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Blair Castle

Blair Castle, found near the village of Blair Atholl in Scotland, is located between Perth and Inverness in Highland Pertshire. Being the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, and strategically located in the Strath of Garry, it holds an important place in Scottish history, both strategically and culturally. Whoever held the Castle was gatekeeper to the Grampian Mountains, and the most direct route to Inverness, which is also the reason why Blair Atholl itself possesses such a colourful history. It is situated at the entrance of Cairgorms National Park and surrounded by a magnificent backdrop of hills and forests. The village of Blair Atholl itself in fact grew up as a means of supplying the Castle, and lies at the confluence of the Rivers Garry and Tilt, 10 miles north-east of Pitlochry. Blair Castle is the focal point of the Atholl Estates, which once covered 350,000 acres, that is, 141,640 hectares of the Scottish Highlands. Currently, the estate lies on 145,000 acres, that is, 58,680 hectares, making it one of the largest in Scotland.

History of Blair Castle

Blair Castle stands on the ancestral home of Clan Murray, as it was historically the seat of their Chief. The first known structure to be built on the site dates at least to the mid-13th century, and the oldest part of the present Castle is known as Comyn’s Tower, which was built in 1269. This was commissioned by John I Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who wasn’t even the legal owner of the estate at the time. Comyn was in fact a neighbour of the rightful owner, David I Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, who started building on the Earl’s land while this was away on crusade. When the Earl came back home, he found the interloper building on his land and complained about it to King Alexander III. The Atholls won back their land, evicted the Comyns, and incorporated the tower into their own castle.

In 1322, David II Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl lost his titles and estates after his rebellion against Robert the Bruce. The title was granted to a number of individuals until, in 1457, it was given to Sir John Stewart of Belvenie, King James II’s half-brother, as a reward for fighting against the Douglasses and Macdonalds. In 1509, the castle was the scene for the beheading of Allan MacRory, a Chief who supported Angus Og, Lord of the Isles and Chief of Domhnaill, after he had besieged the Castle and taken the Earl and his Countess hostage. The siege failed and King James IV himself attended the beheading of MacRory at Blair Castle. (more)

Castle Today

Blair Castle is the focal point of a breathtaking historical landscape. Its extensive parklands in the impressive magnificent Highlands are set in a number of walks and trails, and the grounds themselves form part of superb woodlands. There is a deer park and pony trekking centre close by, as well as a woodland adventure playground for young children. One can most easily arrive at the Castle through Blair Atholl village. Once one passes the handsome gates, one can use the visitor’s car park to the east of the Castle, from which one can choose to explore either the gardens first, or the visit the castle itself. If one chooses the castle, this is reached by crossing a small pleasant footbridge over the Banvie Burn and walking across a large open area.

The first room one sees as one enters the castle is the 19th century entrance hall. Two storeys high, with wood panelled walls covered by muskets, swords and shields, the Great Hall is truly a picturesque experience. Crossing the main hall, across the vaulted ground floor, the Castle tour continues with a grand total of 30 other rooms. These give a rich and varied impression of Scottish life over seven centuries, and give visitors of the castle the opportunity of understanding not only the way the Dukes and Earls of Atholl lived, but also historic customs and traditions. One first goes through the Georgian staircase which, hung with family portraits, seems at first glance to be panelled, but which in reality is adorned with plasterwork. Carved for the 2nd Duke, it also displays various curiosities including the skull of a prehistoric Irish elk, and a number of narwhal tusks.

Another impressive set of rooms form the Derby Suite, named after Lady Amelia Stanley, the daughter of the 7th Earl of Derby, who married the 1st Earl of Atholl in 1659. Queen Victoria stayed in the Derby Suite when she visited Blair Castle in 1844.

One of the most spectacular of the Castle rooms is surely the Tapestry Room, which is hung with Mortlake tapestries, once owned by King Charles I. The Victorian ballroom is also impressive, with its display of 175 pairs of antlers. All the rooms are filled with iconic period furniture and fine art, including a number of Jacobite relics, Masonic items, fine porcelain, and collections of weapon and lace.

The present dining room was built during the 18th century. It incorporates more plasterwork, done by the Scottish stuccoist Thomas Clayton, as well as a number of ceiling roundels showing the four seasons, and many local landscape scenes. The largest room in the castle is undoubtedly the drawing room however, and it represents the pinnacle of the 2nd Duke’s aspirations of grandeur. The ceiling and cornice, adorned in plaster, are set off by a large chimney piece. The range of majestic bedrooms is also fascinating.

The six-storey Comyn’s Tower is the oldest known part of the Castle, dating back to 1269, although it was later re-modelled in the 5th century. In 1740, the 2nd Duke transformed the medieval structure into a stylish Georgian home, removing the turrets and applying fashionable Georgian finishings. The apartments to the south were added in the mid-18th century, and were rebuilt after a fire in 1814, incorporating a clock tower. Later on in the 1860s and 70s, with the rise in popularity of Scottish Baronial architecture, the 7th Duke commissioned architects from Edinburgh to remodel the castle once more. Those turrets and crenellations removed earlier were once again rebuilt, a new entrance hall was erected, and the ballroom was added. The latest spate of works included the introduction of new electrical, lighting, and plumbing services. In 2011, another fire broke out in the clock tower, causing the roof and the second floor to collapse. The clock tower itself was restored in 2012.

Some of the rooms at Blair Castle are in use today for a number of ceremonies and events. They can be used as conference venues, for private dinners, business functions, corporate meetings, special receptions, and even weddings.

Beyond the Castle itself are its grounds and gardens, which flourish over 145,000 acres, and most of which were laid out in the 18th century. To the north of the castle is Diana’s Grove, home to some of Britain’s oldest and tallest trees, while to the east one can find the famous nine-acre Hercules Garden.

The Hercules Gardens are undoubtedly the heart of the castle grounds, and are named for the statue of Hercules overlooking the garden wall. It is adorned with landscaped pools, an Oriental bridge, and an orchard of over 100 trees. At the farthest end of the garden, one can find a neo-classical folly, with statues and sculptures. In fact, visitors can also follow the ‘Sculpture Trail’, which incorporates a mixture of contemporary and 18th century sculpture, through the castle gardens and grounds.

A short walk from Diana’s Grove takes one to the ruins of Saint Bride’s Kirk. Although the first church built there goes back at least to the 10th century, the ruins are medieval. John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, who was killed at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, is buried at Saint Bride’s. The grounds of Blair Castle stretch all the way to the old Perth-Inverness road, when the original village of Old Blair used to be located until 1823. Prior to this, Saint Bride’s Kirk was the actual local church.

In the absence of natural predators, the population of wild red deer which roam the Scottish Highlands can become a problem, and Atholl Estates is a member of a regional deer management group which monitors the population of deer, in order to maintain a healthy balance between habitat and deer welfare. The estate offers red deer stalking activities, as well as grouse shooting, and salmon and trout fishing on rivers and lochs around the area. There are also excellent accommodations in traditional Victorian and modern timber lodges, along with a 300-space caravan and a camping park, set in the parkland of the estate.

The Castle also accommodates a restaurant and coffee shop, as well as a gift shop. Scooters are available for hire for those with limited mobility to access the gardens.

Opening Hours of Blair Castle and Gardens:

Blair Castle and grounds are open every day from the 1st of April until the 31st of October (excluding Saturday 28th October).
Daily opening hours are from 9.30am – 5.30pm with last admission at 4.30pm.
The Castle closes at the end of October until April.

Text: Melisande Aquilina