Castle Fraser

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This is described as one of the grandest castles of Mar and we were looking forward to our visit. There has been a tower house here from the 15thC. The 6th Laird extended the tower and added a second and larger round tower. His son continued the work by building two new wings to enclose a courtyard. The castle was modernised in the 18thC when a new entrance was added on the south side and larger sash windows fitted throughout. The estate was sold at the end of the 19thC and was used as a shooting lodge. A partial restoration by the last owners Major and Mrs Smiley removed much of the 19thC work.

It was a Saturday and the car park was busy. Our hearts sank when we saw the wedding group around the front entrance to the house. I know that weddings are major money spinners for historic houses, but they often mean that parts of the house are shut to ‘ordinary’ visitors. This was very much the case when we visited as the kitchens, great hall, dining room and peacock hall were shut. Normally entry is by the front door. On weddings you are re-routed and use the exit at the back of the house, up a spiral staircase.

This isn’t a good introduction as, not only is it a rather depressing introduction, you also also have to contend with visitors coming down the staircase as they leave the house. There isn’t that much room. At the top we were greeted by two closed doors and two members of staff hovering. There is no reception desk and tickets are shown on the spiral staircase, again with people descending. This isn’t the welcome we expect from NTS and by now we were beginning to fell very much second class citizens.

Michael hadn’t wanted to tour the house and had been hoping to find somewhere to sit in reception and wait for me. This resulted in scratching of heads and a suggestion that he go back to the tea room and wait there. After a negative experience in the tea room, which was a cold and rather dreary room, he turned this down. They eventually decided that as the great hall was no longer being used by the wedding party he could sit on one of the function chairs in there and I would collect him on the way out.

I continued up the spiral staircase past a room described as the CHAPEL for private prayer. This was originally the charter room used to store important documents and I could still see the remains of the trap door to a secret room in front of the fireplace. The room is furnished with chests and didn’t look much like a chapel to me…. There is another room off this but it is roped off and I could only peer through the doorway and there wasn’t much to see. By now I was beginning to feel decidedly disappointed by the start of my visit. It hardly grabs the attention does it? This poor beginning may well have influenced my views of the rest of the tour.

The tour then goes into what is described as the ‘WORKED ROOM” because of the hand sewn tapestry bed head, hangings and chair seats. One of the room stewards was sitting on a chair beside the window working on a tapestry. A fitting touch to the room. I admired the huge wooden door frame and carved lintels, a survivor of the 16/17thC building. I liked the small cupboard containing the chamber pot. Chests, dressing table and bureau furnished the room. In a corner is a secret lug. This is a slang word for ‘earhole’, and this is where the Laird could hide and eavesdrop on the conversations of visitors in the great hall.

I continued through another elaborately carved doorway into the NORTH BEDROOM which is a smaller room and feels quite dark with a dark patterned carpet (a copy of a 19thC design) and dark red drapes around the four poster bed. A full length mirror in front of the bed is probably not what you want to face after a heavy night. There is a huge chest of drawers and glass fronted display cabinet making the room feel a bit cramped. The garderobe off this was later turned into a built in wardrobe.

I then continued into the PORTRAIT GALLERY which was added in the 19thC to give access to all the rooms when people understandably felt it was no longer acceptable for rooms to be reached through each other. Furnished with 17/18thC pictures on the walls of Scottish Kings and Queens, I moved through quickly not being particularly interested in the portraits.

At the end of the corridor and only admired through a roped off doorway is the GREEN ROOM. This was built in the south tower and was squared off by building cupboards into the thickness of the walls. I could just manage to see the four poster bed, crib, hip bath and metal jug for hot water. On a wash stand was a flower patterned china bowl and jug. Fortunately by now I was the only visitor in the castle, as if it was busy, this could be a bottle neck as views are a bit restricted.

Continuing up the spiral staircase I came to yet another bedroom, the PINK BEDROOM this time with a four poster bed with a patchwork quilt. The drapes and curtains are copies of an 18thC pattern and the carpet is a modern copy of what is described as a Scotch flat weave. Traditionally this was made up of strips which were stitched together and was reversible for extra wear. Again there was a corner washstand with a set of matching bowl, jug, soap dishes and chamber pot in a blue and white design with egrets. There was a small sloping writing desk. These were provided in all the bedrooms for family visitors to write letters – in the days when people still wrote letters.

