When the weather’s good in the UK, there’s no place I’d rather holiday’ is an expression we Brits commonly use. I was ecstatic to find myself staying at Ackergill Tower – a stunning fifteenth century Scottish castle not far from John O’Groats – in early July. Only 10 days after the summer solstice, darkness arrived for only two hours each night. We found ourselves drinking drams of whiskey around a bonfire listening to a piper on the beach at 11pm and, at 22 degrees during the day, the house ladies declared, ‘we’ve not seen such good weather for 30 years!’ It was a wonderful weekend, and, weather included, there was plenty to get us singing from the battlements.
Built around 1475, Ackergill Tower was one of Sir Reginald de Cheyne’s properties, who, at the time, owned nearly half of Caithness. Surrounded by a sea moat (of which part remains), access was by a main entrance on the first floor via a defensive drawbridge. The tower is steeped in history and its most famous story involves Helen Gunn. Known as the ‘Beauty of Braemore’, she was abducted from her home on her wedding night and kept prisoner in the tower by the infamous Dugald Keith. Rather than succumb to his advances, she leapt from the battlements. Her ghost – ‘The Green Lady’ – is said still to roam there from time to time.
In 1620, the castle was sold to George Sinclair, the fifth Earl of Caithness. However, the Earl’s wicked deeds forced him to flee and, in 1699 the tower returned to the hands of a descendant of de Cheyne, William Dunbar, Baronet, of Hempriggs. Over the next two centuries, the Dunbars transformed the castle into the finest gentleman’s seat in the north of Scotland, even featuring Scotland’s first wallpapered bedrooms!
More recently, Ackergill Tower was bought by Mike and Carol Clare in December 2009. As part of their company Amazing Retreats, it is now part of a collection of iconic properties throughout the UK, all with their own exclusive character and style. Luxuriously furnished, all properties provide the highest standards of accommodation and a unique experience, including a ‘butler and maid’-style service on hand to take care of your every need.
Today, Ackergill Tower has a reputation as one of the world’s most exclusive retreats for corporate entertainment or private house parties. The world famous castle features an opera house for music recitals, Europe’s largest tree house, an estate for sport and fishing, and a wealth of local activities such as pipe band music and Scottish dancing. Primarily a home with 25 luxury bedrooms, the views out to sea and spectacular surroundings make it an unforgettable spot to visit. Guests are given their own named peg with Barbour jacket and wellington boots, and baskets of jumpers, shawls and hats are always to hand, meaning guests are equipped for the elements and can travel relatively lightly.
Daytime activities include shooting clays with Hamish or archery with Derry; having a round of golf at nearby Wick Golf Club; taking a trip to the The Pulteney Distillery; or simply a walk along the coastline’s endless sandy beaches. Definitely go on the RIB ride which leaves from John O’Groats to explore the caves and wildlife of the nearby island of Stroma. Lunch is often served at the tower’s Bothie on the edge of the picturesque Loch Killimster, with Charlie playing his squeeze-box. To much hilarity we returned to our rooms to find kilts, sashes and sporrans laid on the bed, to be worn one evening. After champagne and exquisite fresh oysters on the front lawn, dinner was held in the Great Hall complete with haggis address, drum rolled beef and speeches, providing us all with an evening of ancient traditions, followed by a storyteller bringing the history of the tower to life, over whiskey and coffee in the Old Smoking Room.
Under head chef Kevin, menus use local seasonal produce from the estate, local scallops and lobster, the most tender Caithness lamb and famous northern beef, making the food an exceptional experience. The property holds a ‘Food of Love’ event each year, hosted by a celebrity chef, where guests can enjoy a weekend dedicated to great food and excellent wines. These are part of Amazing Retreats’ Open House Parties weekends, in which one or more people can join in the fun (rather than taking the whole property).
On occasion, guests are woken by a piper marching through the house, just as the Queen has her own personal piper for a wake-up call when she is at Balmoral. This is a truly spine-tingling experience, but the rather more sedate wake-up by the house ladies with trays of morning tea may hold more appeal to those who struggle in the mornings.
Last but not least, Ackergill Tower is run by the lovely Lisa Coghill, the Events Manager who looks after the guests so well that they feel like they’re staying in their own home. There are plans afoot for renovations, but I really hope they don’t change Ackergill Tower too much. Right now, they’ve got it just right.