A pirate helped the Urquhart family regain ownership of Craigston Castle. Now its present custodians are keen to share this fascinating historic home
Built in 1604, Craigston Castle in Aberdeenshire has almost always been in the hands of the Urquharts. One of the oldest families in Scotland, descendants include Sir Thomas Urquhart, the translator of Rabelais.
The current laird, however, is more interested in looking to the future and at how Craigston can thrive in the 21st century. After many years working abroad with the World Wide Fund for Nature and the United Nations Environment Programme, William Urquhart and his wife, Catrina, moved back to live at Craigston in 2007, and their sons, who are now aged nine and six, were born here.
“I was very lucky in that my grandparents were good custodians of Craigston,” says William. “In the past we’ve had two family members that went rogue and lost the castle temporarily by running up debts mainly due to gambling and high living. Luckily in both cases the house and estate were quickly got back – in one case by marriage and the other time it was bought back by Captain John Urquhart, who made his money as a privateer, or pirate, who sailed with the Spanish and robbed from the English.
“When my grandparents inherited the house in the 1940s it came with lots of debts and they were forced to sell land and furniture to pay these off. My grandfather was a forester and he worked extremely hard all around Scotland. He kept everything ticking over, did what he could to improve the place and did an amazing job keeping on top of the roof and the gutters. Both he and my grandmother lived in the house and brought up four children here, but from the 1970s once the children left home they only used a small part of the house to live in and the rest of the building suffered somewhat as a result.”
When William and Catrina moved to Craigston they quickly realised the only way to sustain the castle was for them to make the estate profitable. “Unfortunately there weren’t many opportunities for us locally. I’m an environmental consultant with experience of working abroad and my wife works in international development. So, in 2010 Catrina accepted a job in Italy and she’s there with the boys and I spend half my time here and half my time there. However, we’re very lucky that when my parents-in-law retired they agreed to come and live here and help us manage the estate until we are all able to return full time. They’re essentially doing it for their grandchildren and it’s a huge help to us.”
There’s another international link on this side of the family. William says: “My father-in-law Claus is Danish and my mother-in-law Barbara is Polish but she was evacuated to Scotland during the Second World War and lived and went to school in Edinburgh. She’s always had a passion for Scotland as a result, so this sort of completes the circle. We are also helped by my Uncle Alex, who farms in the area.”
While there have been some changes to the house and all the necessary mod cons added, historically and aesthetically the castle is fascinating. Furnishings in the main rooms date back to the mid-18th and 19th centuries. The drawing room on the first floor contains 17th century wood carvings which depict biblical themes, Scottish kings and great heroes. This room also boasts gilded mirrors originally from the Palais de Versailles in France and the oak panelling came from the Great Hall at Cromarty Castle. Many of the bedrooms still have the original Heppelthwaite four-poster beds along with other pieces made by master craftsmen. The castle kitchen is in its original spot on the ground floor with fabulous vaulted ceilings, and the old pantry is still in operation.
“The house still maintains its original stately feel, but we and our guests want to stay somewhere that isn’t a museum and Craigston is very much a traditional and unique family home,” says William. “We’ve upgraded all the bathrooms, put in wi-fi and installed a biomass chip boiler which is very economical and allows us to use our own wood as fuel. Each year we also pick a couple of rooms where we renovate, redecorate and restore where we can. We re-oil the panelling, restore the furniture – it’s an ongoing process.
“Most of the original furniture was built in the house. The Heppelthwaite beds were designed off site and then put together in situ as they’d never have made it up the spiral staircase. We haven’t actually had to buy any furniture except two new sofas and new mattresses for all the beds. But we have brought in lots of modern art as my parents-in-law are passionate about it and we’re very lucky that they’ve brought their collection with them.”
Although William would love Craigston to stay in the family for many more generations, his main focus for the immediate future is to ensure that the estate and the castle remains economically viable and has relevance for the local community as well. “I don’t think of it as just a private house, it has to bring value to area,” he says. “Historically there would have been many local families working on the estate, but sadly that’s not the case nowadays. I believe that by renting out the castle as a holiday home, wedding venue or place for business meetings we can bring life and energy to the castle and create a base from where people can explore the many attractions the area has to offer and thus boost the local economy.
“The thing we love most about the house is when it’s full of people especially with children running around,” adds William. “We’d like to see people coming back here again and again. It is an isolated, private place but we like it to be full of noise and happy. When I was a child it wasn’t always the most fun place to be because my grandfather was struggling to keep it going and while the house and its heritage are important to me, people are more important.
“The house has to serve the family not just the family serve the house. My children and their friends run around and enjoy Craigston and its contents – it is their home, they love it and it’s alive. When I walk along a corridor here I know my ancestors and their friends have been walking down it for 400 years and that is really quite staggering. There is something very magical about that and there aren’t many people who are lucky enough to have that history and I hope I can pass that on to my children.
“It is a truly special place to stay in and we are very excited that we are now able to share this experience with others.”
• For details about staying at Craigston Castle, visit www.craigston-castle.co.uk