Best Ever Scottish Ducal Drive

Have you ever wanted to just jump in your car, head north, and visits six castles held by Scottish nobles? I’m sure you have. That’s what I did nearly twenty years ago, when I took a break while awaiting the viva for my PhD, spotted a rare sunny spell in the UK, and seized the moment. This was before I used the internet for much except email, so I had a huge ‘master scale’ road atlas and an outdated Fodor’s Guide to Britain. I guess that’s what made the trip so great, since I only had a vague plan, and had never really seen the much of the buildings or landscapes I wanted to visit. Luckily, being really into maps and record keeping ever since my family drove across the USA in 1979, I traced my journey on the road atlas, which I still have, so I can reconstruct the journey for you all here and now.

I headed north out of Oxford on the M40, then cut across to the M1 across Buckinghamshire on the A43. I remember it was extraordinarily sunny, my windows were rolled down as I passed through the countryside in which ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ was set (true story), and I listened to Classic FM play Karl Jenkins’s Benedictus for the bazillionth time, then the catchy jingle ‘Autoglass repair, Autoglass replace’, followed by Ashokan Farewell by the violin boy-band Duel (one of whom I was briefly friends with years later) for the gazillionth time. Those were simpler times, when Britain only had one advertisement on the air, and two hit Classical music tunes on the radio, so I knew this was going to be a painful journey if I didn’t acquire some music, since the rental car was equipped with a cassette player, and I had brought only CDs.

Had I known about smart phones then, I might have been distracted to stop quite soon by the fact that I passed right by one of the major ducal residences of the 18th century, Stowe House, but that would have to await a later trip, and I knew I wanted to get really, really far north, and visit Scotland for the first time. In the end, on this trip I would visit four ducal houses, one ducal ruin, and a seat of a clan chief who may as well have been a duke: Drumlanrig, Inveraray, Dunvegan, Dunrobin, Blair Atholl and Châtelherault.

I was at first not really sure where I was going, so I got off the M1 at Chesterfield and drove west, across the Peak District. Stunning countryside, and the road passed by Chatsworth House—home of the dukes of Devonshire—and Haddon Hall—home of the dukes of Rutland—but I passed on, drove straight through the centre of Manchester (really? that’s what the purple highlighter on my map says!), then up the M6 to Lancaster where I spent my first night. There’s a castle there, but it wasn’t open and looked mostly like a Victorian prison (which it was), so I didn’t linger the next morning. I passed Carlisle and Gretna Green, so I knew I was in Scotland! I left the motorway there and drove along the coast a ways to Dumfries, then headed up into the Nithdale (the valley or dale of the river Nith—Americans, did you know that’s where any of those dale place names came from? In fact, I had just driven across the Annandale…who knew I’d come all this way just to end up in Annandale?).

By midday I was at my first destination: Drumlanrig Castle. This place is amazing. It is tucked away in the Southern Highlands, not very close to a motorway or a large city, so there were few tourists. From the long, long drive, you suddenly see this very pink palace. The local stone is very pink. The castle was built in the 17th century by the head of one of the branches of the Douglas family, one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Scottish history, who was elevated to the Dukedom of Queensberry in 1684. Inside the castle, I saw for the first time what would become fairly standard for Scottish ducal residences: lots of guns and antlers on the wall in the first few rooms, which I moved swiftly through, lots of huge magnificent portraits (which I scrutinised with care), and lots of tartan, on the walls, on the furniture, on the floors… The Douglas family merged in the 18th century with the Scotts whose seat was Dalkeith Castle outside Edinburgh, then with the Montagus, who owned Boughton House in Northamptonshire. Today’s family, triple-barrelled as Montagu-Douglas-Scott, is headed by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, and still enjoys the luxury (or burden) of maintaining more than one seat (though Dalkeith has been swapped for Bowhill in the Borders). The real treasure at Drumlanrig is their collection of Renaissance paintings, and I was a little shocked to hear in the news the very next day on the car radio that a famous Da Vinci Madonna had been stolen—had the thief been one of the guests sharing the tea room with me?

