Nestling by the Paps of Fife of the Lomonds, Falkland's Royal Burgh is dominated by Falkland Palace, a fortified stone presence that intrigues historian and passer-by alike. Supplanting the Earls of Fife's ruined medieval castle, this piece of living history was the rural hunting retreat of Stuart monarchs, with James IV authorising ornamentation and enlargement to the original building. It has experienced growth, favour, decline and restoration.

Here the Stuarts adjourned with their courtiers, seeking rest and recreation until the primitive sanitation would result in a move to the next royal property; whether Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Stirling or Perth. (Its status as a superb home-from-home example of French Renaissance architecture was confirmed enthusiastically by a visiting party of French castle-owners last year.)

In its royal heyday wild boar, deer and falconry provided the sport of kings in the vast, surrounding forest. In today's gardens squirrels, red and grey, disport themselves, otters use the burn en passant, and roe deer still venture cautiously to the edge of the village.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought severe decline through inadequate stewardship of Hereditary Keepers, a position which could be bought. Typically, it was a Victorian who reversed this tide when the Third Marquess of Bute bought the Keepership in 1887. His grandson, Major Michael Crichton Stuart, brought his bride to live in the palace after the Second World War to make it their family home.

The present Hereditary Keeper is Ninian Crichton Stuart, with the palace still a possession of the Crown, and the National Trust Deputy Keeper. He and his late wife chose to live in the village on his return from a social work career in Glasgow after his father's death, but his siblings and family guests return annually to the palace where, as a child, Ninian played hide and seek, peeking out at visitors from under beds.

''In the wider sense, I see part of my role as being one of the community,'' he explains. Among his many initiatives are local supported employment schemes, public access through the Gatehouse to offer ''a much better experience'' to visitors, restoring original landscape, and introducing nesting boxes in the grounds.

Refreshingly, the gold-with-everything overload experienced in so many historic houses is here absent. Visitors sense a homeliness. Colours are rich but muted, and hessian, unheard of as a furnishing fabric, was the 1940s choice of Barbara Crichton Stuart for drawing room curtains and upper wall dressings.

The palace is now closed to the public for the winter months, a fact gently but firmly explained to two American ladies by Property Manager Judith Fisken. Behind the massive walls, however, activity continues apace.

The palace will now revert to the Crichton Stuart family, its Hereditary Keepers, so all ''this way and that'' public access signs are removed. Full-time gardening staff go about their business, and conservation experts come to gather seasonal data from damp meters.

During closure, most National Trust properties go into a form of hibernation. Each house is given a good ''bottoming'', with all fragile valuables expertly cleaned, protected and stored until next season. This minimises wear and tear on delicate materials often centuries old, and is known as ''putting a house to bed''.

The palace chapel will continue to welcome sizeable local congregations through the winter. We approach mass through the long Tapestry Gallery, a unity of wood, stone and woven arcadias, dominated by a towering copy of Van Dyck's Charles I on horseback. Today, mass is celebrated by Father Patrick McGuire from Dunblane, his first here. ''There's a sense of touching into a great tradition, of continuity and roots,'' he reflects afterwards.

In this chapel tragic Mary Stuart celebrated the 19 years of her reign by washing the feet of 19 virgins in 1562. (Portraits of her abound in the palace.) Each window glows with Stuart heraldic arms, and the ceiling was decorated in honour of Charles I's visit. It was this detail which prompted one visitor to ask: ''Did Charles I come and stay here after his execution?'' Unbelievably, the chapel and Tapestry Gallery were used as a banqueting hall and ballroom under the keepership of the Tyndall-Bruce family in 1830 to celebrate a 30th birthday.

I will spend three days living in the palace, sleeping in an unheated courtier's room that thick, fifteenth-century stone walls keep warm. It is a secure feeling.

At 6am, Falkland is in the grip of a thorough rain-lashing. The gardens glow with autumn rusts diffused by Lomond mist. For Judith Fisken's husband Andrew, the day starts inauspiciously as from on high, a malicious gargoyle discharges its entire load over him.

Water is seeping into the attic space (where the television aerial is tucked away) and into the cosy den of a cellar under the South Range where guides and maintenance staff gather for coffee and change into period costume. Last winter, the King's Room was flooded to six inches of water, needing months of specialist repair.

