ACKERGILL Tower is the sort of place that ought to have a permanent backdrop of lighting forks and thunderclaps. An asymmetrical block of granite turrets and chimneys, it’s a brooding, lonely obelisk that pierces the flat coastal landscape at Scotland’s most northerly tip.
John O’Groats is just up the road, the next headland over is occupied by a lighthouse and a castle ruin; the view from Ackergill’s rear rooms is of a few sawtooth rocks and the cold, austere expanse of the North Sea – next stop, Ronaldsay and the Orkneys.
It’s a place that sets the imagination spinning with all the drama of a Walter Scott novel. As you trundle up its long, straight driveway, you find yourself picturing battles and skulduggery, old clans, ghosts, and the harshness of ancient life in the far northern Highlands.
What you get is rather more cosy. As the car I was in pulled up outside the Tower – Ackergill is just a couple of miles from tiny Wick airport – a piper stood outside to welcome my party, while jolly staff appeared with glasses of local whisky. A pair of wellies in my size, and with my name clipped on, was already prepared for me in the imposing entrance hall. As our bags were whisked up to our rooms, we were led to the opulent lounge where a lavish high tea spread was waiting.
Ackergill is not a hotel, but the attention you receive from its staff compares favourably with the highest levels of hospitality. The difference is that there’s no check-in, no other guests but those in your group, no bar or restaurant, but the freedom to enjoy the house, its estate, its drinks cabinet and its breathtaking location as much as you wish. Sumptuous meals are served in the grand dining room, activities arranged, excursions laid on – it’s up to you.
Renting a country cottage with a group of friends for a weekend is one thing; so is going to stay in a hotel that used to be a stately home or castle. But having the exclusive use of a castle, and for a few days living the life of a laird in the most glorious surroundings, is rather more special.
It’s also rather more expensive. Booked with Loyd & Townsend Rose, the company which hosted my visit and which specialises in organising exclusive stays in castles, a week at Ackergill costs from £60,500.
But for the most special occasions, for parties and even for corporate getaways – preceding us at Ackergill was a group from one of the major investment banks, and one can well imagine the deal-making potential of a distant castle over a City boardroom – this is one heck of a way to get away.
One can laze in admirable comfort or explore the nooks of a castle that’s swimming in history – it dates from the mid-15th century, and Victorian-era photos, letters and other artefacts from the Duff Dunbar family who once owned it can be found in the bedrooms. Much of the stately, esoteric furniture belonged to them also.
If you want to bring a whole posse for a Highland knees-up, no problem – outbuildings have been converted into a great music and party room, and as well as the 17 bedrooms in the house, there are more in separate cottages on the estate.
Alternatively, pull on those wellies and drink in the blessed isolation and romance of the landscape through sorties around the estate – you may find the huge treehouse which can double up as a rather plush conference centre – cliff-side walks, golf at one of the nearby links courses, even speedboating off John O’Groats.
For those brave enough, you can always throw yourself into the grey sea for a swim. Mad if you ask me, but those I was with who went for dawn dips swore it to be a magical experience (I’ll concede they deserved the magnificent Ackergill breakfast rather more than I did).
I travelled on the next day to visit another such castle, Aldourie by Loch Ness, and then on to Corrour, an extraordinary modernist lodge in the most far-flung corner of the Highlands [see box below]. As with Ackergill, for which you take a hopper plane north to Wick from Edinburgh, such places take some reaching, but that’s part of the fun. You have to switch off the phone and submit to the sensational charm and isolation of these private homes and their epic surroundings.
At Ackergill, after a candle-lit, multi-course dinner in the gothic majesty of the medieval dining room, we were led by torchlight along the beach, where a huge bonfire had been lit. Cocktails were served from a tiny beach hut, and a local farmer was on hand to squeeze shanties out of an accordion as the waves lapped and the dim glow of a lighthouse flickered miles away in the gloom.
Visit www.ltr.co.uk or call 01573 229797.
EXCLUSIVE USAGE | HIGHLAND ESTATES AND CASTLES
CORROUR, NEAR FORT WILLIAM
Just how remote is Corrour? Well, put it this way. The estate covers roughly the same-sized space as Los Angeles; but whereas that city has a population of around 4.8m people, Corrour’s permanent residents number just eight.
At its heart is Loch Ossian, a long, thin stretch of water, at one end of which is Corrour’s own train station, the highest in the UK – the once-an-evening sleeper will take you all the way to Euston. At the other end is Corrour Lodge, an extraordinary modernist edifice. The original hunting lodge burned down, and this contemporary interpretation of the Highland castle was built in the 1990s.
It’s crammed with fabulous Scandinavian furniture and modern artworks. Corrour’s owners (Scandinavian billionaires) have even installed a Swedish-style sauna hut by a jetty on the loch. A bike or pony ride up Corrour’s desolate valleys is unforgettable.
From £30,000 for a week’s exclusive use.
ALDOURIE, LOCH NESS
The turrets and spires of Aldourie give this castle something of a fairytale look as it noses out between the huge trees on the banks of Loch Ness.
It’s been thoroughly restored recently, and there’s something rather rock’n’roll about its colourful, Scottish-Rococo stylings, with every wall festooned with aristocratic portraits from the family history of its current owner (plus the odd fantastical mural).
The 13 bedrooms are sensationally luxurious, the Great Hall a charming place for an evening ceilidh which, after much whisky, inevitably migrates in the wee small hours to the wood-panelled billiards room and then to a dip in Loch Ness itself. Boat trips on the famous Loch, clay shooting and hikes around the 500-acre estate are all on the agenda. From £30,000 for a week’s exclusive hire.
● Loyd & Townsend Rose arrange exclusive hire of these and other properties. Visit www.ltr.co.uk or call 01573 229797 .