That afternoon I drove across Ayrshire and skirted Glasgow by driving through Paisley and across the Erskine Bridge, up along the western edge of Loch Lomond, and spent the night with a busload of pensioners in a sharp bend of the road at Tarbet. Who knows how I found places to stay back then. I guess I called numbers in the guidebook and hoped for the best? A few years later I lived in Glasgow, so it is a little strange to be looking at the map now to see me driving through some places I later came to knew much better. In the early morning I got up, and drove across a pretty grueling road (the A83 if you are keeping track of these things) up to a pass called ‘Rest and be Thankful’, which I did not do, since I had only just started. Then down, down into Glen Fyne, and a visit to Inveraray Castle. The Dukes of Argyll built this castle on the banks of Loch Fyne originally in the 15th century, but completely renovated it in Gothic Revival style in the 1750s. Unlike Drumlanrig, everything here is grey stone. You may recognise the castle as “Duneagle” the residence of the Marquess of Flintshire from Downton Abbey (the parents of the unhappy Lady Rose). It is the seat of the head of Clan Campbell, whose tendrils reach across the former British Empire, with branches in the US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The castle is not one of my favourites, as it felt much too modern, and in fact much is rebuilt after a fire in 1877. More interesting, I thought, was the brand new town of Inveraray, built in the mid-18th century along the rational and efficient lines of the Scottish Enlightenment, so is neatly laid out in a square design, its houses regular and clean, all painted white. Across the water is the amazing restaurant Loch Fyne, with the freshest seafood you’ll ever eat, but I didnae ken that then.

It was in the town that I went into a gift shop and asked if they had any cassette tapes, as I was slightly sick of Benedictus and Ashokan Farewell, plus radio reception in the Highlands had gotten pretty patchy. The wee shop had two cassettes, so I bought them both: one was “The Best Ever Scottish Compilation!”, and the other was a new album by a local group, Capercaillie, called “Nàdurra” which I instantly fell in love with. Their music combines traditional folk with modern beats—sometimes erring on the cheesy side, I admit, so I prefer the less drumbeat-driven tracks (and found more of that on their other albums when I got home). But this is one of my favourites from this album, ‘Hoireann O’:

I am a huge fan of the clear as a mountain stream Celtic female singing voice, so I became a fan of Karen Matheson, and went to see her perform a few years later in Glasgow. A good excerpt for her (minus all the drumbeats) is this song, ‘Ailein Duinn’, from the film Rob Roy (which is also one of my favourites).

Now equipped with appropriate listening matter, that afternoon I continued down the banks of the loch then did a sharp turn to the north towards Oban. I stopped briefly to inspect the stone circle at Kilmartin, which used to be a coronation site of the ancient kings of Dalriata, who came from northern Ireland then transformed themselves into the kings of the Scots. One thing that always fascinates me as a colonial when driving around Europe is that, because everything here is so much older than in the US, and there is just so much more of it, things like this are treated with a casualness that would be unthinkable at home. So here were these thousand-year-old stones, in a field, with cows, and absolutely nobody else around. It was magical. Then it started to rain.

I drove on up the coast, and quickly ducked in and out of Glen Coe—I had already heard the story of the massacre there, but now I had a song from “The Best Ever Scottish Compilation!”, so I could sing along:

I reached Fort William and found a place to stay. It is not at all a nice town, sorry, so I got up early and drove due west, past the Glenfinnan Viaduct (just becoming globally famous, since the release of Harry Potter II), then up a fairly wild coastline to Mallaig, where I caught a ferry to the Isle of Skye.

I pressed on to the far side of the island, and checked into a b&b near Dunvegan. Nearby Dunvegan Castle is the seat of the head of Clan MacLeod, who is not a duke, but in the misty past, their chiefs, said to descended from a Norse prince Leod, were often regarded as semi-independent lords, only doing homage to their monarchs in far-off Edinburgh when it suited them, until they were brought to heel after the two Jacobite Uprisings in the 18th century. The castle itself is not all that interesting, but the gardens are amazing (and so far north!), as is the setting on a clifftop above the sea.

