Crathes Castle is simply one of the most superb castles in Scotland. The beautiful, pink-harled exterior and Disney-esque design are common features of castles in Aberdeenshire, but at Crathes they are combined with a remarkably well preserved original interior, wonderful gardens and a range of other attractions.
Like a number of other castles and grand houses in Aberdeenshire, Crathes Castle is owned by the National Trust for Scotland. It's an indication of the attraction it provides for visitors from around the globe that it is the only one of them to remain open throughout the year. Full opening hours are set out on the right.
During the summer season admission is by timed ticket obtainable from the Visitor Centre located up the hill from the castle. The timed tickets, and a one way system that takes you up one side of the building and down the other, mean that visitors are always fully able to appreciate the beauty of the interiors of this remarkable castle.
Although a tour of the castle is well worth the journey in itself, it is only part of what the NTS offer visitors to Crathes. The estate comprises some 595 acres on the north side of the valley of the River Dee and immediately north of the A93. It lies some two miles east of Banchory and 12 miles slightly south of west from Aberdeen.
The estate is home to a wide range of habitats, including woodland, marsh, ponds and streams, though as you draw closer to Crathes Castle itself, the dominant feature is the collection of mature trees from around the world planted here in around 1860 by Sir James Horne Barnett.
Leaflets detailing a number of trails through the park are available at the Visitor Centre, and the Ranger Service provides guided walks during the summer months.
The estate buildings a little distance to the west and north west of the castle have been developed to provide a range of facilities for visitors, including the visitor centre itself, a shop, a café capable of seating 80 and, in what was originally a circular horsemill, a restaurant. Those looking for something more adventurous can try the SkyWall, a climbing wall near the café, while not far from the car park, a high level adventure route called SkyTrek is being developed among the treetops.
The walled gardens at Crathes Castle are almost as famous as the castle itself. They extend to the south east of the castle and form an oblong covering 3.75 acres that is twice as long from north to south as from east to west. The gardens are divided into eight square compartments, the four to the south being at a lower level than those to the north.
Garden lovers will appreciate the sheer variety of plants, shrubs and trees at Crathes. Those who are here primarily to see the castle will appreciate the views the gardens offer of it. These are particularly striking at the upper end of the gardens, where yews that probably date back to the very early 1700s help frame the structure of the castle and contribute considerably to its distinctive character.
The story of Crathes Castle is the story of the Burnett family, who lived here continuously from when it was built in the latter half of the 1500s until 1951, when Major-General Sir James Burnett, 13th Baronet of Leys, presented the castle and estate to the National Trust for Scotland.
The family's origins can be traced back to the arrival of the Normans in England in 1066. Their interests in Deeside date back to 1323 when Alexander de Burnard was given an estate near Banchory and appointed the Royal Forester of Drum by Robert the Bruce. His badge of office was the Horn of Leys, a carved and highly decorated ivory horn that now hangs in the High Hall at Crathes. For the next 250 years the family managed their estates from a crannog or artificial island in the Loch of Leys, a (now drained) loch north of Banchory.
The years before the Reformation of 1560 brought the family increased wealth. In 1543 Alexander Burnett of Leys had married Janet Hamilton, daughter of a (supposedly celibate) Roman Catholic canon and a good friend of Cardinal David Beaton, Abbot of Arbroath Abbey. Beaton was murdered by Protestants associated with John Knox at St Andrews Castle in 1546, but not before he had managed to distribute large quantities of church property and assets to assorted favourites including his own mistresses, assorted illegitimate children, and to Janet Hamilton.
In 1553 the Burnetts decided to use their new-found wealth to build a more impressive - and drier - family home to replace the crannog in the Loch of Leys. The idea of Crathes Castle was born. It was completed in 1596, largely as you see it today. As originally built, there would have been a number of nearby buildings, all enclosed with the castle by a barmkin (or courtyard) wall. These buildings and the wall have long since disappeared.
The Burnetts were never amongst the most famous of Scottish families, but over the centuries they produced a series of generals, admirals, bishops and judges, and even a Governor of New York. Possibly more importantly they seemed to have a happy knack of staying out of the many bitter conflicts of religion or succession that were to sweep across Scotland until the mid 1700s. As a result they never emerged on the losing side, and retained their estates intact.
Indeed, the only time Crathes Castle ever saw anything even close to military action was in 1644 when the Marquis of Montrose and his Royalist army turned up at Banchory. Montrose asked Sir Thomas Burnett to surrender the castle peacefully, which he did, before the two old friends dined together in the High Hall. The following day Montrose moved on, leaving the "captured" castle with Sir Thomas. For the rest of the Civil War, Sir Thomas took the precaution of being in possession of letters from both sides stating that Crathes and the Burnetts should not be molested: these documents remain on view at Crathes today.
The 3rd Baronet of Leys, another Sir Thomas Burnett, married Margaret Arbuthnott in the 1680s, and over the following 22 years, they had 21 children. To accommodate them, the couple built a three storey wing to the east of the castle. This burned down in 1966, being replaced by the two storey wing you see today.
The main body of Crathes Castle is L-plan in shape and six storeys tall. The upper levels are a magnificent riot of turrets, corbels and highly elaborate string courses, plus a clock added in Victorian times. The original entrance lay in the inner angle of the "L", so it could be more easily defended, and today it retains its iron yett or metal grid designed to help protect the doorway.
Today's visitor enters the castle via a door in the protruding east wing. You then make your way into the vaulted basement of the original castle before climbing a spiral stair that takes you, level by level, via a series of rooms up to the Long Gallery, from which another spiral stair is followed back down through the levels of the castle before emerging back in the more modern wing.
What is perhaps most impressive at Crathes is the sense that what you are seeing is what the Burnett's would have seen while living here over the centuries. The furniture is magnificent, at times almost monumental: like the four poster bed in the Laird's Bedroom. Elsewhere tapestries or wood panelling cover walls with remarkable authenticity. But what really sets Crathes Castle apart are the strikingly painted ceilings.
A number of rooms in the castle have ceilings that are completely painted in complex and colourful designs and mottos. Most were touched up, and brightened up, in the 1800s, but they remain utterly fascinating. Some of the rooms also carry traces of the highly patterned decoration that would once also have covered all the walls. It is fascinating to see this, but you are actually left slightly thankful that someone later saw fit to go for a more sober, and lighter, colour scheme.