THE comments in the visitors’ book at Rowallan Castle sum up how special it is to spend a night here.

“First time in Scotland, what a dream,” writes one American holidaymaker. “Stunning, so beautiful,” states another. “Living like royalty was an amazing experience,” enthuses a third.

Would-be princesses, history fans, families and friends with a special occasion to celebrate – all are likely to enjoy this impressive 12th century castle set in 600 acres of glorious woodland in the Ayrshire countryside.

In fact, there are two castles on the site, which is also home to the award-winning Glasshouse restaurant and a championship golf course designed by Colin Montgomerie.

The Old Castle, which is our home for two nights, is steeped in history. Lost by previous owners, “likely through drink and debauchery,” laughs current proprietor Niall Campbell, it was maintained by Historic Scotland for many decades until Niall and his wife Louise took it on. Built by the Mure family as a country seat, it was owned from 1690 until the the 19th century by the Campbells of Loudon, of whom Niall is a direct descendant.

“At first, we didn’t want to do it,” he admits. “It felt like an impossible task. And it has been very difficult – to call it a labour of love is an understatement. It took 30 years. But we are proud of what we have achieved.”

Niall is full of fascinating facts and snippets of history about the Old Castle, which sits grandly near the entrance to the site, on the Carmel Water. He points out the ancient ruins which date back to the Bronze Age – “there is evidence it was used as a burial site, human bones have been found here” – and reveals the castle’s connections to the Stewart kings.

The Mures were the middle rank of Scots nobility and Rowallan is believed to be the birthplace of Elizabeth Mure, second wife of King Robert II of Scotland. John Mure was married to Margaret Boyd, former mistress of King Kames IV, and the building itself was modelled on the Stewart palaces.

It is hard to believe this palace-in-miniature, with its links to royalty (and Robert the Bruce, whose family seal can be seen on the old range access door), is ours for the weekend.

“It is a very castle-y castle,” approves the 13-year-old, whose initial investigations with his older brother uncover all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies. “It has turrets and a spiral staircase that goes up to the attic.”

The ‘attic’ is in fact a huge gallery games room, complete with pool table, card games, TV, some intriguing-looking musical instruments and two single sofa beds which can, if required, boost the accommodation to 10.

The castle comprises four large bedrooms, three with super kingsize beds, and a spacious family bathroom.

Archie, 17, and Harry, 13, bag a room each – proper luxury – and we take the master bedroom, which has an enormous en-suite. Everything is tastefully designed and decorated, (“there’s wifi, phew,” notes Harry, relieved) but it loses none of the original character. There is nothing cold or eerie about this castle, and the original features still on display, like the original stone walls bare in places or the giant door key, just add to the charm of the place. History is all around you, but it quickly feels like home.

Downstairs, there is a well-equipped kitchen and a grand dining room if you decide to self-cater in style. On our first night, we opt to take the short walk up through the grounds to The Glasshouse restaurant, where the food is fantastic. The menu is ever-changing, combining modern and traditional dining with pub classics, seasonal specials and snacks to suit the varied clientele of staycationers, golfers and party-goers.

Our first day is spent exploring and settling in. Archie discovers a historical document which fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge about Rowallan – Historic Scotland’s ‘A Palace Fit for a Laird’ is a record of the archaeology and history of the site, and it explains some of the complicated connections between the Mures and Campbells, other local lairds and ladies, and of course, the Scottish royals.

It describes Rowallan as a ‘unique survivor of a lairdly house’ where within three generations, lairds who might have been expected to die in battle for their king had been transformed into “musicians and poets enjoying the good life of James VI’s Great Britain.”

This good life is easy to imagine, as we relax and make the most of lairdly living for our short staycation. Niall and Louise have emerged from lockdown, like most businesses, battered and bruised from the brutal effects of the pandemic on hospitality. However, with a new Airbnb audience taking advantage of the unique chance to stay in a castle for a night, and their busy wedding venue business picking up steam now restrictions have eased, life is slowly getting back on track.

Family is key to the success of Rowallan, and it is woven into its very fabric. Son George runs the golf course, his sister Katy handles catering and marketing, their mother was responsible for the sumptuous interiors which fill the New Castle with warmth and colour. The New Castle – don’t let the name throw you off track, it was built in 1902 by Scottish architect Robert Lorimer – is an exclusive-use venue which can accommodate 21, and the names of rooms and suites here have close connections to family, friends and the history of the place.

Katy explains: “There’s George, and Catherine, which is me, and Ross, which is the surname of one of our aunties who was a huge supporter of the whole project.

“She absolutely loved it.

“Loudon refers to the original owners, Lorimer was the architect – it is important to keep all these names alive.”

Katy adds: “It is an amazing place, we grew up surrounded by it all. It’s only when you get older you realise what an exciting project it is to be part of.”

Rowallan lies around 20 minutes south of Glasgow, just a short drive from Kilmarnock. We spend our second day exploring nearby Kilmaurs and Stewarton, then head to the coast which is also within very easy reach.

After a healthy dose of sea air at Irvine, we are ready for dinner which promises to be something a little bit special. Guests in the Old Castle can hire Rowallan’s executive chef Ian Mackie for a night, and he will come and cook dinner for you in the castle kitchen.

Katy and Ian, along with Ally Grant who will be our ‘waiter’ for the evening, arrive around 6pm, with an intriguing-looking collection of containers and contraptions. Our offers to help set up are waved away – everything is done for you (including all the washing-up at the end) and all we have to do is sit. And eat.

It is a fantastic experience, made even more entertaining by Ally’s chat and occasional visits from Ian, who pops in to check we are enjoying our meal. We are. Scallops with black pudding and a delicious cauliflower puree; haggis, neeps and tatties; venison; fillet of beef; cranachan…the menu, which we were given in advance, is bursting with Scottish flavour and cooked to perfection.

Ally joined the company for a summer job while he was a student, and he is now bar manager. Ian was head chef at the Buttery in Glasgow and House of an Art Lover, before joining Rowallan Castle in 2018.

“It is a pretty special place,” says Ian, and Ally agrees.

“You sometimes forget that ‘going to work’ means something a bit different for us than for most people,” he smiles. “Not many people get to say they work in the middle of beautiful countryside at two castles and a golf course. It’s really something.”

A stay at Rowallan’s Old Castle starts from £1000 per night.

The chef catering experience starts from £65 per person.

The New Castle wedding hire prices start from £5500 for one day and night, which includes full exclusive use of the Castle with access to all bedrooms and function rooms.

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