The next morning I got the best treat of all as I did an early morning drive through the Cuillin Hills with my cassette no 2 playing ‘Highland Cathedral’, with massed pipes (hundreds?) at full volume. OK, that’s really corny, but what a glorious tune! (as Doc Lendrim might have said back at William & Mary). It’s the drawn-out bass notes, like a James Horner film score, that really make this version for me:

Sticking with the theme of learning odd things about places I had just visited, I was also surprised to hear on the radio that morning that Lord MacLeod was trying to sell the Cuillins. ‘But you can’t’, said the people, ‘they are a mountain range!’ ‘But they are my mountain range’ responded MacLeod of MacLeod. And speaking of money, I was the victim of highway robbery in paying the toll for the short drive across the Kyle of Lochalsh, probably the most expensive bridge in the world considering it is only a relatively short span. I’ve since learned that the toll was abolished about a year later.

The Cuillin Hills, Skye [not my photo, but it looked like this in the early morning]

This day’s drive was long, and on mostly isolated roads—all the way from west coast to east coast. Briefly stopping to look at the famous calendar-castle-porn Eilean Donan, then up Glen Shiel and a little bit of the Great Glen (that’s Loch Ness, which is actually not very pretty, in comparison to the other lochs I’d seen so far), then on a cross-country road to avoid Inverness, and on to Golspie and Dunrobin Castle.

Dunrobin was completely unexpected: a sort of 16th-century French Renaissance château, but on a much grander, Victorian, scale, on the banks of the North Sea. It seemed ridiculously out of place, luxurious and overly massive for its setting. The front door looks way too big. But the gardens and the views over the sea are stunning. There’s even a railway station that was specifically built for the duke of Sutherland and his family, the Leveson-Gowers (and as the story goes, for a visit from Queen Victoria, which never happened). So you can understand the gripes you hear in the town of Golspie, built by the Duke whose statue surveys the whole area from atop a nearby peak, since its residents had been forced to live there due to the Highland Clearances. Sheep are more profitable than farmers on this poor soil, and the dukes of Sutherland own almost all of it—once one of the biggest landowners in the UK. And like Drumlanrig, Dunrobin hosts a large art collection; and, also like at Drumlanrig, I was surprised to hear on the radio that the very day some news related to the house I had just visited, that the Leveson-Gower family had decided to sell Titian’s Venus Anadyomene to the National Gallery of Scotland. This trip was getting decidedly weird.

I stayed that night at a B&B on a huge hill in North Kessock overlooking Inverness and the Moray Firth. The next day’s drive was straight south, on the A9 though the Cairngorms, part of the Grampian Mountains. I began to understand why Scottish Highlanders felt so at home when they began to settle Appalachia in the 18th century, and brought with them their whiskey and their mountain music (I am now on day four of Capercaillie and ‘The Best Ever Scottish Compilation!’). A few years later, I was at a singing circle at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, and I offered up ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike’, only to find the old ladies (this was at 2 in the morning—the Scots take their song festivals seriously) clucking at me for thinking this was an original tune from Appalachia. Silly me.

I soon arrived at my next ducal residence: Blair Atholl, the castle of the dukes of Atholl. It is completely different from Dunrobin, much more traditional, built mostly in the 16th century, occupied since the 17th by the Murray family, and remodelled according to tastes of 19th-century Scottish Baronial Style. It suits the landscape a lot more in my opinion, and its stark white walls stand out in the green Perthshire hills dotted with sheep. Like Dunrobin, the village has its own train station, which is a bit too grand for the size of the local population. The local area also has its own private army, the only one allowed in the UK for vague ‘historical’ reasons, and they parade once a year at Castle Blair when the current Duke visits from his regular residence in South Africa.

The main facade of Blair castle, Blair Atholl, Scotland.

