The dreary grey harling had become patchy in places, letting the water seep in; 17th century Braemar Castle, with its fairytale towers and turrets and star-shaped curtain wall, was a sad shadow of past glories.

A sanctuary for the Earls of Mar, its history spanned dark days when it was torched in 1689 in a terrorising attack on its then Government-supporting Earl, to party palace for Victorians anxious to hobnob with nearby royals at Balmoral.

Now the distinctive community-run castle is in the grip of an eye-catching new uprising, having shed its scruffy grey coat and scaffolding shroud to emerge, butterfly-like, with dazzling coat of traditional white lime harl.

The startling transformation, newly unveiled, has seen the landmark castle in the heart of Cairngorms National Park likened to a pristine snow-white wedding cake, leaving it looking as good as new just in time for the influx of tourists to the local event of the year, the nearby Braemar Gathering.

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Soon it will reopen to visitors, after 18 months under lock and key to enable £1.6million of restoration work that has included renovations to fix niggling issues with the roof, windows and a string of internal upgrades.

The soft opening – a much grander affair is planned for next year – marks a key moment for the Braemar community, whose army of volunteers have spent weeks carefully unpacking hundreds of items, from the smallest pieces of cutlery to giant four-poster beds, polishing, dusting and gradually bringing the castle back to life.

For while the castle’s gleaming white exterior is the most obvious change, behind the scenes the 395-year-old castle has worked its magic to change the lives of countless volunteers.

Having seen it at risk of falling into private hands, locals rallied in 2007 to take it over and kickstarted their own transformation, turning into tourist guides, learning conservation techniques for its countless treasures and pulling together in a remarkable community effort that has forged lasting friendships, created work and secured the castle’s future.

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According to Anni Stonebridge, Braemar Castle volunteer and activity manager, alongside the removal of the scaffolding and unveiling of the new white exterior, one of the most poignant moments of the renovations came when an old grandfather clock, stalled during the pandemic and restoration work, was nudged back into life.

While it symbolised a return to normality, the gentle ticking of the dining room clock also serves as a reminder of the castle’s heritage and, thanks to the community, its brighter future, she says.

“The grandfather clock in dining room is such a beautiful old clock with a lovely chime and nice face,” she says. “It hadn’t chimed for two years.

“We wound it up and got it going again for the first time since the pandemic, and it was such a special moment.

“Some volunteers have really missed the connections they had made when closed - and it’s going to be great to get people coming back and visiting.”

The castle, prominently situated on a raised mound on the south side of the River Dee, dominates the view for visitors arriving in Braemar from the east.

Built in 1628 by John Erskine, Earl of Mar, as a grand hunting lodge, it was set on fire during the first Jacobite uprising in 1689 by ‘Black Colonel’ John Farquharson of Inverey to intimidate its government-supporting earl.

But by 1715, the Earl of Mar had switched allegiance, and with the chief of Clan Farquhrason raised the clans to start the second Jacobite uprising at Braemar Castle.

It was later used as a garrison for English redcoat troops following the Battle of Culloden - some of the graffiti from the soldiers can still be seen on the walls.

And in its Victorian heyday it became a hub of aristocratic activity, with Queen Victoria among its guests and streams of well-heeled visitors keen to mingle with the royals at Balmoral.

Its colourful tenants have included a Russian princess and Lady Curzon, said to have inspired the character of Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey.

The Herald: The castle's tenants have included Lady Curzon, said to have inspired the character of Lady Grantham in Downton AbbeyThe castle's tenants have included Lady Curzon, said to have inspired the character of Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey (Image: free)

In the early 1960s, the 16th Chief of Clan Farquharson, Captain Alwyne Farquharson and his entrepreneurial American wife, Frances opened the castle to the public.

But eventually the castle’s future was thrown into doubt: with the risk of new owners taking over and the contents of the castle on their way to Sotheby’s to be auctioned, the community stepped in.

The castle was gifted to Braemar Community Trust on a 50-year lease and since then managed by Braemar Community Ltd, its interior kept just as it looked when the laird was in residence.

The pioneering community move was supported by the help of an anonymous benefactor who helped secure the contents of the castle and saw locals raise half a million pounds to make it wind and watertight.

Since then locals across Scotland have taken over the running of everything from lighthouses and pubs to nature reserves. But in the early 2000s, it was unchartered territory, adds Anni.

“At the beginning it was quite a small group who put time and effort in getting it up to standard, learning about the castle so they could tell stories and organise events.

“They brought it up to scratch as a tourist attraction - a huge accomplishment for the community at the time.”

The new £1.6m restoration is part of the castle’s Raising the Standard Project, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland and the support of many private donors.

As well as restoration and work to make the castle more accessible, the project aims to introduce new opportunities for learning and engagement, and to elevate the castle to a top-class attraction that meets modern demands for an elevated visitor experience.

The Herald: How the castle looked previouslyHow the castle looked previously (Image: free)

Initiatives include a new digital app, new website, online booking and presence on the Bloomberg Connects app alongside more than 200 places of interest around the world, placing Braemar Castle on the international radar.

The castle’s rebirth has also received royal backing: The Prince’s Foundation has an advisory role, while a young student linked to its Building Craft Programme has been hands on removing the old cement harling and applying traditional lime replacement.

Inside, meanwhile, volunteers have been powering through the task of first protecting the castle’s collection and then reinstating it.

“All the furniture and the collection had to be protected,” adds Anni, recalling the impact of the pandemic and preparations for the exterior work.

“We couldn’t have volunteers on site, so instead they stitched 300 Tyvek covers, all different sizes and shapes to cover everything from a Chesterfield sofa to a four-poster bed, to protect and stop dust getting through.”

Recently six volunteers have given 200 hours helping to reinstate the collection, learning how to handle items that require delicate cleaning and inspecting their condition.

“There is a lot of porcelain and crockery; cleaning that is painstaking, using tiny pieces of cotton wool,” she adds.

“As the volunteers cleaned that, they were reflecting on when it was used, they remembered using their mum and gran’s tea set. That was a real point where people felt connected with the castle, their own memories and each other’s experiences. It was lovely to watch.

“What stands out is how social people become when they’re here – they can connect and spend time together.

“They’ve been so enthusiastic about watching the scaffolding come down and seeing the castle start to reemerge.

“The castle is looking incredible now, we hope that community can feel proud of their efforts and all they’ve given to the castle.”

Find out more about the Raising the Standard Project here