Travel: Come home to a real castle: Joanna Gibbon has a taste of the stately life in Scotland, and discovers a wealth of historic heaps you can stay in

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The Independent Travel
HAVE YOU ever wandered around a historic home, listened to the guide talking about its titled owners, and thought to yourself: I'd like to try living like that for a bit?

In Scotland, many historic houses and castles offer accommodation to suit all budgets: holiday cottages, flats in the west wing, even a whole country house.

At Culzean Castle, the National Trust for Scotland's stunningly beautiful flagship, perched dramatically on the cliffs of the Ayrshire coast, you can experience a little of what it is like to own a house designed by Robert Adam, set in 560 acres of pleasure grounds containing 40 separate ornamental buildings. Adam's house was completed in 1787 for Sir Thomas Kennedy, later the ninth Earl of Cassillis. Hidden from public view above the main reception rooms is the sumptuous 'guest flat', which occupies the whole top floor. It has six bedrooms, usually rented individually.

Here, the trust has managed the impossible: resembling neither a country-house hotel nor make-do self-catering rooms, the accommodation gives guests the impression that they have stumbled on a magical place - with a cook and staff - while the owners are away.

The Kennedys, who acquired the lands in 1397, gave the house and grounds to the trust in 1945. After the Second World War, the trust gave life tenure of the flat to General Eisenhower in gratitude for his service as Supreme Commander of the allied invasion forces that liberated Europe. The visitors' book, packed with the signatures of the eminent, shows that he visited Culzean a few times, once as President of the United States. Signed photographs and other memorabilia of him and his wife Mamie are dotted about the spectacular round drawing-room, which has windows overlooking the sheer cliff drop and across the water towards the island of Arran.

One bedroom is now part of the Eisenhower suite, which also comprises a dressing-room, bathroom and a little turret room with a lavatory on a throne-

like plinth. It would seem decadent if its decoration were not restrained. The other five bedrooms are faultless - as they should be, considering the steep prices, which include dinner, bed and breakfast for the first night only.

What makes the Culzean flat so special is its atmosphere. Some of the bedrooms look out to sea, and the only sound comes from a few seagulls that perch on window-ledges. Unlike in a hotel, the staff are so unobtrusive that they seem to melt into the carved woodwork.

At 6pm, ice, lemon and canapes, which would do many people very well as dinner, quietly appear next to the drinks cupboard in the drawing-room; guests help themselves.

All the guests staying in the flat dine together. The cuisine is superb - nursery food, a feature of many upper-class households, has been banished; the cook reputedly came from the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire's employ at Chatsworth. But be warned: some of your fellow guests may be a bit formal, although the comfortable setting seems to loosen most starched shirts. Also, Culzean is exceptionally popular, with more than 380,000 people visiting the park each year, so plan to avoid the crowds: walk around the grounds early in the morning and check the dates of Culzean's special events.

The trust provides for the slimmer budget, too: Culzean has a self-catering flat in the main house, and there are three cottages.

Other properties throughout Scotland offer a range of accommodation. At Brodick Castle, on Arran, there are two flats within the main body of the castle. Brodick belonged to the Hamilton family from the early 16th century - when Lord Hamilton married Mary Stewart, daughter of James II of Scotland - until 1957, when it was accepted by the Treasury in lieu of death duties.

In spite of its imposing appearance, the castle and its extensive hillside gardens are friendly and quite cosy: there is much to see and do without leaving the estate. Both flats are well furnished and pretty, but views fron the top one are limited by the castle's battlements.

The Historic Houses Association can advise anyone who is keen to stay with the owner of a castle or a house in Scotland. 'Some owners do not make enough money from opening their home to the public, so this is a way of making more,' says Peter Sinclair, of the HHA.

Most members of the HHA live in historically and architecturally fascinating homes which have belonged to their family for several generations.

Some houses are very smart, so if formality does not appeal it is wise to inquire carefully first. Also, many offer more economic rates to group parties than to individuals.

