THERE’S a thunderstorm over the Castle. You can’t sleep. The main door of your vast bedroom is locked, but there’s a lingering angst about the other, “secret”, entrance via a spiral stone staircase. Suddenly a lightning flash fills the room and there stands a lass in a Twenties flapper’s outfit. The ghost of The Honourable Elsie Mackay, who perished when her plane went down mid-Atlantic in 1928.
'Graham and Fay Cowan spent six arduous years restoring the wreck and in 2000 opened it as one of the UK’s finest country house hotels with 17 bedrooms and suites. It is a wonderful place to stay'
Every castle deserves a good ghost story and it was a bonus to be told Glenapp’s as we checked out of this astonishing Baronial pile on the Ayrshire coast. Our room, the “Earl of Orkney” in the West Wing, was the haunted one, apparently. A previous guest reported the above sighting (suitably dramatised by your travel editor) during a storm, others have felt her presence, too. We, alas, unaware, just wallowed in the sheer comfort of the Castle – the Firth of Clyde in the distance, its choppy waters broken by the eerie mound called Ailsa Craig.
These days Glenapp Castle is a luxurious Relais & Chateaux lodging, but it has a colourful history. Built in 1870, for a chunk of the 20th century it was the prime residence of the Earl of Inchcape and his clan. And the hopes of that clan were with talented, restless Elsie.
Elsie MackayShe was the favourite of Lord Inchcape’s four daughters. Heiress, socialite, feminist, stage and screen actress, she braved the family wrath by eloping with an actor. When that union swiftly dissolved she took to interior designing ocean liners (Daddy owned P&O, White Star and much more). She was also smitten with that infant form of travel, flight, and became an accomplished pilot. Then she went too far.
After a visit to London by Charles Lindbergh, the first person to make a solo non-stop flight by plane across The Atlantic, she determined to make her own record attempt. Keeping it secret from her father, she enlisted an experienced co-pilot, and in March 1928 they took off. After battling treacherous weather, their plane disappeared out in the ocean.
Glenapp Castle almost perished, too – from neglect, but it was rescued by Graham and Fay Cowan, who spent six arduous years restoring the wreck it had become and in 2000 opened it as one of the UK’s finest country house hotels with 17 bedrooms and suites. It is a wonderful place to stay.
It is so exclusive, it’s not even signposted. Just follow the hotel’s instructions from Stranraer, past the big ferry terminals for Northern Ireland and a few miles further on turn off the A77 just before you reach Ballantrae. When you eventually find the electronic gates, you pass through into 36 acres of gardens and woodlands. Once settled into Orkney, probably the biggest bedroom we’ve ever stayed in, we wandered round walled gardens, through a 150ft Victorian glasshouse and came upon the enchanting Azalea Pond, in season a riot of colour. It’s all not quite as immaculate as the house, but that’s its charm. Like a lost domain.
Croquet on the lawn proving a step too far after a long drive, we ascended that extra private staircase and dressed for dinner. I felt the smarter side of smart casual was appropriate for the set six-course tasting menu.
There was a change of chef in January 2013 but dining here retains its Michelin star under Matt Worswick, former sous chef at the 2-star Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham.
One dish we had was extraordinarily lovely, marrying chicken, chicory, cep cream and cockles. Equally outstanding were scallops with smoked eel carpaccio, a liquorice root creme brulee and a comprehensive Scottish cheeseboard. The whole experience, Baronial grandeur softened by subdued lighting, and service that was assiduous and unfussy, was utterly magical.
In truth, there isn’t a lot to do about the place (unless you are in a group booking a shooting or golf package.Turnberry is only 18 miles away). That for me is its charm. I had no desire to travel out to use the nearby leisure/spa facilities Glenapp has an arrangement with. Boltholes are for holing up in!
I would have made an exception if we could have found time for a boat trip across to the aforementioned Ailsa Craig, which rears like a 1,114ft high granite muffin out of the sea. Traditionally the granite is used for making the best curling stones. The name means Fairy Rock in Gaelic. Once a refuge for persecuted Catholics, today it is uninhabited, if you don’t count the 40,000 or more gannets in the bird sanctuary. Only one boatman has the right to land folk there. The hotel can arrange. Alas, not for us on this occasion.
