Farewell to castle of hassle

FOR 400 years Duntarvie Castle defied the elements and the passage of time, its towering stone walls standing firm even after its last occupants had long since deserted it.

Motorists whizzing past on the nearby M9 may barely have given it a second glance, just another ancient ruin, its days as a family pile now history and its destiny to simply rot away.

But to one man, it was absolutely perfect. "King" of kiltmakers Geoffrey Nicholsby dreamed of the day he could restore it to even better than its former glory, creating a new corporate headquarters for his business, providing luxury rooms and even a helipad for wealthy guests from its crumbling skeleton.

He was 41 at the time, it was 1988 and, if the Royal Mile tartan tailor had known then what he knows now, there's every chance he would have driven past.

Yesterday, after 20 years of legal wrangles, planning setbacks and frustrating demands from buildings agency Historic Scotland, it emerged that the dream of transforming the ancient relic into his business base is over.

Ironically, the 'for sale' sign goes up just weeks after Mr Nicholsby celebrated the end of his often soul-destroying battle with bureaucracy and legal quicksand that has cost him "several hundred thousand pounds".

"The whole thing has been a bit of a nightmare," he says, reflecting on a 20-year vision which has now gone fatally sour – mostly, he believes, due to dogmatic officials at Historic Scotland.

"Dealing with these people has been nothing short of a nightmare," he continues. "They are supposed to be there to help you, instead they are a hindrance. By the time I got full ancient monument consent at Christmas, there was no point going any further.

"My advice to anyone considering taking something like this on is don't do it unless you have all the permissions in place already – or you'll probably go mad."

The castle, last inhabited in the 1840s, first caught Mr Nicholsby's eye in the mid-1980s when he hit on the idea of first creating an upmarket hotel before shifting his plans to creating a corporate headquarters with luxury suites for his customers. Trying to buy it from the Hopetoun House estate trustees sparked five years of negotiations before the sale could go ahead. Then came a 15-year battle to put his plans into action.

"It was fine at first, in fact, they were quite helpful," explains the 61-year-old, whose customers at his Geoffrey (Tailor) kilt business have included Sir Sean Connery and Robbie Williams. "But the plans were passed on to different people with different policies and then came different inspectors.

"I got the impression that some people at Historic Scotland just didn't want buildings rebuilt and preferred them to remain as ruins forever."

Mr Nicholsby says he poured cash into upgrading the building's structure, including vital underpinning work and strengthening original 400-year-old walls. Today the castle – visible from the M9 just beyond Newbridge – is shrouded in scaffolding but still does not have a roof.

"We just wanted to rebuild it," claims Mr Nicholsby. "But Historic Scotland threw spanners in everything we suggested.

When councillors passed the plans, they demanded a public inquiry.

"I felt like throwing in the towel many, many times. I was spending a lot of money – I spent over 10,000 on a single conservation report. Looking back, it was utter madness."

Today, with permission for Duntarvie's redevelopment finally in place, the castle and eight-acre grounds are being marketed as potential corporate HQ or suitable for restoration as a family home. Once developed, its value is likely to soar to more than 2 million.

Whoever buys the castle will also get their very own ghost.

"You hear her in the dead of night," claims Mr Nicholsby. "You can't make out anything distinctly, but it sounds like she is wailing 'Down with Historic Scotland'."

He may be laughing now, but the episode has left a bitter taste.

"I'd like to retire soon and sail off to the Caribbean," he says. "I can think of nothing better than getting away from it all.

"Was it worth it? Well, that rather depends how much it sells for, doesn't it?"