Alexander and Aline Hay of Duns Castle, near Duns, in Berwickshire, are open for dinner, bed and breakfast. They join guests for dinner, served by a butler, in the 14th-century dining-room. The very friendly Mrs Hay says that because it is a family home the atmosphere is not chilly.

Duns Castle has 50 rooms and dates from 1320. It has 18th- and 19th-century additions - the latter in Gothic Revival style by the architect James Gillespie Graham.

In 1639, the estate was involved in the rising of the Scottish Covenanters against King Charles I led by General Leslie, who quartered at the castle. The Hays have lived there since 1696 and have never opened it to the general public: a distinct, and peaceful, advantage for those staying.

Four holiday houses, including a dower house and a lodge, with accommodation ranging from one to six bedrooms, are also available for self-catering holidays at Duns. The border abbey towns of Kelso, Melrose and Jedbergh, and Holy Island on the coast, are all within easy reach.

A cheaper route to staying in a historic house is via the Wolsey Lodges Handbook. This lists large family homes offering up-market bed and breakfast, and dinner with the owners. Usually they have two or three bedrooms available.

The handbook includes Rossie Priory in Perthshire, with its private chapel; and Nairnside, near Inverness, where a tree on the estate is said to have been Bonnie Prince Charlie's perch as he watched the Battle of Culloden.

At Skipness, on the Mull of Kintyre, on the west coast, home of the James family since the Thirties, all is informal and rambling. The house, originally a Victorian Gothic mansion, was rebuilt, on a smaller scale, after a severe fire in 1969. Bedrooms and a drawing-room look out across the Kilbrannan Sound to Arran. Guests eat the produce of the Jameses' estate: vegetables, venison, pheasant, grouse and wild salmon.

In the grounds there are the well preserved ruins of 13th-century Skipness Castle, home to the ancient lairds of the islands and later a Campbell family stronghold, inhabited until the late 18th century. Those staying at the house have special access to the castle's ramparts from where the island of Bute and the Ayrshire coast are visible.

The Jameses are well informed about the area: near by there are Bronze Age burial sites, standing stones and the ruins of crofts dating from the Highland Clearances.

If money is no object, then renting an historic house in the Highlands is the answer. Blandings, an organisation offering country houses for holidays all over Britain, has 11 in Scotland, including Baledmund Castle, in Perthshire, where a piper can be hired to wake you each morning.

Further north, there is Eilean Aigas,

a stout stone house for 16 people built on a land-locked island on the Beauly river, near Inverness, surrounded by a 60-acre wood. The house, which was built on the site of an ancient fortress by the Lovat clan in 1830, was lent soon afterwards to the Sobieski Stuarts who, allegedly, were the grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The present owner is Benjamin Fraser, the son of the late Sir Hugh Fraser and his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, whose former writing hut can be found at the end of a winding path. A heated swimming pool, a tennis court, use of a boat and domestic help are all included at this hidden retreat.

FACT FILE

Culzean Castle: prices start at pounds 100 per night single, pounds 150 for two, for a twin-bedded room with shared bathroom. The Eisenhower suite is pounds 160 single, pounds 250 for two. Duns Castle: from pounds 120 plus VAT single, pounds 215 for a couple. Skipness Castle: from pounds 35 single, pounds 30 per person double, B & B only.

Further information: The National Trust For Scotland, 5 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh EH2 4DU (031 226 5922).

Historic Houses Association, 2 Chester Street, London SW1X 7BB (071-259 5688).

Duns Castle, Duns, Berwickshire (0361 83211).

Wolsey Lodges, 17 Chapel Street, Bildeston, Suffolk IP7 7EP (0449 741771 for a brochure).

Skipness Castle, by Tarbert, Loch Fyne, Argyll PA29 6XU (08806 207).

Blandings, First Floor, Meeting House Lane, The Lanes, Brighton, Sussex BN1 1HB (0273 747911).

The Landmark Trust, Shottesbrooke, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3SW (0628 825925).

(Photographs omitted)

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