Whisper it quietly, for I am a wee timorous beastie, but a little Rabbie Burns goes a long way with me. Hence we didn’t make the trip beyond Ballantrae to the poet’s birthplace in Alloway. For fans the Burns National Heritage Park is a must-visit, with the thatched white cottage where he entered the world, a museum housing an important collection of mementos and, sic, the Tam O’Shanter Experience. The poetry of Glenapp was enough for us.
Staying literary, Sir Walter Scott's nove,l The Master of Ballantrae, was set in the nearest town to the Castle. It's an unassuming, friendly wee place.
En route to our hotel we had visited Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town and, heading home, we journeyed to the furthest point of the Mull of Galloway, taking in the exotic Logan Botanic Garden.
I liked Wigtown. It’s nowhere near as book-saturated as Hay on Wye, but it does get busy during the annual Book Festival (in 2013 Sept-27-Oct 6). Best bet for a casual browse is the centrally placed Book Shop, the largest second hand dealer in Scotland. We mooched round the Saturday morning stalls on its vast market square and had a pint in the Wigton Ploughman, named after a literary character in John McNeillie’s realist novels of the Thirties set in the tussocky coastal territory to the south called The Machars. There’s a trail you can follow.
The Logan Botanical Garden is well worth the detour, too. It’s in The Rhinns, a rolling landscape warmed by the Gulf Stream, so nearly frost-free, allowing all kinds of tropical plants to prosper in the sheltered walled garden. My favourite bit, though, was the giant Brazilian rhubarb in the Gunnera Bog. Made us feel like The Borrowers. Good cafe, too.
Drive 12 miles further down the Mull, along single track roads and you hit Scotland’s most southerly point, more southerly even than Hadrian’s Wall. There stands a Stevenson lighthouse, from which you can see the Isle of Man and the Irish Coast. On a clear day – which ours wasn’t. Still there was a wealth of seabirds and a chance to clamber down to the foghorn “visitor attraction”. We passed.
There are some beautiful, quiet beaches as you head back along the Solway coast towards the border, but the only town really worth a detour is Kircudbright (pronounced kir-coo-bree). It attracted a colony of artists in the late 19th century and has traded off this ever since (visit the Tolbooth Art Centre) though all that daubing is long distant.
Still it is an attractive town with a working harbour, a ruined castle and colourfully washed cottages that seem strangely familiar. Perhaps because some of the superlative 1973 cult horror film, The Wickerman was filmed here (avoid the Nicolas Cage remake like the plague, though). Which is reason enough to visit. There are lots of other reasons, too, to ramble round all this fascinating corner of Scotland that often gets bypassed in the rush north to the Highlands.
Glenapp Castle, Ballantrae, Ayrshire, Scotland KA 26 0NZ. 01465 831000; www.glenapp.com.
It is 240 miles from Manchester to Glenapp. Four and a half hours’ driving, using the M6, A75 and A77.
Daily room rates based on two persons sharing and inclusive of a six course gourmet dinner and full Scottish breakfast range from (low season) £430 to £595 and (high season, until September 30) £470-£635. The hotel is closed over Christmas and for the first three months of each year, but special three-day New Year packages are available. The hotel is a perfect wedding venue and can be hired as a whole. There is a stained glass memorial to Elsie Mackay in Glenapp Church.
Glenapp is one of 520 Relais & Châteaux properties worldwide. For reservations call Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 00 02 (toll free) or visit www.relaischateaux.com. Alternatively, visit the Maison des Relais & Châteaux at 10 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1NQ, where the English-speaking Relais & Châteaux team will be delighted assist with your holiday plans.
Websites to help you on your visit to south west Scotland:
Logan Botanic Garden www.rbge.org.co.uk/logan
Wigtown Book Town www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk
Burns Museum www.burnsmuseum.org.uk
Tell me you didn't study English?Read more
Soon to be foreign..NOT as of TODAY 19/09...!!!Was a student there and is a wonderful place...Read more
Wow! You’ve certainly done a great job by posting this bit of information for the benefit of us…Read more
I've just been there the prices were far too expensive no seasoning (salt/pepper)suppose to be…Read more