I think I stayed in nearby Pitlochrie that night, as it is highlighted in the road atlas, but I don’t remember anything about it, except that it has a really cool name. From there, I continued southward and stopped briefly at two Scottish royal, not ducal, stops: Scone Palace, outside Perth, where ancient kings were crowned, and Stirling Castle, a fortress where the Stuarts held court when politics got a bit too hot in Edinburgh. A few years later I was extremely lucky and proud to work on the massive renovation project of Stirling, and got to know the histories of James V and Marie de Guise very well, but that was still in the future. When I visited Stirling on this trip, the Great Hall and Chapel Royal had just been re-opened, and the palace block (the real treasure) was yet to be restored, so there wasn’t really much to see.

And finally, the last full day in Scotland. Motorway back down towards Glasgow, but hopping off the road for a little walk around one of Scotland’s true curiosities: Chatelherault. This is not a ducal residence, but was the hunting lodge, stables and dog kennels built in the 1730s for the dukes of Hamilton, whose huge palace lay in the valley below (until it was dismantled in the 1920s). The whole area is now a country park, and offers lovely long walks. But why this odd French name in a Scottish country park? It commemorates an ephemeral French ducal title that the Hamiltons claimed from the middle of the 16th century, when the Regent of Scotland, the Earl of Arran, was a chief participant in the latest renewal of the Auld Alliance. It’s true Arran was created Duc de Châtellerault (a town in Poitou, just south of the Loire—and yes, I have visited, but that’s the subject of another road trip blog) in 1548, for arranging the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin, but it was taken away again in 1559 when the winds of politics shifted (and the duchy was given to the King’s illegitimate daughter, Diane). But, as a true oddity in the history of ducal titles, it was re-created (or ‘recognised’) by Napoleon III (who was a distant cousin of the Duke of Hamilton) in the 1860s. I also walked up further into the hills to see the ruins of Cadzow Castle, which is the original cradle of the Hamilton dynasty, built way back in the 12th century.

Rather than return to the motorway, I took a smaller road up the Clydesdale (remember, dear reader? the valley of the river Clyde!), looked in at New Lanark (socialist something-or-other), then re-joined the main road near Tinto—one of the finest mountain peaks in one of the most lushly green regions of the UK. I’ve driven or taken the train through the upper Annandale many times now, but I am always overwhelmed by this stretch of hills and valleys. So I enjoyed listening to ‘Highland Cathedral’ again. (don’t judge me) Possibly to ramp up the emotional ending of this trip even more, I stayed my last night in the small town of Lockerbie and visited its cemetery just as the sun was setting. I was completely overcome with emotion seeing the graves of all those who had died just over a decade before. The entire town had been emotionally wrecked, my b&b hosts explained to me later over a mug of tea, when in December 1988 a terrorist bomb brought down a Pan Am flight overhead, killing over two hundred passengers and eleven people in the town. The most tragic monument was one to the thirty-five students from Syracuse University returning home for Christmas following a semester abroad in London. But what a beautiful setting for a memorial.

The next morning, feeling so glad to be alive and happy and healthy, I headed south once more on the motorway, crossed back into England, and was extremely grateful I had my two cassettes since I lost all radio reception when I passed through my other favourite driving spot in the UK, the really narrow valley between Penrith and Lancaster near Shap Summit (maybe it is called the Lunedale? I don’t even know). I still think it amazing how really isolated this little valley is, with both the train and the motorway squeezing through it. Then after a quick zoom down the M6, around Birmingham, I was back in my slightly crazy living arrangements at the Maison Française d’Oxford. But that’s a different story altogether.

(images either taken by me or from Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

7 thoughts on “Best Ever Scottish Ducal Drive

  1. Interestingly, many of these places are mentioned in on of my favorite series: “The Adept” by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris. Your real life trip review reminded me of why I enjoy her kind of crypto history (fiction) so much: there is magic to be witnessed even in our everyday lives. 😊


  2. That sounds like quite a trip!

    Slightly pedantic point: the old castle of Inveraray was actually a separate building, it wasn’t rebuilt. It stood just to the north-east of the new one and was finally demolished once the new one was completed.


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