I was kneeling before the altar in the tiny 16th-century chapel of Drum Castle. Jesus was above me in stained glass, Mary to his left in silver, and behind me were the ghosts of Jacobite rebels shuffling and growling almost inaudibly. I was at Drum Castle, more specifically at the Irvine family graveyard, to find the ghost of Sir Alexander Irvine. I had some questions for him.
Ok, none of that is true except for the visit to Drum Castle. There is a tiny 16th-century chapel, within which you can be married, and Sir Alexander Irvine the 4th Laird of Drum who died in July of 1457 is, in fact, buried in the accompanying graveyard. I could be right about the haunting, but maybe not; made that up too.
What really happened was…
"Oh, you can bring the car into the courtyard. You're the only ones here," we were told when checking in for a three-night stay in the Courtyard Cottage at Drum Castle. I had asked where the car should live overnight. If I wasn’t already excited about staying in a castle (I was) this really put the water in the moat. Checking in was a relatively informal process, there was, after all, only one accommodation and we were the guests. The nice lady gave us the keys to the castle (sort of), demonstrated how the century-old lock sometimes sticks, and introduced us to the apartment.
The courtyard cottage (as it is called on the National Trust for Scotland holiday rental site) has a large open plan, two-level living-dining-kitchen area. Down the hall is the bathroom and at the end the bedroom. It was at one time the bakery for the castle. Check-in and tour done, I went to get our little Mini-Cooper and bring it to the reserved-for-lord-of-the-manor courtyard parking. I pulled out of the commoner’s lot and drove around the corner of the castle arrowing straight towards the gatehouse tunnel. Right out of a medieval fantasy I approached the gatehouse on my trusty steed. It was cold and foggy and the dim light of the day gloomily faded into night as I rolled through the solid stone arch and into the empty courtyard. Now I was safe, protected against the dragons and marauding hoards outside the gates. Yes, I did allow my imagination to run away with me. I mean, I’m staying in a castle.
The apartment is comfortable, cozy, safe and solid. I doubt I’ve stayed in a more solid apartment with solid rock walls, connected on one side to the 700-year-old tower with 12 feet thick walls, and on the other the gatehouse
We had arrived at Drum Castle early afternoon on Friday the 13th in November. The weather was dreary, not unusual for shoulder season travel in the UK. Cold and overcast, but it’s what we were expecting from Scotland in November. We parked in the parking lot on the west side of the building. The castle is basically a square with the looming old tower on the east side, also the direction of the drive to the main road. The south side is the newer main house, the west side has a small structure, now a bathroom and wall, and the main parking lot. And the north side is the old bakery, aka our home for three days, and the main entrance gatehouse. In the center of it all is our personal parking lot, a rock-paved courtyard.
Drum Castle cottage is one of many amazing holiday rentals that are managed by the National Trust for Scotland. They have everything from cottages attached to castles to remote backcountry lodges to seaside bungalows. We used Drum as a central base to raid the surrounding Aberdeenshire countryside. Our first excursion the next morning was Dunnottar Castle (about 25 minutes away), a majestic ruin of a 15th-century castle, heavy with history and perched high atop cliffs on a lollipop of an almost island. In the afternoon we went to Crathes Castle (15 minutes from Drum) where we toured the building in the midst of a regional craft fair.
Sunday morning was all about ancient stone circles. First, we went to the 4000-year-old Cullerlie stone circle only 3.6 miles from Drum. Then continued in the mizzle and smirr another 30 minutes to the East Aquhorthies stone circle, one of the best-preserved examples of a type called a recumbent stone circle which is only found in north-east Scotland.
Sunday afternoon was our tour of Drum proper. The main house was built in two periods; the first in 1619 (but the date stone was placed upside-down reading ‘6191’), and then a significant addition in 1870. The rooms are fully dressed with period furniture and decorations, with plenty of wood-paneled ceilings, family portraits (and portraits painted by family), and memorabilia from the Irvine family’s long association with the castle and involvement in Scottish history. Mary’s Tea Shop and Trust store is in the original kitchens and scullery, where we had lunch in between stone circles and castle tour.
Upstairs several of the rooms had been cleared out for a modern art exhibit. Call me a philistine but modern art is not what I expect (or honestly want) in a castle. And I’d have to say there was a bit of temporal whiplash when we walked from one mostly bland, modern, pastel-painted room with a giant red hand pulling itself out of the floor in one corner and a Betelgeuseian… thing… in the other and then walking down the hall into the library where our guide told us, with no irony or humor intended, “Our oldest book is only about 500 years old.” The library was built into the old main hall of the 13th-century tower and is the only part of the tower that was integrated into the modern house. It originally had three main floors with several of them subdivided in various ways. It’s about 70 feet tall with battlements and walkway for soldiers on top and even a hidden centuries-old bathroom behind the walls.
Outside the walls of the castle, there are 412 acres of the Drum estate that you can explore on three mapped walks. Originally the Royal Woods of Drum went for miles and miles and miles but now there are only 117 acres of the original native forest left which have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. We took the one-mile woodland trail walk that goes through the old Wood. We were hoping to see wolves and witches and wandering minstrels but alas, there were none. The other walks take you through farmland, to the walled rose garden, and into other more modern woods. The Irvine family originally came to Drum because of William of Irvine’s appointment in 1323 as the Royal Forester of the woods and given the castle in the process. The castle was donated to the national trust in 1975.
After a final lovely night in the castle, we left Monday morning for Culloden.
Oh, yeah, and finally, there are bats. We didn’t see them, it was November, they were sleeping.