Thirlestane Castle's estate shares a boundary wall with the east side of Lauder, an attractive stepping stone on what has for centuries been the direct route between Northumberland and Edinburgh. Today this traditional route along Lauderdale is followed by the A68: yet despite the size and proximity of Thirlestane's magnificent flamboyance, it lies well hidden by the landscape and out of sight of passing motorists.
Access to Thirlestane Castle is from the A697, which joins the A68 half a mile south of Lauder. What you find is one of the most attractive and friendly of Scotland's castles. Visitors guide themselves round an extensive and varied tour that includes most of the main living areas of the castle on two floors; the nursery wing; service areas like the kitchen and laundry; and as a bonus the tour concludes with the fascinating Border Country Life Exhibitions. There is also a tea room and a shop to enjoy at the end of the tour, and gardens and the surrounding parkland to explore. All in all this is an excellent value visit.
The story of Thirlestane Castle is the story of the Maitland family. They acquired land in Lauderdale by marriage, and by 1250 had fortified a site two miles east of today's castle. The ruins of the Old Tower of Thirlestane can still be seen south of the A697. The Maitlands' family tree has links back to both William the Conqueror, and King William I of Scotland, and for the better part of 800 years they have been significant players in Scottish history.
On its current site, Thirlestane Castle was built in three phases: in the years from 1590, 1670 and 1840. It owes its origins to John Maitland, Chancellor to James VI of Scotland, who was created the 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane in 1590. He needed something grander than the Old Tower of Thirlestane to reflect his new position in society, so built an enormous three storey rectangular stone keep with a circular drum tower at each corner. He chose for its site an area in which English troops had built an artillery fortification during their occupation of the area in 1548. The original keep still lies at the core of today's castle, forming the roughly east-west stalk of a broad T-shaped structure whose arms are formed by later north and south wings.
It was the grandson of the original builder, another John Maitland, the 2nd Earl of Lauderdale and the 1st (and only) Duke of Lauderdale, who set out to turn Thirlestane Castle into a palace. John was Charles II's Secretary of State for Scotland and, in effect, governed Scotland on the King's behalf. He needed somewhere suitable from which to do so.
The 2nd Earl of Lauderdale turned to the Scottish architect Sir William Bruce to carry out the conversion in the years from 1670. Bruce added two new towers as wings projecting to the front (the west end) and to either side of the existing keep, and oversaw the conversion of the existing structure. This included the establishment of magnificent new staterooms and the insertion of many more windows in walls that were in places 13ft thick. The thickness of the original walls allowed Bruce to carve out square rooms within the circular drum towers. As part of the process the Earl also had Bruce build a new Parish Church in Lauder to replace a medieval church located within the castle grounds.
One of the Bruce rooms is now known as Bonnie Prince Charlie's Room. The Prince stayed here and his Jacobite army camped in the surrounding parkland while en route south into England in 1745. This implies nothing about the allegiance of the Maitlands at the time: when what amounted to a horde of locusts armed with cannon arrived on their doorstep asking for accommodation, saying yes was probably the sensible response.
By 1840, Thirlestane Castle served as the focal point for a large country estate, and the family felt the need to provide more accommodation for guests and their servants, and to bring the building's facilities up to standard more suitable for the day. In an age when conspicuous hospitality was the norm, Thirlestane probably felt very out of date compared with the many more recent stately homes that had been built in the Borders. As a result, the 9th Earl of Lauderdale asked the Edinburgh architects David Bryce and William Burn to add new wings either side of the west end of the existing 1670 palace.
The new wings had towers designed to match those added by Sir William Bruce in 1670, and the whole edifice was topped off with a new, raised, central tower complete with an ogee roof, which was surrounded by the smaller turrets and towers that gives Thirlestane Castle so much of its fairytale look.
It is tempting to dream of owning somewhere like Thirlestane Castle. But the responsibilities that go with ownership can be pretty intimidating. When The Hon. Gerald Maitland-Carew inherited Thirlestane from his grandmother, the 15th Countess of Lauderdale, in 1972, he found himself responsible for a building in severe distress. A survey revealed there were 40 major outbreaks of dry rot in the building, though these paled into insignificance compared with the imminent danger of the collapse of the main tower added in 1840: the cast iron beams carrying most of its weight had shifted, leaving the tower with an alarming backwards lean.
Extensive repairs were carried out during the 1970s, with considerable assistance from public funds. By 1984 the building had been returned to something like its former glory but still needed considerable funding simply to ensure it stayed that way. The Maitland family gave most of the castle and its contents to a charitable trust whose role is to preserve Thirlestane for future generations to enjoy. The north wing of the castle remains the family home of the Maitlands, allowing it to retain a sense of being a living building.