High Time: A Visit to Clifftop Culzean Castle

by Keith Savage · 6 comments

Culzean Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland

Scotland is not in short supply of enduring, beautiful sights. Whether man-made or natural, free to visit or requiring an entrance fee, there is a way to soak in the beauty of Scotland for every type of traveler. There are some sights, however, that rise above their compatriots and draw visitors with a kind of magnetic pull. Think Edinburgh Castle, Dunnottar Castle, Culloden, and Glen Coe. Well, here’s another one: Culzean Castle.

South of Ayr, perched on a cliff along the Ayrshire coast, Culzean Castle (pronounced kul-LAYN) is one of Scotland’s most striking structures. Certainly the feather in the cap of Ayrshire tourism, the castle is a vision of blond stone, rounded towers, turrets, and battlements, a fantasy yanked from architect Robert Adams’s dreams and made real. A visit to Ayrshire would be incomplete without a stop at Culzean Castle (some might say a visit to Scotland would be, too), but a stop at Culzean is much more than a browse around the castle’s lavish interior – the castle is part of a larger country park, a full 600 acres of beautiful coastal countryside full of way-marked paths, that could easily fill a day.

When I visited Culzean this past April it wasn’t my first time. I had visited the palatial castle in 2006 on my first truly thorough trip around the country, and the memory endured. Since then, the castle has undergone an extensive refurbishment and it looked better than ever.

Castles like Culzean represent a complex issue. Culzean was built in the late 18th century by the 10th Earl of Cassilis. By this point in history, castles were transitioning from functional fortifications to lavish country houses designed to show off wealth rather than stave off raiders. Indeed, Culzean would be hard pressed to withstand any kind of military engagement. Instead, it was designed to be an avatar of the earl’s power, wealth, and influence. The desired effect is that others take note, and soon new castles arose to challenge the greatness of those that came before. Meanwhile, some of these same lords cleared crofters and farmers from their lands. This kind of socio-economic conflict is not unique to Scotland, though, and I do my best to shake these thoughts as I walk through the grounds toward Culzean castle. It is an undeniably wondrous work of art.

It takes a lot of wealth to build a castle as fantastic as Culzean, and it takes a lot of wealth to maintain it as well. More wealth than most owners wind up having down the road, and this is why so many castles have been surrendered, gifted to organizations like the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). This happened to Culzean in 1945, when the Kennedy family gifted the castle and grounds to the NTS, a move that allowed the heirs to avoid the massive impending inheritance tax. With Culzean no longer being a private residence, the NTS opened the castle and grounds to the public.

The opulence of Culzean Castle’s interior firmly settles it in the upper echelon of the castles I’ve visited in Scotland (going on 50). The entryways are usually my favorite spot in a castle as I’m likely to find interesting arrays of period weapons. Culzean doesn’t disappoint: The star made of flintlock pistols and sword blades is a remarkable transformation of death-dealing implements into engaging wall art. Visitors are allowed to flow through Culzean Castle’s rooms, read each room’s information card, and chat with nearby sages of castle history at their own pace. I appreciate this style of visit much more than the guided tour because it allows you to explore what interests you and move past what doesn’t.

Speaking of what doesn’t interest me, I can’t say I’m all that impressed by the pages of text on the histories of the castle’s furnishings. Clearly there are people who do find the lineage and origin of armoires, curios, and portraits interesting, but alas that person is not me. I have tried developing this patience, but I inevitably find myself scooting through the rooms, taking in the quick, gestalt essence of the place, before finding myself outside once more. It is hard to express just how much wealth has accreted here – there are forks on the dining table that would sell for more money than I’ve made in all the years of my life combined.

I love castles for their architecture, the impact of their facades, and their situation within the landscape. Culzean Castle delivers on all accounts and even adds hundreds of acres of lush woodland and coastal scenery. Beneath the castle stands a great swath of grass with a beautiful fountain, and other nearby structures include a romantic ruined arch, clocktower and court, gas house, and a dedicated visitor center. The beach beneath Culzean offers more exploration, including a boat house, powder house, and battery, and in the summer I’ve heard they lead tours into the sea caves beneath the castle. Going inland, Culzean possesses a deer park, large walled garden, massive swan pond, and countless paths through the woods. Few things beat stopping to catch your breath and catching a glimpse of the castle’s magnificence through the trees.

A full day at Culzean is the perfect way to spend a day in Ayrshire. You might just find yourself going out of your way to visit.

The National Trust for Scotland provided me with a complimentary visitor pass. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.

DaniNo Gravatar October 11, 2014 at 10:02 AM

So happy to see Culzean in your posts! It was truly one of my favorite sights in Scotland when I went in 2012. Pictures can’t do justice to the dramatic cliffs along the back of the home, or the swan pond or the ancient bridge leading up to the castle! Can’t wait to take my mother and children there this summer!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 12, 2014 at 2:10 PM

It’s a fantastic castle and worthy visit!

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TinaNo Gravatar July 17, 2014 at 1:11 AM

Beautiful gardens, fascinating historical castle, wonderful views, knowledgable staff, very helpful. Swan lakes and ice cream parlour delightful, a place for all the family young and old.

DarlaNo Gravatar June 20, 2014 at 12:55 PM

Oh dear. I do believe that I am now addicted to your blog. I stumbled upon it yesterday while googling Scotland — since I will be traveling there next year — and spent nearly the entire afternoon reading your posts in the sidebar. I’m grateful — thank you — but do need to attend to some self-monitoring! LOL

The castle’s interior reminds me of the opulence of the Newport Mansions, austere though beautiful. I would tend to scoot out rather quickly, as you mentioned, to explore the grounds. My trip will, of course, include some castles but I will be focusing upon walking the land and soaking up the essence of ancient Scotland. I also hope to find lodging in small, quiet villages as hubs for venturing out.

Thank you many times over for sharing your love of Scotland and offering so much fabulous free advice!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 22, 2014 at 4:41 PM

My pleasure, Darla!

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