At 6.30am, housekeeper Mary McBain arrives from neighbouring Strathmiglo to put the palace to bed in this her seventh year here. ''I love it,'' she enthuses. ''There's never two days the same. I never get up in the morning and think, 'Oh God, I've to go to my work'.'' Practical to the bone, her first comment on entering the drawing room is: ''There's a bulb ready to go . . . ''

One of two full-time housekeepers within the National Trust for Scotland, Mary prefers to stand while working, wears white cotton gloves at all times and carries her materials around in an old mushroom box.

Standard cleaning materials are deemed too abrasive for this work. The tools of her trade range from cotton buds and cocktail sticks for the excessively foutery, to shaving brushes, fluff-free dusters and various pony-hair brushes for giltwork. Her Hoover nozzle wears a netting bonnet to lessen suction damage on fragile fabrics. Indispensable is Synperonic N, a wetting agent which acts on the surface tension of water and allows it to penetrate more easily. Highly concentrated, the Falkland supply bought in 1994 is still going strong.

From the sombre green dressing room, 44 steps up the turnpike stairway, comes the rustle of acid-free paper - annually recycled - and swish of shaving brush.

Up a ladder, Malcolm Marshall dislodges a whole year's dust, featherbrushing the stag-head hunting trophies of Charles I's sister, Elizabeth of Bohemia. We wheeze and splutter as the clouds descend and settle, while torrential rain makes its way noisily down the huge chimney.

A Customs & Excise officer for 38 years, Malcolm originally filled the post of handyman in 1998, ''just to help out'', but stayed after interviews yielded only unsuitable applicants, including ''one who asked what company car he'd be getting''. He dislikes cleaning the neck-achingly high windows, and the massively heavy white marble bust of Mary Queen of Scots, a feat that involves walking a plank on a slope and hanging on.

From the pages of Memoirs du Marechal Foch (signed by Foch himself), a bookmark falls out, a 1955 postmarked envelope with a 21/2d stamp on it, while Mary dusts. No bookworms infest this collection.

Further dusty billows cascade from the ornately framed Conway Castle oil above the fireplace. Meanwhile, Mary is caressing blue Delftware with damp cotton wool and tissuing it dry before wrapping and tidying it away in the aumbry cupboard engraved with the profiles of the Crichton Stuart children.

Spray polishes are banned in all National Trust properties, so wood is treated with that supreme elixir of furniture polishes Whytocks No 7, made by appointment to the Queen. There is a plethora of hungry oak and walnut in this, and every, room: the glorious Crichton Stuart wardrobe with whorling grain; an elaborately inlaid cabinet, heavily carved chest, chairs and dining table, all reproductions (now antiques in their own right), crafted in the Marquess of Bute's furniture factory in Cardiff. A single small tin of this No 7 moisturiser does for a second year.

While the living polish and chat companionably about flood levels and the local baker's rolls and sausage, long-dead monarchs seem to watch over the proceedings. On loan from HM the Queen, huge copy paintings of Charles I, his luminous but troublesome queen, Henrietta Maria, and his son dominate the walls of the Keeper's Bedroom. His father's delicate features are absent from Charles II's face where the Merrie Monarch's sensual tendencies are writ large.

The four-post James VI bed here is a five-hour polishing nightmare. Kingly attributes of Faith, Charity, Justice and Wisdom stand sentinel above the pillows surrounded by a mass of ornate, occasionally fearsome, carvings or, as Mary puts it, ''ugly wee faces''.

With the upper storeys dust-free, brass candlesticks gleaming (Brasso having the edge on Duraglit) and Delftware safely gathered in, day one of putting the Keeper's dressing room to bed is complete. Later, Property Manager Judith Fisken and I exchange ghost stories in the drawing room of her palace apartment, while Hadon the discarded racing greyhound she has adopted and McLeod the whippet snuggle drowsily by the warmth of an enormous fireplace.

David Duke of Rothesay is said to have disappeared at the palace under mysterious circumstances, and a seasonal cleaner swears she once saw a female figure, the Grey Lady, float over the floor of the Tapestry Gallery and disappear through a wall where a door once stood.

No stranger to exceptional buildings, Judith spent 15 years as curator of Rosslyn Chapel, and is amused that her present office - with slit windows for the archers of yore - sits over a bottle dungeon in the 1542 gateway turret.

''Exhilarating and exciting, exhausting and exasperating,'' is how she describes her post which includes planning a seasonal calendar of events in the grounds and chapel. 2001 will feature numerous concerts and plays, with a flower festival, 12 falconry demonstrations and a daily schools education programme.