There was yet more spiral staircase. I began to think Michael had the right idea when he said he hadn’t wanted to tour the castle. This took me up to MAJOR AND MRS SMILEY'S ROOMS, the last owners of the castle. It felt a soulless room. The painted wallpaper is a mock Chinese design with a pattern of two birds surrounded by garlands. There was a well stocked cocktail cabinet in the corner, two small chairs on either side of the fireplace, large bureau bookcase and a central table with two chairs. On the wall is a framed charter dated 1656 giving Alexander Harper, merchant of Aberdeen and his wife Isobel Keillo the lands of Easter Echt and Mill of Air in the Parish of Echt. This intrigued me and I wanted to know what its significance was and why it is here. There was no information and no-one to ask.

I continued up the staircase to MAJOR SMILEY'S ROOM at the top of the tower. This had pictures of the estate and other family properties. Taking up nearly a whole wall was a large desk with a lot of small numbered drawers. There were glass display cases with mementoes of Major Smiley’s military career in the Rifle Brigade in World War Two. There were trunks and boxes lying around. It felt completely soulless and rather creepy – although some of this may have been due to the closed door next to this room with a sign proclaiming ‘BATS’. You could smell them.

The spiral staircase continues up to the roof. Having got this far I decided I might as well continue to the very top. Views however were disappointing.

It was now back down the staircase to the LIBRARY, a big room created in 1830 from two bedrooms (please no more bedrooms). This was a large room and used for entertaining . There were antlers on the walls and a grandfather clock ticking. As well as bookcases it had a piano, card tables and Trou-madame. This was a new one on me. Fortunately there was a room steward in the room (the second one on duty). This superseded bagatelle and was just played by the ladies. There was a table with cue and small balls. The aim was to pot these through numbered holes at one end of the board. Scores were kept by moving a peg in the notches along the side of the table. To in you had to get the exact number. If you scored too many points you had to go back to the start. I had visions of games lasting a long time.

I admired the wooden leg of Charles MacKenzie Fraser who fought in the Peninsular war and was shot in the head and leg. The head wound wasn’t too bad but his leg had to be amputated. He survived this and returned home to father 14 children, dying at the age of 79. The leg is described as an “Anglesey Leg’ and was the latest style. He had several different ones and this was the one he used for horse riding as it could bend at the knee.

The wall paper was a very heavy and rather oppressive design of brown and cream dating from 1829. They must have bought too much as it is also on the walls of the Victorian sitting room and the Governess’s room (poor soul).

As I left the library I noticed a small label on the piano: “Have you thought about booking the library for your wedding”. I gave hollow laugh.

A doorway leads to the VICTORIAN SITTING ROOM, again roped off and you have to crane your neck to see into the room. It was a typical Victorian room with a pulley in the ceiling over the table to raise or lower a gas lamp. Next to it is the GOVERNESS'S ROOM, a depressing and cold room with little attempt to add creature comforts. The Governess was made to feel her place in society.There was a small brass bed with a half tester with lace drapes, a wash stand with with blue and white china wash set and a sampler on the wall.

By now I was conscious of the time. It was back down that spiral staircase again. The castle closes at 5pm and at 4.45 I was aware of the two room stewards closing up rooms behind me. I remembered to pick up Michael from the GREAT HALL, and just managed a sneak glimpse in there. It was a rather uninspiring room with a big empty space in the middle. It had whitewashed walls, big fireplace, rush carpet, tables, cupboards and chairs around the walls. Perhaps I hadn't missed much.

Overall this was a very disappointing experience. I would describe most of the rooms as only average. There was a certain amount of printed information in most of the rooms and the two stewards on duty were friendly and helpful. However I felt the visit was very unbalanced with a preponderance of bedrooms.

I did email the castle when we got home but just got an answer that weddings were very important to generate cash for the property. They didn’t want to disappoint people by shutting the castle and did re- sign the entrance and rearrange the route around the castle. There was no response to my comments about the preponderance of bedrooms and lack of reception rooms on the tour nor about the lack of proper reception facilities.

Even without a wedding, there are more interesting NTS properties in the area to visit. If planning a visit ring up before to make sure there are no planned events which could shut off parts of the castle.

The tea room is not run by NTS but is a franchise. Service was poor. Cakes were mass produced, commercial offerings and prices were expensive.

We will not be going back…. At £10 for adults and £7 for concessions we felt this was expensive compared with other NTS properties in the area. Anyone in a wheelchair would not have been able to access any of the rooms today.

There are no pictures. The NTS has a policy of no pictures inside their properties. There were so many wedding guests milling round the front of the house, plus a mini-van, that Michael didn’t take a photo. The back of the house wasn’t very photogenic either. I told you we were disappointed.

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