A life in ruins: Scotland's castles for sale

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THE IDEA of lording it over one's own battlements can be an appealing one for the romantically inclined. There is an inarguable cachet toliving in a spectacular, craft-built home that may have stood for as long as four centuries (and may well stand for another four), a sense of being surrounded by sometimes turbulent history… and the near certainty that none of your friends will have one.

If that appeals, it's certainly a good time to be looking for your dream castle. There are currently around 15 castles or baronial homes on the market in Scotland. Estate agents are reporting they're attracting a lot of interest from European buyers because of the weak pound. Yet while such foreign buyers may be inspired by Hollywood images of a Braveheart Scotland, the film anyone seriously thinking of castle ownership should first go and see – whatever their nationality – is actually The Money Pit, in which Tom Hanks buys an old house with disastrous consequences.

That, at least, is the recommendation of Stuart Morris, membership secretary of the Scottish Castles Association. Morris and his family have been restoring Balgonie Castle near Markinch in Fife for more than two decades, and says he can't say how much it has cost. This year will see them host their 1,000th wedding in the castle's restored 14th-century chapel, but all the funds raised simply go back into the building.

"The money goes back out as fast as it comes in," he says, wryly. And, he stresses, castle living is not to be taken lightly. Restoration runs in his blood: his parents restored an 18th-century town house in Cupar and a 15th-century mill on Loch Tay before embarking on Balgonie, which hadn't been inhabited for 150 years. However Morris will not live in his own castle.

"You have to know what you're getting into, and all the planning rules and regulations that go with it," says Morris. "There's far too much bureaucracy. I think some of the rules are just put there to try and put people off. It's only the most committed people who finally achieve what they want."

Morris has been restoring Balgonie from a ruin, but even those who take on a "ready restored" model require commitment, an accommodating bank balance and an appreciation of just what they're getting themselves into, says Sue Brash, secretary of the Association, who, with her now retired architect husband Ian, has lived in the late-16th-century Fa'side Castle, near Wallyford, East Lothian, for the past 20 years. That doesn't mean she regrets her purchase.

"It's very romantic; everybody loves a castle," says Brash, who brought up their two children there, "The disadvantages include the spiral stairs. You have get your furniture in through the windows or the roof. And be prepared for the continual maintenance. It's like the Forth Bridge, you're never really finished. You've got to be really passionate about it."

Heating can also be an issue, though Brash says that in their case it is partly because the walls, exposed to the elements, had been soaked for 300 years, "and there was a lot of water involved in restoration, so it's taking years to dry out, though getting better on an annual basis. You've got to be pretty hardy, but you can't beat it," she says, her enthusiasm undampened by regular chores such pointing the castle's 56 windows.

"They're just lovely places to be around. One of the nicest things is the number of people who pass and stop and just want to chat."

Of course not everyone wants, nor can afford, to live in a castle, particularly when the price tag of a fully-restored, imposing 16th-century model can be around the 3-5 million mark, but if you feel up to it, some leading estate agents have several castles on their books, long restored.

"Castles always attract a lot of interest, especially from outside Britain at the moment," says Jamie McNab of Savills, which currently boasts five on its books. "We've had Europeans coming to look at them because the currency is so advantageous for them just now."

The buildings Savills is selling include the venerable and magnificently situated Barcaldine, the "Black Castle" of Benderloch, north of Oban, a 400-year-old castle restored at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the spectacular Victorian Scots baronial edifice of Craigrownie Castle, perched on a clifftop at Cove on Loch Long – unique in being the only "castle" designed by Alexander "Greek" Thomson. The agent's office in Brechin is presently dealing with three other castles, the 16th-century Powrie Castle near Dundee, the similarly dated Fordyce Castle in Banffshire, and Westhall, near Insch, Aberdeenshire.

At risk to his business prospects, McNab reckons anyone who lives in a castle is "slightly touched. The romantic side definitely outweighs the practical side, but, happily, there are a lot of romantic people out there."

But they have to be committed and prepared to take on all manner of problems, not least the bureaucracy involved in listed-building legislation administered by local authorities and Historic Scotland, he agrees. Just last year the Edinburgh kiltmaker Geoffrey Nicholsby gave up on his plans to make a company headquarters out of the ruined Duntarvie Castle in West Lothian, which he'd owned for 18 years, citing planning delays and fraught negotiations with Historic Scotland. So Duntarvie, too, is on the market – as a 16th-century shell swathed in scaffolding.

While appreciating the importance of historic building listing, McNab says that the associated bureaucracy can be a hindrance. "You'd sometimes think the motivation was simply political rather than planning, as if they don't like the moneyed outsider coming in and lording it over people from their castle or whatever." However, as someone who sells castles and country houses, the vast majority of which are listed, he says, "to be honest I take it as a badge of quality rather than a planning hassle. Okay, there is an extra layer of planning legislation to go through, but with these buildings you want their owners to be sympathetic to them."

And, yes, castles tend not to fit conventional conceptions of family-friendly homes, he says: "They do pose certain practical problems. The way most people want to live at the moment is a big family kitchen with your TV lounge off, opening out on to a sunny patio where you can dine in the summer. If you buy a castle, you've no chance of that. Although they are dead romantic."

James Freeman, of Knight Frank, currently has a couple of castles on his hands: at Taynuilt, Argyll, the handsome Muckairn, a large Scots- Baronial country house, selling at around 3 million; and the looming 16th-century Midmar Castle at Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, for sale with contents (including weapons and armoury, plus its own hydro-electric system) for offers in the region of 5 million.

While there is interest in such properties, at the top end of the market, things aren't moving particularly fast at the moment, says Freeman: "These are obviously lifestyle purchases. A lot of people are drawn in by the history – the chap who is selling Midmar bought it as a ruin and built it up."

He says that taking on such a building brings distinct responsibilities and issues. Heating, he acknowledges is one, "but if you want to be in a castle, that's something you put up with. But the costs of maintenance, heating etc, is all going to be considerable, especially in Scotland." And the selling points? "Just the rarity, really. A unique, substantial property with a lot of history. It's not for everyone. Some people wouldn't see a castle as a nice place to live. others think, 'Fantastic. that's just what we were looking for.'"

Some might argue that, regardless of historical importance, a castle, all precipitous stairs and chilly turret rooms, is hardly family-friendly, although Brash says her children's friends were forever coming round in the hope of seeing the ghost which allegedly haunts Fa'side. Brash herself never saw it, she says, "although the dog did".

And such historic piles do tend to come with such unique, if less than tangible, selling points. Ask Jamie McNab about castle ghosts and he laughs: "I've had a few ghosts in my career. Some people are sensitive to these things and some aren't." One large house in the Borders, which he declines to name, seems to have changed hands every two or three years: "That one very definitely seems to have been haunted, although the ghost does seem to have been good for the estate agent."