Nicola here. Last week I was lucky enough to be on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, staying in a historic cottage above the town of Braemar. There aren’t many things that I have in common with the Queen, but for a few days we were within 20 miles of each other as Braemar is just down the road from Balmoral Castle! Our cottage however, whilst very comfortable indeed, was a lot smaller than the royal residence although just as interesting historically. Braemar too is an absolutely fascinating little town with a hugely interesting history and I had the treat of taking both an exclusive tour of the town and of the castle with two different but equally knowledgeable guides, and I thought I would share some historical snippets here.
Our holiday home, Downies Cottage, was originally a farming croft built at the end of the 18th century. Before Queen Victoria purchased Balmoral in the 1850s this area of the Highlands had not been well known but her arrival sent hordes of tourists flocking to the area. This was good news for the Downie family as two of them, John and his son James, combined crofting with acting as mountain guides for the visitors who were now discovering the Cairngorms. Meanwhile James Downie’s sisters, Jessie and Katie, would provide afternoon tea up at the croft for visitors to Braemar who wanted a gentler walk with civilised refreshments!
After James Downie died in the 1930s the croft gradually fell into disrepair and was untouched for a number of decades. In 2011 the cottage and the three acres of land it stood on were purchased for redevelopment but when the buyers discovered what a treasure trove the croft house was, still containing some of the family’s original possessions and furnishings, they decided to restore it instead, Whilst the original features like the panelling and the box bed (which makes a perfect reading nook) are amazing, the attic is literally a time capsule, papered with cuttings from the newspapers and magazines of the day and still retaining some of the original possessions. It’s a unique place to stay and I found the attic, with all its memorabilia, very poignant.
Before Queen Victoria put Braemar on the tourist trail it had other historical associations. The first castle on the site was Kindrochit, now a ruin with a pub built next to it and a car park opposite! The medieval ruins are fun to explore, though, and the castle was a royal residence of the Stewarts a whole eight hundred years before Queen Victoria arrived. A beautiful brooch found there in the 1920s is made from silver-gilt and dates from the late 15th century. There is also a legend that Queen (later Saint) Margaret, wife of King Malcolm III accidentally dropped her illuminated bible in the river at Kindrochit Castle and when it was discovered later down river, it was undamaged.
Braemar has long held loyalties to the Jacobite cause. The 6th Earl of Mar raised the Jacobite standard there in August 1715 on behalf of James Stuart and a plaque at the side of the road commemorates the event. The subsequent Battle of Sherrifmuir was inconclusive but the rebels were defeated in November at Preston. Sherrifmuir, whilst not as famous as Culloden, has gone down in folklore as well as history – My Scottish mother-in-law has a favourite phrase with which she greets adversity: “There were bigger losses at Sherrifmuir” and indeed there were.
Braemar Castle, originally known as Mar Castle, was built in 1628 as a hunting lodge for the 2nd Earl of Mar who was the High Treasurer of Scotland and guardian to the young James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots. It was a thrill for me to have an exclusive tour of the castle, which has only just opened up to visitors again, and my guide, Anna, was brilliant. Like many Scottish castles, Braemar has had a chequered history. It was burned down in 1689 by Jacobite supporters who wanted to prevent it from being used as a garrison for government troops, was rebuilt and then forfeit by the Earl of Mar after the failed Jacobite rising of 1715. After the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1745 the castle did indeed become a government garrison and was occupied by troops sent to “pacify” the Highlands, prevent the wearing of the traditional tartans and stop the illegal whisky trade. From 1832 it was the family home of the Farquarsons.
A tour of a place that has been both a fortress and a family home over hundreds of years is always fascinating. Braemar is a castle where the main spiral staircase turns in an anti-clockwise direction, which is usually a sign that the builder was a left-handed swordsman. There is 18th century graffiti on the panelling from disgruntled English troops who weren’t that happy to be stationed in Scotland, and there are collections of letters from some of the castle’s tenants such as Princess Alexis Dolgoruki whose hilarious complaints about the disgraceful state of the drive and the need for a tennis court are on display. Braemar Castle’s other claim to fame is that it was the inspiration for Cinderella’s Disney castle – but an awful lot of places seem to claim that!
What is particularly wonderful about Braemar Castle is that it is run by the community. I found this really inspiring and love the idea of a community-run historic site and the way it makes local people feel they have a stake in their heritage. In fact if there are any stately homes in my part of the world whose owners fancy leasing them to the community, sign me up!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my whistle stop tour of Braemar and its history! There are lots of other pictures on my Twitter and Instagram accounts, including some from the Isle of Coll as well, lots of Scottish wildlife and of course Angus looking noble in the heather!
As I mentioned, I thought the idea of a community-run castle was wonderful and it made me think about other community projects. Have you ever been involved in anything similar, either for heritage or local shops or other charities?