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Adventures in Design: The Scottish Highlands Part 1

Last month my husband, Chris, and I were so lucky to be invited by dear friends in Scotland for a salmon fishing trip to the majestic Amhuinnsuidhe Castle. The castle is on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides Islands of the Scottish Highlands.

When I checked their weather from our hotel room in London - a high pressure system pushing a low pressure system in a swirling pattern directly over the islands - and saw the location on the map  - the top corner of the world! - I suspected we were headed for a place different from anywhere else we'd ever been. Glad I packed layers of clothes to get my "kit" just right!

The moment I stepped off the plane I knew we were in for a very special trip! The land was so beautiful and the mountains felt so ancient. From the sprawling, treeless moors to the history, language and culture of its deeply spiritual people, the Scottish Highlands are truly a unique treasure on earth.

After our flight landed at Stornaway, we drove on the "wrong" side of a very narrow and curvy road - which made me feel a little "wonky" - through heather covered moorlands - or moonscape as they called it, rocky hills, abundant waterfalls and hidden lochs along the Huisinis road. It took me a minute to realize they weren't talking about a dam when our driver kept referring to the lochs (lakes)! No wonder the area's main industires are fishing and farming, with tourism important as well.

Thank goodness for Ian, our driver who doubled as our gilly (guide) on our upcoming fishing trip. He was able to answer answer all of my questions about the area. I learned so much - like the fact that the ancient feeling I sensed goes all the way back to the Vikings who originally settled the island.

The name of the castle, Amhuinnsuidhe (pronounced Aven-sooee), is from the Gaelic words "abhainn" meaning water or river and "suidhe" meaning sitting beside. So "sitting beside the river." And look at this gushing river! There had just been a storm so the water was higher than normal. Mother nature at work - sheer, natural beauty!

What a dramatic sight as we rounded the curved drive leading up to the castle. Set among rocky hillsides directly on the bay, Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and the North Harris Estate's 55,000 acres of Trust Land covers most of the northern island of Harris and has some of the best field sports and salmon fishing in the world. The castle was designed in the Scotish Baronnial style which is characterized by towers sporting small turrets and an uneven roofline.

Originally named Fincastle, the property was built in 1865 for the 7th Earl of Dunmore and has traditionally served as a private sporting lodge for the owners and their guests. The Earl's mother, Lady Catherine, started an embroidery school there and encouraged the fledgling Harris Tweed industry (more on that in a later post). In 1843, the castle was renamed Amhuinnsuidhe after the township where it is located.

Much of the land was originally deer and grouse huntng ground for the local Clan MacLeod sheep farmers. The land was once plentiful with trees, but in the late 1840s, the farmers allowed the sheep to graze and they ate all of the roots and saplings, eventually clearing the land of trees! The native red deer herd was improved by the introdcution of stags imported from the Atholl Deer Forest in Perthshire. A deer forest is a private estate dedicated solely to the maintenance of a deer herd for stalking (hunting) purposes and is unique to the Scottish Highlands. Though they are called forests, almost all are tree-less. In this case, the word forest derives from the Latin word for open or waste land.

In 2003, the residents of North Harris along with businessman Ian Scarr-Hall bought the castle, land, mining and shooting rights under terms of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act. The act formalized the Scottish tradition of unhindered access to open lands while providing for their preservation and protection. The North Harris Trust runs the estate on behalf of the community with the issues of forestry and production of renewable energy in mind. Ian owns the lodge and fishing rights and leases the shooting rights from the trust.

The nautical rope and knot detail around the front door pays homage to the castle's location and maritime history. Originally the castle could only be accessed by boat.

Our host (pictured above) would fit right in with these sporty gentlemen of the past! It looks like the now painted wooden entry and door were originally stained.

Photo courtesy Amhuinnsuidhe Castle.

During the early 1900s Sir Samuel Scott, a conservativve member of Parliament, and his wife Lady Sophie owned the property and used the boat pictured below to bring guests, staff and supplies to Amhuinnsuidhe for the summer and early autumn sporting seasons.

Lady Sophie was the Chatelaine - which means a woman in charge of a large house - from 1896 to 1937. She had a staff of 30 people to help her run the estate! How in the world did they fit all those people and supplies on that ship? The family closed the lodge during World War 1 - or as the Scot's call it, The Great War.

Lady Sophie Scott Photo courtesy Amhuinnsuidhe Castle.

Inside the castle, the details are strong, sporty and masculine, like this large arched doorway. What a view from the front door! Mind you this is the same door we saw outside with the rope detail.

The entry hall has an impressive staghorn chandelier and mounted trophies.

The bulk of the ground floor is dedicated to the logistics of fishing and hunting, so the formal public areas (sitting and dining rooms, etc.) are up these stairs and through the door to the grand staircase. I'll share more about the sporting facilities in another post.

