonderfully rich and ornate buildings at a time when there was still turbulence in the Highlands: lairds (landowners) required an element of protection against attack. As in all such castles, the walls here are therefore plain, designed to withstand assault but, above, the roof line breaks into a profusion of towers, turrets, corbelling and all the rich architectural detail so typical of these buildings. The European influence is obvious to anyone who has visited the chateaux of central and northern France. Inside, on the lower levels, the ornamental plasterwork, panelling and vaulted rooms remain unchanged, but the castle will be made more convenient for modern habitation by the installation of a lift.
One of the attractions of these tower houses is their internal layout. Since the number of rooms on each floor is limited by the small ground area, rooms tend to be located in order of practical priority from the bottom up. Hence the kitchen and its attendant offices occupy the ground floor, the main reception rooms are on the first floor and the bedrooms on the floors above. In some respects tower houses imitate townhouses, with the same benefits of vertical plumbing and heat rising to warm the upper rooms.
The library is through a door hidden in the panelling. It contains some of the finest plasterwork in the castle. The ceiling is typical of the work of itinerant Italian plasterers who visited Scotland in the seventeenth century; high-relief floral strap work and figurative detail are common characteristics of their work.
Riddles Court, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, 17th century plaster ceiling.
The climate in Scotland is kind in summer but winter brings short days and long evenings. It also brings the most wonderful evening light, as those who know Scotland will attest; this streams through the deep castle windows flooding the interior with light as if in a theatre.

It is easy to overdecorate rooms like these.  The architecture is so powerful and the furniture and pictures so arresting that soft furnishings and curtains, though they should be complementary, are not central to creating a balanced interior. They should not fight for attention in surroundings of this quality.

The house is an architectural gem, of ideal size and scale, in a perfect setting and, nearly 400 years on, still as suitable for family occupation as when it was built - nonwithstanding the departure of the prisoners and the arrival of the lift.