This day turned out, along with Ashford Castle and Peter and Alison's farm (coming soon!) to be one of my very favorite days of our trip. We started out with the ubiquitous and wonderful full cooked breakfast at Crown Hotel in Castle Douglas. Our ultimate destination was along the coast near Ayr along the rugged coast. But we weren't expected there until late in the day, so we had plenty of time to wander.
Most of the morning we spent just driving around Scottish rural roads, which range from picturesque to breath-taking.
There was a particular valley that plunged abruptly from a stony height down to a green vale that was remarkable. The road we were driving wound through it dramatically, but didn't have a safe place to pull over, and so I didn't get a picture. But I recall it vividly in mind, and when I think "Scotland" that is one of the images that quickest leaps to mind.
Along the way, we got hungry for lunch, and stopped at one of the few towns along the winding country roads, a place called Dalmellington. The local pub was open but not serving food, so we walked down to the Dalmellington Coffee Shop. Which really ought to have been called something like "Aunt Edna's Living Room Where You Can Get Food." It was full of little old ladies of the littlest and oldest sort imaginable, who huddled around one of the few tables drinking tea and clucking about god-knows-what. We ordered sandwiches and sodas to go, and awkwardly stood while the proprietor slapped together two pieces of white bread, one thin slice of ham, one slice of packaged cheese, and sent us on our way. It was terrible, and it was also not cheap, but I regret it not one pence, because seeing that quaint little coffee shop and its even quainter and littler denizens was well worth the stop.
We stopped at a wool and tweed outlet in Moffat. I've always wanted a real Harris Tweed jacket. I should stop and say - I love Scotland. When I was a wee laddie, I read everything I could about Scottish history. I traced my family roots back to Clan MacPherson, and sometime around age 14 or so, wrote away to the clan organization and asked if I could be a member. This was in pre-internet days, so it was a bit of effort, and entailed months of waiting. When I received my official Clan MacPherson membership card, I was proud as punch and carried it in my wallet until my wallet was stolen out of the back room of a restaurant I worked for in college. But the cost of genuine Scottish wool, and particularly Harris tweed, is a bit prohibitive, especially given the exchange rate. So here at the factory outlet, I found a great genuine Harris tweed coat, as well as some MacPherson tartans for family members at home. Real Harris tweed has a very peculiar provenance that involves secretively dropping bags of wool at the residences of authorized weavers without every interacting with them. Why? 'Cause Scotland, that's why. All told, we spent quite a while and a large chunk of coin getting fine woolen goods.
Armed with a fine tweed jacket, and an equally fine pipe acquired in Dublin I felt a proper gentleman when we set out. And our reception at Culzean Castle (pronounced kuhl-AYN) certainly continued to foster that happy delusion. Never mind I'd had to earn all that money myself, instead of taking it from peasants - today at least, I got to feel like the lord of the manor.
Culzean was gifted to the National Trust of Scotland with the stipulation that the top floor apartments be given in perpetuity to Dwight D. Eisenhower for his service to the UK during World War II. The castle is a public institution run by the National Trust, but the apartments are available on a very limited basis to guests.
We pulled right up into the court, and checked in. The museum was just closing, but as guests of the Eisenhower Apartments, we were permitted the run of the castle at any time. The entryway is a dramatic array of weapons, which despite looking very martial indeed, are really mostly a sham - they were purchased from the British army who were just going to destroy them. They sent along all the pistols, hangers, cannons and bayonets, as well as a quartermaster to mount them for display. The stories that populate Culzean are as varied as its tenants over the years. The castle itself was designed by the famous architect Robert Adams in 1777. He was given a limitless budget, which basically drove him mad and made the process unwieldy - he wouldn't bargain with merchants, purveyors and vendors, he'd just order anything, no matter the cost. But because so little was agreed on, when the bills were submitted they were often disputed, and so progress would occur in fits and starts that would give Adams time to re-design, fiddle with, or alter his plans.
Anyway, the end result is a gorgeous manor house, built on the remains of an earlier but undocumented castle. It has a sweeping central staircase, and sits brooding over the Irish Sea, with waves pounding on the cliff face upon which it lies.
I wish I were there right now.
We checked into our beautiful apartments, and were immediately served high tea in the circular drawing room, for which I was under-dressed.
Afterwards, we had time for walking on the grounds before dinner was served in the dining room.
This occupied a fair amount of time, and before long I became quite footsore, a perennial problem during this trip despite wearing good sturdy boots and orthotic inserts. Having no such limitations, pyr8queen elected to hike a little further into the grounds to investigate the swan lake, but when she found it was five miles away she decided to take pictures of woods and flowers and instead. Meanwhile, I sent a postcard to grrm and parrismcb as an amiable place for a writer with a big budget and a need for peace to hole up and finish a much-in-demand book. Even if he doesn't follow up, I dearly hope that someday I am in a position to do so. Because I will.
She took this picture with a timer. I swear it's the only picture of her smiling from the whole trip.
Culzean is reputed to be haunted, and is frequently seen in programs about haunted place and the like. What I found most haunting, in the best possible way, was the private bath in the apartments, which looks out over the cliff-face, and ultimately to Ireland. This, my friends, is the single greatest view from a bathroom I've ever experienced.
It was approaching sunset, and dinner time. So we changed into our recently-acquired genteel clothes, and took advantage of the golden hour to take what I hope will someday be a book-jacket photo. I firmly believe such pictures should feature castles where appropriate.
Despite the amiable circumstances, lighting and sartorial splendor, I'm afraid one can only do so much with source material, and so the bride was lovely and the groom was....present.
Dinner on the other hand, was excellent. The dining room overlooks the sea, and is furnished with antiques that have that effortless elegance that is the hallmark of the stuff good enough to hand down for many generations.
Afterwards, we took books to the circular drawing room, and lingered there, simply taking our ease and sampling the extraordinary whiskeys that the Eisenhower apartments keep stocked, as well as ale that to this day haunts me.
That's a glass of a blend made especially for Culzean Castle in bespoke batches. It was smooth and buttery, with a strong rumor of peat. I loved it. On the way out they offered me a bottle, and I gleefully bought it - it will be impossible to get anymore without returning to Culzean, so I am savoring it one sip at a time, and only on special occasions. I also tried a beer called "Caledonian 80/-" which means that traditionally it would have cost 80 shillings in tax per hogshead. Despite being "export quality" I can't find it in the U.S. and have even tried brewing it myself. (The results were good, but not at all like Caledonian.)
We struck up a conversation with the valet/servant/butler who was assigned to see to our needs for the evening, a stout and bearded fellow named Billy. I speak in praise of stout and bearded fellows, by the way - and Billy was well worth the praise. It turns out that he, and most of the rest of the staff at Culzean have at least master's degrees or even doctorates in history, and are employees of the National Trust. I thought that was a bit beneath such a lofty degree, but Billy pointed out that he was living as part of one of Scotland's important historical sites, involved with the very thing he'd studied to an intimate degree. He also doggedly defended all things Scottish being superior to any other version - giving the truth to Mike Meyers' "If it's not Scottish, it's CRAP!" sketches from Saturday Night Live. We left Billy with a copy of "Game of Thrones" which despite being a fantasy fan, he hadn't read. Since I'd just re-read it on the plane, it was cool to pass it on to a new reader, I hope he enjoyed it.
Our day at Culzean was lovely. We did wander about in the castle after hours, because we could, but we were responsible guests and didn't molest anything.
I highly recommend Culzean to anyone who wants an unforgettable experience. I certainly won't forget it.