Blair Castle is the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl and holds an important place in Scotland's history. Strategically located in the Strath of Garry, whoever held Blair Castle was gatekeeper to the Grampians and the most direct route north to Inverness. It was twice besieged, first by Cromwell's army in 1652 and then by the Jacobites in 1746, just before their final defeat at Culloden. It has also been much visited by royalty.
Blair Castle opened its doors to the public in 1936, one of the first great houses in Britain to do so. With a break during wartime, it has continued to do so ever since, and today it welcomes more visitors than any other private house in Scotland. Today's visitor finds a great deal on offer at Blair Castle. The castle itself is simply magnificent, and you are able to explore 30 of its superbly furnished rooms during what must be one of the most extensive tours of its type anywhere. The tour concludes in the excellent new visitor centre tastefully added to the north-west end of the castle, now home to a shop, restaurants and a function and exhibition area.
Beyond the castle itself are its grounds and gardens. To the north of the castle is Diana's Grove, home to some of Britain's tallest trees, while to the east is the extensive Hercules Garden, a nine acre walled garden running along both sides of a large lake. You can find out more about Blair Castle Gardens from our feature page about them. Also in the castle grounds is the ruin of St Bride's Kirk, on a site used for religious worship as far back as the 1200s and possibly much earlier. Again, you can find out more from our St Bride's Kirk feature page. We also have a feature page abou the Blair Castle Horse Trials, held over four days each August.
One thought that intending visitors should bear in mind is that the publicly accessible side of Blair Castle faces north-east. If you want to photograph it with the sun on it, you need to be there as early as possible in the morning and as near as possible to the middle of Summer. Another excellent location for a photo opportunity if you have a telephoto lens is Layby 50, a layby on the south-east travelling side of the A9 road, which runs along the far side of Glen Garry from the castle. It is where the header image on this page was taken: though over the years encroaching vegetation has steadiliy diminished this view.
Blair Castle itself is an assembly of historical structures which have been added in a series of redevelopments around an original castle built here in 1269. The story goes that the Earl of Atholl returned from crusade to find that find that a neighbour, John Cumming (or Comyn) of Badenoch had simply built a large tower house on Atholl's lands. Atholl's complaint to King Alexander III, from which we know the story, apparently had little effect, because Cumming's Tower still stands as the oldest and tallest part of today's Blair Castle.
The original Earls of Atholl seem to have died out in the early 1300s. In 1457 King James II granted a revived Earldom of Atholl to his half brother, Sir John Stewart of Balvenie, and with it Blair Castle and its estates. In 1530 the 3rd Earl extended the castle by building a great hall over a series of vaulted rooms to the south of the original tower. Mary Queen of Scots stayed here in 1564. During her stay she took part in a hunt in Glen Tilt in which 360 deer and five wolves were killed.
The 5th Earl died without sons in 1595. His daughter had married Sir William Murray of Tullibardine and in 1629 her son John Murray became the 1st Murray Earl of Atholl. These were turbulent times. The 1st and 2nd Earls were both Royalists, and Blair Castle was captured by Cromwell's forces in 1652 and occupied by them until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Charles rewarded the Murrays' loyalty by promoting the 2nd Earl of Atholl to become the 1st Marquis of Atholl in 1676. In 1689 the castle was occupied by Viscount Dundee's Jacobites before the Battle of Killiecrankie, which took place two miles south of the castle. The 2nd Marquis was again promoted by Queen Anne in 1703 to become the 1st Duke of Atholl. This didn't stop him being arrested in 1708 for opposing the terms of the Act of Union between the Parliaments of Scotland and England.
The Murray family was divided in both the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite uprisings. William, the eldest of the three sons of the 1st Duke, took part in the 1715 uprising and in its aftermath sought exile in France. As a result it was the second son, James, who became 2nd Duke on his father's death in 1724. During the 1745 Jacobite uprising William Murray and the 1st Duke's third son, Lord George Murray, fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie, briefly staying at Blair Castle when the Jacobite army passed by.
