Country Journal. Our Country Journalist strays far from the madding crowd on the high road to Scotland's many castles.
THE Scots might well be in despair. They have had one wet summer after another, and tourist figures this year are down by as much as 40 percent. Scottish hopes had been high early in the season, and when temperatures briefly soared to the mid-60s (F.) there was talk of a ``fearsome heat.'' It was not to last. But to those who allow themselves to be captivated by Scotland's unique beauty, it scarcely matters. Sensible shoes and a raincoat that knows its job are essential standbys for anyone traveling here. And when the clouds clear, all is forgiven in the presence of a landscape hardly rivaled anywhere.
Besides, there is ample compensation even for those who have traveled to Scotland only to have missed the view and viewed the mist. The country is covered in a rich crop of castles, some of whose seeds were sown in the Dark Ages. Dour necessity and strong practicality have produced a distinctive vernacular style of castle or tower house from which the Scots little deviated until those Adams architect brothers upset everything with their neoclassicism in the mid-18th century. Many old tower houses at that time were embellished or swept away in a change of style that rendered them old-fashioned (rather than traditional) in the eyes of their Augustan owners. The tide soon turned, however, and wealthy romantics, notably Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, returned to the old traditions, building grand houses in a style known as Scottish Baronial.
Scotland is now reaping a rich harvest and promoting its great heritage of castles. The National Trust for Scotland and the many private owners have much to offer. When the turbulent times that gave rise to fortified homes were over and the clan rivalries drew to an end during the 17th century, Scottish noblemen turned to gentler pastimes. They domesticated their fortresses and filled them with the accoutrements of a cultivated life. They also converted their policies -- a Scottish word for a mansion's surrounding grounds -- into parks and gardens.
There are castles of every type in all parts of the country, from the Border areas of the south, to the Western Isles, to the Highlands. Some, having long ago succumbed to the ravages of clan warfare, today stand in ruins; they are awesome ornaments in a wild landscape. Many are still private homes, and some are hotels. But many are open to the public in a season that lasts from May to late Septemaber. The Scottish Tourist Board publishes a ``Castle Trail'' for the Gordon District in eastern Scotland, but any visitor can plan his own.
Bloodcurdling legends and their tangible and ghostly relics are the stock-in-trade of Scottish domestic history. Crathes Castle, 15 miles southwest of Aberdeen, has them all. This small castle was built in the 16th century, quite late for a fortified tower house, especially considering that architecture south of the Scottish border was by then relaxing into expanses of multipaned windows. But at Crathes the walls are extremely thick; they originally had only tiny slits for windows in the lower stories. But when one reaches the security of the fourth floor, cantilevered turrets and towers break out in profusion. The castle has a great iron yett -- a heavy grill defending the oak door -- and above the yett among the dormers stands a breteche -- a removable slab of stone through which hot oil or stones could be poured onto unwary and unwelcome visitors.
Fortunately Scotland's attitude toward visitors has mellowed since feudal times, and today the welcome to Crathes could not be warmer. After more than 350 years the Burnett family, which built the house, handed it over to the National Trust for Scotland 35 years ago. Today, ladies swathed in the Burnett plaid greet each visitor individually. They encourage children to take and complete a junior guide and quiz -- the best method yet devised for enabling parents to enjoy a reasonably trouble-free visit. In spite of its fortifications, Crathes is a home: It's small and very comfortable inside. An unusual long gallery on the top story boasts turreted windows. The view is superb: Beyond the policies and across the wide valley of the River Dee rise the distant wooded hills of the spectacular Highlands.
The National Trust for Scotland has only just acquired Fyvie Castle. This is clearly one of the Trust's most important properties, and it has proved to be a great atttraction in its first open season. The castle is so old that its origins are lost in the distance of antiquity; the first written reference to it appeared in the 13th century, probably as a royal hunting lodge. The five families that have owned Fyvie through its known 500-year history have each added a tower to the castle. (Its name, despite how it sounds, has no quinary connotations. It means ``deer hill'' in Gaelic.) With each addition, Fyvie grew larger and more impressive. Today it is one of the grandest of Scotland's tower houses.
The ancient splendor of Fyvie is apparent at first sight. But the splendor of its interior is of another age. The house was bought in 1889 by Alexander Forbes-Leith, a descendant of the Prestons, the first family to own Fyvie in the 15th century. Mr. Forbes-Leith was born at nearby Blackford and returned to Fyvie many years later by way of marriage to an American heiress and a brilliant career in steel. He achieved a lifetime's ambition in acquiring Fyvie, and he transformed the ancient house into an Edwardian palace. The grandeur and luxury is at odds with the severe exterior and is a last flowering of the Scottish Baronial style.
Fyvie Castle is 25 miles northwest of Aberdeen, off the A947 Aberdeen/Banff road. Open to the end of September.