What is it about Glamis?
I’ve been trying to analyse why Glamis Castle is my favourite (non-ruined) castle…
Is it the fairy-tale turrets of pink sandstone rising up against a background of hills and the warm ruggedness of the whole as you approach down the long drive?
Or the treasures of furniture, paintings and porcelain it houses, and the extraordinary engineering achievement of its wheel stair (as described by Fred Dibnah in one of his inimitable programmes)?
The stories, history and ghosts?
Or perhaps it’s just that I know it so well. I worked there for 11 years, as a guide and occasionally in the office. I made good friends there and loved (mostly!) the groups of tourists we took round and their sometimes astonishing questions.
But I think it’s the family history that grabs me most. For example, the shrewd 3rd Earl who designed Glamis Castle as we see it today, having brought the family fortunes back from the brink of bankruptcy. He kept a Book of Record (diary) in which he recorded his thoughts on life, philosophy, family – and builders. It seems these last haven’t changed much since the 16th Century!
The 4th Earl, his oldest son, with a strong eye to posterity and proving hs position in the world, had enough portraits and busts of himself made to stock a gallery.
The 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Earls, all brothers, prove the necessity of having a good number of sons to ensure the succession. The 8th, incidentally, though he lived longest, seems to be the only Earl who never got around to having his portrait painted (though it is possible that one of the miniatures in the family’s possession is of him).
The 9th Earl, a handsome man described as a “good bottle companion” married the fabulously rich, intelligent and highly-educated Mary Eleanor Bowes. She had a horrible life after the Earl died (young, probably of tuberculosis), and ended up divorcing her second husband – almost unheard of in those days and the object of much discussion in the newspapers. She won the case, with public opinion on her side, which was equally unusual for a woman in such a case.
Politics, gossip, intrigue – like all noble families, the Bowes Lyons of Glamis have had their share. And much of it happened at Glamis Castle.
But above all, Glamis has been a family home. Dozens of children, including the late Queen Mother, grew up here. There are graves of family pets in the garden and plenty of trees crying out to be climbed by adventurous young sons. They had a curling pond and a cricket pitch in the grounds. The old cricket pavilion has been moved down to the back of the Castle; for several years it was the Castle office and it’s now used for children’s entertainments, but it still looks like a cricket pavilion, with a separate small room for the scorers so they wouldn’t be distracted by chit-chat.
Not everything you see on the castle tour is grand. A lot of it’s big, but it’s all on a human scale, especially when you consider how large families were. A dining table that can seat 28 doesn’t seem that huge when you have a family of 10 children, plus the spouses of the older members, to fit in.
Glamis is a house built for entertaining and it’s seen some famous visitors, Mary Queen of Scots, King George VI, Sir Walter Scott and William Ewart Gladstone among them. It’s still welcoming visitors today – thousands of them every year – and entertaining them, albeit on a less grandiose scale. (And these days they don’t stay in bedrooms complete with a private ghost but no plumbing!)
You can’t wander around the house on your own: all visits are by guided tour, and I think that’s a good thing (well I would say that, wouldn’t I?). The guides are an interesting and knowledgeable bunch – and not just about the Castle – and you’ll discover far more about the place than you would on your own.
If you can, take a full day to see the Castle and grounds at your leisure, especially if the weather’s fine. Don’t make the mistake so many coach tours do and try to cram it into a couple of hours; there’s too much to see. I used to take groups of Italians round; Glamis was often their third castle of the day and they were “castled out”.
It’s a waste. Take your time, enjoy your visit and maybe you’ll be able to answer the question “What is it about Glamis?” for yourself.
More information about Glamis Castle
… can be found on their website, www.glamis-castle.co.uk or by phone on +44(0)1307 840393. The Castle is closed through the week November-March (for exact dates see the website). The Christmas Fair in December is worth an expedition all on its own, as are the various theatrical events throughout the year.