WHEN Robert Pooley and his family first set eyes on Forter Castle in Glenisla, the only inhabitants for the previous 340 years had been two mature trees among the ruins.
Built in 1560 to fortify and protect the entrance to the Balloch pass to Glenshee, the Moneca Pass to Braemar and the North, it was a time of great religious tension and the Ogilvy and Argyll families were caught in the midst of it.
Bloody battles, plundering and murder culminated in the castle being razed to the ground by the Duke of Argyll in 1640.
Driven by a desire to restore Forter to its former glory, in 1988 Robert decided to carry out a painstaking renovation.
Pulling in craftsmen from all over Scotland, they studied the scarring in the remaining stones to recreate the original layout of a traditional L-shaped 16th century fortified house. The only deliberate change was to make the Laird’s bedroom the full expanse of the castle and the same dimensions as the Great Hall.
After two years of dedicated work the structure was complete and on 7 July 1990, the 350th anniversary of the castle’s destruction, the Pooleys held a gathering to celebrate Forter’s resurrection.
At this point, Robert’s daughter Katharine was 12 years old and the restoration of Forter wasn’t really of much interest to her. “My father had a passion for Forter for really a very long time,” she says. “And it was my brother and he that built it up from a derelict ruin.
“I was very young at the time and I can’t really say at the outset that I had the passion they had.
“However, 22 years ago, my father asked me if I would take it over and I said yes. By then I had lived in it, holidayed in it and it meant something to me.”
While Robert had spent all his money doing the exterior, Katharine, now an interior designer, was interested in improving the interior. “At that point, I decided to invest the money I’d made from my interior design business and completely transform the interior,” she says. “The castle was a very cold place so I decided my main goal was to make it warm. It was also very dark, so I wanted to lighten it up but make it cosy too.
“I stained the floors, I modernised the bathrooms and installed a great kitchen. Traditionally a castle wouldn’t have had bathrooms so I didn’t have to conform to any expectations. I visited other castles for research and then I did my own thing. My aim was to turn the castle into a luxurious, liveable home.”
It took Katharine a year to make all the changes but she managed it all from her home in Singapore. “I was living in Singapore at the time and it sounds strange but being there turned out to be incredibly fortuitous. While I was there I travelled to Tasmania on holiday which sounds bizarre to furnish a castle but Tasmania is full of incredibly beautiful antiques left by the Victorians when they moved to Australia and I bought a lot of these for Forter. It really was a lovely holiday and Forter, asides from the family connections, is still one of my all-time favourite projects.”
While purchasing the antiques was enjoyable, choosing the decor wasn’t quite as easy. Katharine says: “I found it quite hard choosing the colour schemes for the bedrooms – you don’t want to go twee with too much tartan but pink isn’t going to work and I didn’t want them to be too masculine either; it was definitely trickier than I thought it would be.”
When it came to the main reception rooms, Katharine chose chocolate leathers, bright reds and gingham tartan to add texture and colour. The pièce de résistance is the commissioned mural for the Great Hall ceiling. It took months of research and 30 very long days for artist Jenny Merredew to create it.
Bringing in large pieces of furniture and sanitaryware also caused problems. “The staircase is the wrong way round as John Ogilvy, who built Forter, was left-handed so he had the staircase designed to suit him. So asides from actually getting furniture up the stairs they’re the wrong way around as well. I had to get most of the furniture sawn in half, carried up the stairs and then reassembled. It is very hard to decorate and furnish a castle, but on the plus side it’s also very difficult for anyone to steal anything!”
Katharine did enjoy decorating the Laird’s room, however. “I liked having the bathroom as part of the bedroom and as the Laird’s room runs the length of the castle, it lent itself to using the space to its full advantage. I also really enjoyed kitting out the chapel. I bought lots of artefacts from Pew Corner in Surrey who sell reclaimed church interiors.”
The only room that Katharine isn’t hugely fond of is the kitchen. “Again a castle wouldn’t have a modern kitchen, so of course I didn’t have to conform to any specific designs when I put it in, but I would say the castle is haunted and that room still makes me shiver a bit.
“Now the castle seems to have found its peace but there’s so much history here, how could it not filter through somehow?”
Ultimately, Forter Castle has gone through a huge transformation and not just from when the rebuilding started in 1988. “When we came here on holiday with my family it was a slightly different experience,” says Katharine. “Today, we have underfloor heating, Ralph Lauren sheets, cashmere blankets – it’s warm.”