Outside her drawing room lies the now derelict East Range, over which gangs of crows swirl against looming skies. With window grilles now cobweb-decked, it once housed the dining room, kitchens, King's apartments, wardrobes and dressing rooms until Cromwell's armies reputedly set it alight (no surprise there, then) leaving the gaunt shell we see today.

The King's bedroom-proper was situated here. Crushed by defeat, and news that his wife had borne him a daughter (the future Mary Queen of Scots), James V lay in his bed, turned his face to the wall and died. It was to this desolate wing that one tourist referred on asking a guide ''When does your extension get finished?''

While not the genuine article, the King's Room seen by visitors is held to be a fair impression, and has received appreciative guests notwithstanding.

One was a common brown bat, a male juvenile fast asleep against the stone wall, christened the Young Pretender by BatWatch volunteers who retrieved it. The other - a tramp - enjoyed this hospitable elegance for a number of nights, leaving behind the helpfully courteous note: ''Please check your security.'' The King's and Queen's Rooms are Mary McBain's least favourite, not because of the six hours it takes to clean the King's Bed, but because this building stands alone. ''It's lonely here,'' she says.

A soft day dawns, Mary has picked up the daily bottles of milk from the front gate where, last year, five plump baby swallows chose to perch.

Hadon and McLeod take their morning walk through the pear, plum and apple trees of the Palace Orchard. Here lies a path created exclusively by the feet of the Head Gardener and Under-Gardener going to and from their work over many years. (Highly protective of his domain, the Head Gardener insists flowers decorating the palace be bought in rather than plucked from the gardens.)

The Keeper's apartments are again the scene of assiduous polishing, evidenced by gleaming wood and scent of beeswax. In the panelled bathroom, Mary dusts off an angel's rosy cheeks with a pony-hair brush before the gilded mirror disappears under paper.

Any ailing wood receives special attention over a three day period. White spirit strips down the surfaces, a blend of boiled linseed oil with a dash of white spirit is applied on the second day, the whole lot finished with a good quality polish.

Part of the pleasure of Mary's tasks is getting her hands over the work of genuine craftsmen. Some Delftware with its bucolic scenes is chipped, the pieces kept inside the vases in envelopes. But each piece has the genuine patina of age aspired to by Changing Rooms paint effects.

Gradually, the character of this room is eclipsed. A mantle of acid-free paper hides each of the Romantic-style prints, leaving exposed only the large oil paintings protected by appropriate heating levels.

''I don't clean like this at home, I can assure you,'' says Mary as dustsheets dance and the room vanishes under huge swathes of blue and white cotton. The Third Marquis of Bute's shutters are closed and darkness falls on the Keeper's dressing room. The drawing room is well stocked with brocaded sofa and high-backed Restoration chairs, and is still used by the family. It smells of furniture polish and, enticingly, of the fire lit for the Guides' party, traditionally held on the last day of the season.

An impressive collection of Stuart portraits looks down on us from the upper walls, ''and there's nae beauties among them,'' grins Mary, taking a cocktail stick to the ears of a sculpted Immortal on an eccentric Chinese lamp.

At the East Range Malcolm raises a fresh flag - which will flap eerily at night - before joining Mary in the Edwardian library. This is full to the gunnels of Crichton Stuart family artefacts. Here are decanters and William Leitch & Co soda siphons on a butler's tray, an Edison Bell original gramophone, unopened Capstan tins, a well-used nursing chair, and a host of family photographs and paintings.

On the writing desk lie handwritten Particulars of Falkland Estates, showing crop rotations and harvest records, a Falkland Game book and, on the back wall, a mass of gilded-spine antiquarian books each of which must be dusted. It will take Mary and Malcolm three weeks to put this trompe l'oeil-vaulted treasure trove to bed.

''In today's age, it's a difficult building to live in if you have to run from one end to the other to answer the doorbell with a one-year-old in your arms, although it has always had a nice feeling,'' confirms Ninian Crichton Stuart of his weighty inheritance. ''But it is a place of simplicity where people come to rest, and some of that is still present.''

Falkland Palace and Garden, Falkland, in Fife, is open from April 1 to October 31 each year. Telephone: 01337 857397. Manual of Housekeeping. A practical guide to the conservation of history houses and their contents,

by Sandwith & Stainton, is published by National Trust Books at #9.99.