BACK in the sixteenth century, the desirable castle might have been

measured by the thickness of its walls, the stoutness of its

fortifications and its defensive position. Nowadays, castle ownership is

a much more romantic proposition, and there are few more atmospheric and

beautiful fortified homes in Scotland than Earlshall Castle at Leuchars,

near St Andrews.

Anyone who has climbed its twisting stone stairs or strolled in the

beautiful gardens must surely have dreamed, even briefly, of living

beneath its exceptional painted ceilings. Just to hear the present

Baroness of Earlshall talk of taking her morning coffee out onto the

terrace above the rose garden is to suffer a definite pang of envy.

Above her the rooks are calling in the trees, her favourite French

rose is tumbling down the stonework, and Henry the gardener is giving

the ''topes'' their annual trim.

Just one of the delightful features that makes Earlshall so special is

the sculptured yews set out like massive chess pieces on the lawn. The

present baroness, who has spent the last 11 years restoring the garden,

affectionately refers to them as the topes.

She then goes on to explain how the clippings are saved for a company

that uses them to make a drug for treating cancer. Scottish yew is

apparently particularly effective.

It's unlikely that Sir Robert Lorimer was thinking of their medicinal

attraction when they were planted to his design while he restored the

castle at the end of the last century.

''They are said to have been bought from a disused garden in

Edinburgh,'' explains the baroness. ''They were cut into fanciful

shapes, which are not actually chess pieces but are laid out in the

shape of four Saltires.''

Sir Robert Lorimer, who has been called Scotland's greatest architect,

first came to Earlshall around 1890 when he was newly qualified. At the

time, the castle was in a state of decay and neglect, but a Perth bleach

merchant called Robert Mackenzie had decided to buy and restore it as a


His friends apparently thought him mad to even think about it, but the

atmosphere and the surrounding 34 acres of park and woodland not

surprisingly appealed to Mackenzie.

Though dating from the middle of the sixteenth century, Earlshall was

built with English-style large windows rather than the Scottish style of

more secure slit windows, however musket loops and smaller windows were

included in strategic places for defence against intruders.

The charm and restraint of Lorimer's beautiful restoration is evident

from the painted ceilings to the delightful stained glass window

details. He is said to have later told two of his apprentices that he

considered it his finest work.

In the dining room, Lorimer replaced a crumbling wood screen with a

new one based on the roodscreen in the chapel at Falkland Palace, while

adding foliage and birds to the lower section, but his greatest

achievement was rescuing the original painted ceiling in the Long


It is painted in black and grey and runs the full length of the 50ft

foot room, showing the coats of arms of many of the principal families

of Scotland as well as those of European royalty. Sir William Bruce, who

built the castle in 1546, sat beneath the royal coat of arms of James VI

when he was holding his Courts of Barony. He is said to have received

Mary Queen of Scots at Earlshall in 1561, and later her son King James.

Heritage is fine when viewed for the price of an entrance ticket and

from behind a discreet rope, but actually living beneath wonderful old

ceilings or in rooms that have seen the passing of nearly 450 years

could be like setting up home in a museum.

The notion is instantly dismissed by the baroness, who is clearly not

the sort of woman who would live in anything other than a comfortable

home with all the modern conveniences. She and her husband, David

Baxter, the present Baron of Earlshall, are leaving with obvious sadness

due to his health and they continue to care lovingly for their home as

they have done from the moment they took it over.

She disarmingly points to a quaint warning painted over a door in the

long gallery when asked what first convinced her to live in Earlshall.

''A Nice Wyf and A Back Doore Oft Maketh a Rich Man Poore,'' reads the


''It just appealed to me,'' she says. ''You have to remember, though,

that when it was written the word nice meant simple or ignorant, while a

wyf was a housekeeper. It was really a note to the housekeeper to ensure

that the laird's possessions were not purloined.''

Gifted gardener as she clearly is, the baroness recalls that when they

arrived at Earlshall the gardens did not seduce her.

''They were given to me by my husband, and frankly I didn't exactly

rush to thank him. I knew nothing about gardening and was faced with a

plot that was on the brink of disaster.

''Fortunately ignorance is bliss, and I had a wonderful helper in

Henry Collier, who has been here for many years, and Flora Wright, who

is one of the guides now and a good friend. I will never forget Flora

standing in the orchard pulling up waist high nettles and weeds.''

Today the gardens, herbaceous borders, herb plot and orchard are in

such wonderful shape they have earned a star in the Good Garden Guide.

Rather than fending off invaders, the castle is currently open to the

public who are immediately aware of being in a family home. It has seven

bedrooms in the main tower and a comfortable and spacious adjoining

service flat where the baron and baroness have their studies, three more

bedrooms, a large modern kitchen and store rooms including a game


Among its more unusual features are a dumb waiter, a secret panel, a

doocot and a fine flagpole.

As a home, the castle proper is surprisingly compact and warm. The

relatively small windows and thick walls keep out draughts, while a

striking red boiler tucked away in an outhouse brings twentieth century


The main rooms are on the first floor including the great hall, the

dining room and the drawing room. There is also a cosy ''sma'' room used

as a pretty sitting room with its old painted ceiling.

Some of the bedrooms on the upper floors -- all reached by twisty

stairs -- have ornate painted ceilings, panelling and views over the


A walk edged by bleached lime trees and a saltire pattern of pebbles

and pavings leads to the gatehouse, which offers a further four bedrooms

and two bathrooms. The whole house, including the sitting room, kitchen

and utility room, has been newly refurbished.

The original sixteenth century outbuilding, known as Dummy Daws after

an eighteenth century coachman called Daws, who wasdumb, has been used

as a tearoom and shop. It forms one side of the cobbled courtyard and it

was probably home to the Bruces when they were still a relatively humble

family. At the top of its tower is a lovely room, restored by Lorimer,

with a pretty window and a plasterwork ceiling decorated with a vine

leaf pattern.

Anyone wishing to visit the public rooms in the castle and the gardens

can do so daily from 1 to 6pm.

More information on the sale of Earlshall, at offers over #675,000,

can be had from Savills at 46 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, 031 226 6961.