Tam's Tales

- Blair Castle, Perthshire

Blair Castle

Blair Castle - A Certain Kind of Magic
Blair Castle has a certain 'wow' factor and it is easy to see why it is such a popular attraction. The scale of the building and the grandeur of its outlook are unique and have made it Scotland's most visited house.

Fortunately for us, the day we visited was not particularly busy, so we could enjoy the self-guided tour of the castle and a leisurely walk in the grounds without having to compete with many of the 150,000 visitors who come every year.

The admission charge of 8.25 (children and seniors have concession) entitles you to see thirty rooms in the castle and explore the gardens. We did both, but could only scratch the surface of the gardens, which include a walled garden, a play park and even a ruined church. Diana's Grove - nothing to do with Princess Diana - is an impressive 2 acre site containing some of Scotland's tallest trees. Everything in Blair is of a large scale - it adds to its appeal.

The orderliness to this place is another plus. The staff are informative and generally delightful. Everything seems maintained to a very high standard, furniture has been recently dusted, and the lawns were freshly mown. The information in each room is comprehensive. The Tullibardine restaurant was spotlessly clean and the all the items looked very appetising. Outside, visitors are encouraged to keep the place neat and tidy in an amusing way.....

The Atholl Highlanders - A Unique Force
Of course there is a unique element to Blair as it is the home of the Atholl Highlanders. [In 1844, the 6th Duke lent Queen Victoria his castle for a three-week holiday. This was long before she had her own castle built at Balmoral. In appreciation of the way in which the men of Atholl men had looked after her, the Queen granted the Duke and his men the right to bear arms - Historical note interjected by Scottie] This august body has the distinction of being Europe's only legal private army and one which has thankfully not been called to service in living memory. It remains a ceremonial group composed of staff who work on the Atholl estate which comprises 17 farms covering over 145,000 acres.

[Another historical note from Scottie: The illustration shows the cap badge of the Atholl Highlanders which incorporates the motto of the 1st Earl of Atholl. Sir John Stewart of Balvenie was given the Atholl title and estate by King James II, his half brother, in 1457. The 1st Earl was given the task of subduing the ever troublesome MacDonalds of the Isles which he accomplished (at least temporarily). King James had instructed the Earl to "Furth fortune and fill the fetters" which, roughly translated, meant "Get the chains on him and the future's yours." They did and it was!]

We enjoyed our stroll through the castle. For those interested in miltaria, there is a substantial collection of arms, including muskets used in the Battle of Culloden. There are many interesting examples of fine china and furniture. You can see how much some of the items cost as invoices have been retained, even for some of the 18th century items. This sort of detail seems to add a certain intimacy and strengthens the connection to the long dead craftsmen whose contribution is still available to us.

A Home No More

Despite everything, I felt certain sadness in the place. Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, was the ancestral base of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, the chiefs of the Murray clan. The history of that family is imbued throughout the property, with staircases and corridors liberally adorned with portraits of family members throughout the ages.

When the 10th Duke of Atholl, who was a bachelor, died in 1996 he was succeeded by his second cousin, John Murray, a South African mining engineer, but the Atholl Estate was passed to a charitable trust. Nobody lives in Blair Castle any more. The residence has become a monument.

I hope we return to Blair Castle before too long. Then 9 acre Hercules Gardens, complete with its orchard and folly, a Chinese bridge, are just some of the attractions which we could not fit in. The Castle, which has evolved over 700 years, also has more to offer. Blair Castle has, in the words of a song, "a certain kind of magic." You can see more of Blair Castle in this Windows Media Videdo Slide Show. If your browser doesn't display it directly, just right click on the link and download it to your PC.

Tam O'Ranter
October 2009

Additional Input From Scottie

Hercules Garden
Having been to the Hercules garden at Blair Castle in high summer on a few occasions I thought I would add my comments (and photos) to what Tam has written.

In 1743 James Murray, the 2nd Duke of Atholl placed a statue of Hercules at the top of a long walk to act as a focal point on the landscape. The statue is located so that it would be visible from the front door of the castle. But out of sight of the castle and below the statue, is located the walled garden. It was intended to be a spectacular surprise for those walking towards the statue.

The Hercules Garden is currently being restored to its former glory. There is an ornamental pond in the centre with a Chinese Bridge, surrounded by rows of fruit trees which make a spectacular display in the spring. Around the northern and western sides of the garden are herbaceous borders full of colourful flowers and there are a number of sculptures there as as well. There were too many pictures to include in this feature but a selection has been included in the Windows Media video Slide Show.

A Walk in the Grounds
As Tam found, a walk amongst the tall trees in the grounds of Blair Castle is well worth the effort. There are many very tall Wellingtonia and Douglas firs threaded by winding paths. In the 19th century the 4th Duke planted 25 million larch trees with a view to supplying the British navy with wood for their ships. Unfortunately, iron ships overtook the plan! Every now and again, the trees part and the vista towards the Atholl Hills and Forest can be glimpsed. No wonder that Blair castle is in the topmost 5-star category of the VisitScotland, the tourism agency.

The grounds stretch over to the old Perth-Inverness road where the original village of Old Blair used to be located until the new bridge and road were built in 1823. Prior to this, St Bride's Kirk, was the local church and the ruins can still be seen. The Battle of Killiecrankie took place three miles south of Blair Castle in 1689. John Graham of Claverhouse known as "Bonnie Dundee" and his Highland army supporting the recently deposed King James VII, was victorious over government forces led by the veteran General Hugh Mackay of Scourie who had been heading for Blair Castle.

During the battle, the victorious Bonnie Dundee was mortally wounded and his body was brought to St Bride's Kirk. He is buried in a vault beneath the kirk. The burial ground of the Dukes of Atholl lies nearby.


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