The castle was later recaptured and garrisoned by government troops. In early 1746 Lord George Murray tried to retake it, bombarding his ancestral home with artillery in the attempt. Before he could succeed he was called north to join the main Jacobite forces for their final defeat at Culloden. In the aftermath, George Murray went into exile on the Continent, William Murray died as a prisoner in the Tower of London, and James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl, resumed residence of Blair Castle and continued a major project he had begun in 1740 to covert a medieval castle into a grand Georgian mansion. Out went the towers and castellations, and in came chimneys and plush interiors complete with the finest plasterwork money could buy. He also transformed the grounds, establishing Diana's Grove and the Hercules Garden.
In an unexpected twist, James Murray became King of the Isle of Man, an inheritance which arrived via his maternal grandmother. The huge income from the associated lands and properties helped pay for the transformation of Blair Castle, and the 3rd and 4th Dukes went on to prosper by gradually selling off their Manx interests. In 1844 Queen Victoria stayed at Blair Castle for three weeks in 1844, probably the start of her love affair with the Highlands. During her stay she granted the Duke and the Athollmen who had protected her the Queen's Colours. The result was the founding of the Atholl Highlanders as a private army, today the only one in Europe. Their role in modern times is purely ceremonial.
The decades after 1850 saw a resurgence of interest in the creation, or recreation, of grand Scottish castles when the architectural style known as Scots Baronial swept the country. In 1863 the railway from Perth north to Inverness. arrived in Blair Atholl, and associated land sales netted the 7th Duke of Atholl what was at the time the large sum of £33,000. Between 1869 and 1871 he used his windfall to employ the Edinburgh architect David Bryce, the master of Scots Baronial, to convert the Georgian mansion of the 1740s back into something much truer to its roots as a medieval castle.
Back came the towers and castellations, while a new entrance hall and a grand ballroom were added. The 7th Duke also introduced a number of bathrooms into the castle, as well as a gas supply and telephones. In 1908 he built a hydro-electric scheme for the castle and the surrounding estate.
The 8th Duke was a career soldier who inherited the title in 1917. His wife, Katharine Ramsay, became the first Scottish female MP in 1923, and later became the first woman to hold a ministerial post in a Conservative government. During World War One, Blair Castle was used as a hospital, while during World War Two it was used to house a displaced private school and evacuees from Glasgow. In 1932 the Blair Estates became a company, and in 1936 Blair Castle opened its doors to the public, one of the first private houses in Britain to do so.
In 1957 the title passed to Iain Murray, 10th Duke of Argyll, who turned Blair Castle into the major visitor attraction it has since become. On his death in 1996, a relative in South Africa, John Murray, became the 11th Duke of Atholl. He visits each year, while the day to day management of the castle and estate is in the hands of the Blair Charitable Trust.
The visitor car park is to the east of the castle, and from here you can choose to explore the gardens or visit the castle itself. Assuming you choose the latter, you cross the footbridge over the Banvie Burn and approach the castle across the large open area to its north-east. The entrance hall gives you an instant "wow!" the first of a number you experience as you wander around the castle at you own pace. Two storeys high, its wood panelled walls are covered by muskets, swords and targes (shields), including some used at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
You go on to explore three floors of much of the main part of the castle, a grand total of 30 rooms. The visitor route is easy to follow, and takes you first through the vaulted ground floor rooms added as part of the 1530 extension. You then climb the magnificent picture staircase, completed in 1756 and serving as a vertical family portrait gallery.
The upper two storeys are home to a mix of grand and more intimate rooms, with the grandest being the drawing room, perhaps the purest expression of the Georgian mansion Blair Castle became in the 1740s, complete with Louis XVI chairs. Not far behind in terms of splendour is the dining room, with its incredible plasterwork by Thomas Clayton. It is hard to believe that until the 1740s this had served as the great hall of a medieval castle.
The range of bedrooms is fascinating, including the red bedroom, whose name is a simple description of the dominant colour. The blue bedroom suite is rather more subtle, with pastel shades dominating. This bedroom has an en suite bathroom, a real rarity for 1885 when it was installed.
Subtlety is not a word that springs to mind for the tapestry room. The walls are decorated with tapestries that once belonged to Charles I but were sold in Paris following his execution. The four poster bed is best described as "striking", and is decorated with ostrich feathers rising from each corner post. The tour concludes back on the ground floor, where you can marvel at the ballroom, the largest room in the castle, before passing through to the shop and the restaurant in the new visitor centre.