I love the pineapple finials.The fruit is a traditional symbol of welcome and hospitality, representing a ship's safe return from a long, exotic voyage. When one guest spotted a "wonky" (slightly askew) one, I learned a new word!

This is the grand staircase, complete with an intricately inlaid mirror to check your look before heading upstairs.

It really is grand!

This shot is looking up the staircase to upper floors.

Note the paintings on the walls. Even though this is a castle, you feel like you are in a private home. They have amassed a great art collection of old prints and oil paintings - mostly landscapes - which makes for a very personal touch as a guest.

You can't help but notice the bold wallpaper! The color is strking and the scale of the damask pattern is quite large. Damask is an ancient design - going back to the Middle Ages and named for the city of Damascus - and often features elements of flora and fauna. Nature is an integral part of Scotish life and they reflect that throughout their homes.

The Scottish apparently share the English penchant for mixing and layering pattern with seemingly wreckless abandon - that somehow just works!  This golden-orange damask paper is in a hallway right off of the main, red corridor.

Check out the scale of the pattern on the grand hall wallpaper! They've mixed it with a large damask on the sofa and a giant scale pattern in the Wilton carpet. The result is a comfortable melange that feels like it came together organically over time and history.

The great room also features double fireplaces - which I've never seen before. Notice the Oriental rug over the patterned carpet. There really is magic in the mixing.

This angle gives you a sense of scale in the room.

The castle is thoughtfully set up to help guests relax. As my host, a native Highlander, said, "You are meant to unwind here, to really let yourself lay back." To me that was A-Okay. Chill out in nature? Right up my alley!

This chess set is in the great hall and features a Celtic knot pattern. I learned from our host that chess originated in ancient India and Afghanistan as a game of military strategy. It's been around for nearly 1,500 years!

The wallpaper artistry continues in the Billiard room. I've come to believe their design theory is that the happier, more active a room's purpose, the happier and busier the patterns. Notice the natural elements - strawberry plants, complete with leaves, blossoms and fruit. Please also note the use of upholstered ottomans everywhere!

More pattern in the rugs, on the sofas and in the accent pillows in the room's sitting area. The bold octagonal and shamrock pattern on the Wilton carpet is stunning!

The room features a vinatge snooker table, with scoring boards built into the wall.

More pattern in the "telly room" - which had the only television on the entire property. I don't think we even turned it on.

In the dining room, tartan draperies and monochromatic tapestries create a regal, calming space for enjoying a meal. This tartan pattern is called the MacLeod (pronounced Ma-Cloud) hunting or MacLeod of Harris pattern. You may be more familiar with the MacLeod dress (or MacLeod of Lewis) tartan pattern which features black stripes on a yellow field with a thin red accent stripe.

The tapestries feature images of the birds and animals of the local forest and hunting grounds and wrap all around the room.

The wallpaper patterns come out again in the stairway up to the sleeping room floors. Softer patterns for less active pursuits.

With smaller scale, less contrast and softer colors the patterns in the wallpaper, headboard and coverlet create a serene space.

In our room, the wallpaper pattern was so subtle the camera couldn't pick it up from this far away.

This was the view from our room. Spectacular! I could sit and stare at it all day.

And, yes, those are canons on the sea wall out there. Thankfully, they've never had to use them to defend the castle.

Looking toward the entry gate, it's hard to make out in this photo but there are a few palm trees scattered among the other, more expected trees for this climate. They can grow the tropical trees here because the Gulf Stream runs by the island, creating warmer isolated micro-climates. Notice the rain drops on the window - an every day occurence here.

In this shot of the grounds you can definitely see the palm trees! We noticed on a later day trip that many private homes sport at least one palm tree in their yard. It must be a point of pride for them.

Back in our room, I took one look and asked the obvious question . . . where's my closet??

 . . . because I had all of this "kit" to find a home for! Ha!

I hope you've enjoyed this brief tour of Amhuinsuidhe Castle, a beautiful destination on many a sporting person's bucket list. In my view, it certainly has earned such a place of honor!

I can't thank our hosts enough for the most amazing destination vacation ever, and especially for sharing their knowledge and deep love of the Highlands with Chris and me. I was totally taken away by the whole experience of being at the top of the world, literally, and couldn't learn enough about all that was new to me!

Next time we'll explore what this trip was really all about - fishing! From the specifically outfitted picnic and fishing rooms on the castle's ground floor to the streams and lochs teaming with salmon, truly a sportsman's paradise!

What are some places on your bucket list?




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Cindy's Blog

I'm Cindy Galvin, owner of MAZE Home Store and Bardes Interiors. In my blog I hope to inform, inspire and entertain you with lessons I’ve learned, insights on the beautiful things all around us, and stories from my adventures in design. I hope you'll join me on my journey through the world of design!

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