I’ve always been a little obsessed with staying in quirky places. Lighthouses, churches, treehouses, giant hammocks – you name it, I’ll sleep in it. But spending a night sleeping in a castle tops them all.
It’s a dream I imagine many people share: being tucked up in the top of a tall tower, listening to the wind howl around the stone ramparts outside and the rain pouring down on the windows. Preferably lying in a four poster bed, complete with swishing curtains.
Culzean Castle sits on the cliff edge of Scotland’s Ayrshire coast; a sheer drop leads straight down to the choppy waters of the Firth of Clyde. The castle is the former home of the Marquess of Ailsa, head of an ancient Scottish family named the Kennedy Clan who are descended from Robert the Bruce and who have owned the building in its various conversions since the 14th century.
Amazingly enough, it’s also been kept in rather wonderful condition – mainly because the castle and surrounding grounds were handed over to the National Trust for Scotland in 1945 by the 4th Marquess of Ailsa, who owned the place until then.
Although why on earth someone would willingly give up ownership of their very own castle is beyond my comprehension.
Our arrival at Culzean Castle
When we left Glasgow it was under a huge storm cloud of rain, but the weather had brightened up considerably by the time we reached the Ayrshire coastline, and could see Culzean Castle’s elegant stonework in the distance.
As our cars pulled up at the castle entrance, the clouds were held at bay and I was chomping at the bit to get outside into the beautiful late afternoon light spilling over the castle grounds.
I walked towards the castle entrance, and immediately felt like I was being transported back in time. There were no other vehicles to be seen; just worn-out brickwork, narrow arches and twisting pathways leading down towards the shoreline.
My friends soon disappeared as I stumbled around in open-mouthed wonder, snapping photos in every direction. Just like all the best castles, there seemed to be a ton of nooks and crannies just begging to be explored – and I hadn’t even made it into the castle building yet!
Eventually I caught up with the others inside the castle’s doorway and met David, the young caretaker of Culzean – who seemed just a little unnerved by the loud arrival of a group of women into the quiet spaces of the castle.
David led us through a narrow corridor to a tiny lift, complete with two sets of sliding doors made from creaking, folding metal, and as we rose upwards in the lift, he remained mysteriously quiet. It was only when we stepped out onto the oval balcony that he began to speak about the castle in more depth.
At that moment, though, I was somewhat distracted by the inside of the place: the portraits of past generations lining the walls; the ram heads on the bannisters; the grandfather clock ticking sombrely away above the incredible sweeping staircase.
The history of Culzean Castle
The six bedrooms on the top floor of the castle make up the Eisenhower apartment, presented to President Eisenhower in 1945 for his personal use as a gesture of Scotland’s gratitude to America during the Second World War. The Eisenhower apartment isn’t open to the daily visitors who throng the lower floors of the castle – but we were lucky enough to be spending the night in those rooms.
I watched everyone surreptitiously eying the closed bedroom doors while David talked. The one directly behind him was marked ‘Eisenhower’s Suite’. No prizes for who usually slept in there, then.
I was staying in the Kennedy Suite – not the biggest room on offer, but I was more than happy with the stunning views of the castle grounds outside and the churning seawater beyond. And as soon as I spotted the tartan throws across both armchairs, I immediately promptly put one around my shoulders.
Perhaps it was my one-eighth of Scottish ancestry shining through?
Once we’d all settled into our rooms (and I’d reluctantly dragged myself away from my new favourite window-side view), our group reconvened in the beautiful circular Drawing Room for a drink before dinner.
But alas, the light outside was still so beautiful that it tempted us back on the castle walls once again.
Our usually dour and sarcastic driver got overly excited about an old cannon that sat facing the chilly waters of the Firth of Clyde, jabbing his finger eagerly at the numbers that dated it back over two hundred years.
Eventually the sun approached the horizon with increasing speed, and we sipped on glasses of champagne while we watched it fall below the surface.
Dinner, drinks and a murder mystery
We spent the first part of our evening in the State Dining Room: a space with high ornate ceilings, Corinthian pillars and portraits of the Kennedy family all over the walls. Despite having a capacity for 72 guests, it was just the nine of us for dinner, sitting comfortably around the castle’s original oak dining table and enjoying haggis, fresh salmon and quite a few bottles of wine.
Afterwards, we retired to the Drawing Room upstairs for an impromptu murder mystery party, complete with accented character voices and a great deal of pantomime-style miming.
As the clues pointing to our elusive murderer grew more pronounced, I tried not to think about the extensive weaponry in the armoury below. On display, yes; deactivated, most likely; but that didn’t take away from the century-old scratches embedded deep in the sword blades, or the sunken pistol mouths from countless bullets, or the metal worn smooth by hundreds of thumbs gripping tight.
In the silent lulls between our words, it was all too easy to imagine life in the castle when those guns were still in common use.
What’s it like to wake up in a castle?
If I’d been concerned about any paranormal activity during the night (a staple part of an old castle, surely?), there was nothing to suggest that ghosts were around. The next morning, I awoke to the sight of clear seas and a pink-tinged sky through the window opposite.
With the rest of the castle’s inhabitants seemingly still sleeping I went for a wander by myself, padding across the carpets in bare feet and stealing glimpses at the sunlight that flooded in.
I was still deeply entrenched in the castle’s past, and it felt slightly bizarre to be eating bowls of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes in the little breakfast room.
From the window, I watched David clamber into his little golf cart in a car park only big enough for ten vehicles and disappear down the path to another, unknown part of the castle.
As I walked back to my room to pack my case, I heard a strange sound. Looking down the grandeur of the Oval Staircase, I saw a man in a National Trust for Scotland jacket busily hoovering the plush red carpets – and just like that, the timeless spell of the castle was broken.
Behind the noise of the hoover, I could already hear the faint murmurs of the castle’s first visitors for the coming day, and once I took a last lingering look into my room before closing the door (leaving the big key still in the lock) I was essentially just another visitor.
Exploring the rest of the castle
At least there were more of the castle’s rooms that I hadn’t yet seen. The areas of Culzean kept perpetually on display to the public include bedrooms, bathrooms, drawing rooms, a library and a Georgian kitchen way down in the basement, complete with a row of bells along the ceiling to alert the servants.
It also comes with a wonderfully British attempt at creating atmosphere, with platters of artificial food laid out along the old table.
My wanderings took me through a number of rooms and past some bizarre features (the boat-shaped bed and the bathtub built into the wall were just a few of my favourites) but I was eventually halted by an extremely chatty volunteer guide who stood in the music room.
He clearly felt very strongly that I needed to know all the stories he had to offer about Robbie Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet who was born in 1759 in a small house not far from the castle. I listened politely while time ticked away, measured out by the music of a harp player and guitarist, and watched the elderly visitors in anoraks who peered around the curtains to the sea outside.
Perhaps they were hoping for a glimpse of the Irish coastline in the clear, early morning air?
When the Robbie Burns stories were over, I made my excuses and ventured out into the castle’s grounds for a brief look at the Fountain Court, the glass-walled Orangery and the crumbling garden walls.
I didn’t want to leave Culzean, but the choice wasn’t mine to make. As we jumped into the car and I looked longingly back at the ramparts and turrets, I noticed the clouds beginning to gather ominously overhead.
Just in time for our departure, the rain was about to begin again.
Where’s the most bizarre place you’ve ever slept? Would you ever stay in a Scottish castle?
Disclaimer: I stayed at Culzean Castle as a guest of Visit Scotland, but I would’ve done everything in my power to spend the night in this place regardless. Come on, wouldn’t you?!