Destinations: Scotland, Borthwick Castle

25 September 2020
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25 September 2020
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Built to Impress

Few luxury getaways have quite the historical kudos of Borthwick Castle, a profoundly charming Scottish bolthole with links to Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell

M ary Queen of Scots did not have much luck with men. Historians reckon her first husband was poisoned, her second was certainly blown up and her third, well he turned out to be a thoroughly bad egg who abandoned her in her hour of need.

Husband number three’s name was the Earl of Bothwell and, by strange coincidence, I happen to find myself staying in a room that bears his name. Not only that, his portrait, featuring his lordship wearing a yellow doublet and looking a little bit shifty (if you ask me), peers down haughtily from one of the metre-thick walls.

The venue is Borthwick Castle, near Edinburgh, within whose very precincts Mary and Bothwell lived for what was a brief period of marital bliss. Once the seat of the powerful Borthwick clan, the place is today a magnificent luxury venue offering 12 bedrooms and three reception rooms as well as high-quality dining for up to 80 guests. A picture book Scottish castle, it comprises two towers topped with gently sloping roofs set amid wonderfully rolling Borders countryside. Indeed, the 19th-century painter JMW Turner was so taken by the beauty of the place that be immortalised it on canvas (during one of his visits north of the border in search of romantic ruins).

Borthwick’s transformation since those days of enigmatic decay has been little short of miraculous. Following that episode with Mary Queen of Scots, who incidentally once had to jump from one of the first floor windows to escape pursuers, the castle was unlucky enough to end up on the wrong side of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War.

Even today the walls bear the scars of the cannon shot that persuaded the defenders to throw in the towel. Not only that, after they had to march away from the castle it lay abandoned for centuries. Gradually roofs and floors caved in and the locals helped themselves to stones, timbers and anything else they could haul away.

It wasn’t until 1913 that the Borthwick family finally got round to restoring its ancestral seat and even then luxurious probably wouldn’t have been the word you’d have used to describe it. In latter years it became a three-star hotel, whose exterior was more impressive than an interior redolent with tartan and prints of stags and Highland soldiers.

The castle’s transformation came when its new owners (they are cagey about publicity and the only information available suggests links with the Middle East) decided they wanted to create something that not only suited them, but also stood comparison with any private hire venue in the country.

While the process was going on the design team lived in the building and the larger pieces of furniture (and there are quite a few of them) were hauled up the walls and through the windows.

Inside the feeling is decidedly medieval. Not in the sense of smoky candles and draughty passageways, more a luxurious vision inspired by Game of Thrones. Bare stonework and smooth plaster join forces with massive, dark wood beds and furnishings, while lampshades, tapestries and chairs echo the colours of medieval artworks.

The 19th-century painter JMW Turner was so taken by the beauty of the place that he decided to immortalise it on canvas

Above all, the place is a castle and its windows are small, so the rooms’ strong suit is centred on being warm, snug and cozy.

They all bear suitably authentic-sounding names and each has its own character. The previously mentioned Bothwell, for example, features dark oak furnishings and a massive metal chandelier to give it a robust, masculine feel. Wizard’s Tower, meanwhile, at the top of the building, has a vaulted stone ceiling, red hints to its décor and bedside lamps made from antlers.

Food is a major part of the package at Borthwick. Chef Derek Johnstone and his team use regional, seasonal ingredients to bring together sublime Scottish fare. Highlights include locally sourced oysters, beef and venison. And the breakfasts are out of this world.

Words: DH

Borthwick Castle

What’s included

Exclusive hire of Borthwick Castle includes three imposing public rooms: the Garrison, the State Room and the Great Hall which can be used for receptions, dining, dancing and activities. The castle has 10 individually designed bedrooms sleeping up to 20 guests and, next to the castle, Crookston Cottage which can sleep a further four guests, plus the newly refurbished Gatehouse which sleeps two guests.
Getting there

The castle is a 30-minute drive from Edinburgh. Private transfers and taxis can be arranged by the in-house team.

In the area: Lindores Abbey Distillery

Set in what was once an abbey of the Tironesian Order, the distillery offers tours explaining the whisky-making process and the history of the site. Lindores Abbey also distils its own aqua vitae, supposedly just as the monks enjoyed.

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2019

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