My own Barbour jacket, pegged beneath a sign with my name on it and a pair of Wellies. It doesn’t get any more ironically fashionable than that. And a vintage chair the size of a throne beside a roaring log fire to sit in as you put them on – I considered falling asleep right there and then while wearing the lot of it. But then I spotted three baskets in the stone hallway, one teeming with an assortment of hats and gloves, another scarves. The third contained jumpers. All the woolly, patterned, Christmassy jumpers you could ever need. And I was free to rifle through and wear whichever ones I wanted. And in just two days at the warm, wonderful Ackergill Tower, I must have tried on every single one of them, on the hour, every hour, until I came across a fatigued but timeless red number that brought me a sense of comfort so complete, no item of clothing of my own will ever be good enough again. I almost cried when I took it off.
And I almost cried when it was time to leave. Ackergill is a petite, 14th century castle, and the flagship destination of Amazing Retreats, a collection of authentic, stunning properties in rustic locations that cover the length and breadth of the UK. The tower itself is close to Scotland’s most north easterly tip and the town of Wick, Caithness. It sits wistfully, secluded, overlooking a ragged sea, guarding its inhabitants through five foot thick brick walls with such steadfastness you’ll find yourself almost willing for freak, harsh weather conditions outside (and inevitably, for a large part of the year, that’s precisely what you get).
Not missing a trick, the people who work at Ackergill know how to capitalise on the castle’s defining characteristic – it’s cosiness. During your stay, you can expect to be near dragged for “a wee late night walk” a mile up the coast in your borrowed Scottish finest, shielding your face from the spray of violent, raucous waves, vaguely fearing for your life and yearning for the comfortable furnishings and candlelight you left behind. But then behind a sand dune you find a gigantic bonfire, a concertina player more than happy to give you a couple of lessons if you ask, and a man sitting in a little shack serving coffee with alcohol in it.
It pains me to sell the experience as clichéd, but it was, in the best possible way. Although being woken up early in the morning by the sound of bagpipes outside was perhaps a step too far. But then, the haggis I was served at the lavish, Medieval-style dinner party I attended was divine. Haggis in Scotland, how crazy was I?
For the most part the clichés I was presented with were, in fact, ridiculously sweet. Rosy-cheeked chambermaids wandered the corridors in half aprons, greeting you by your name (to which you silently responded “how the hell do you know my name?”), poised to sprint to the kitchen to fetch you a slice of cake or a cup of tea or anything your heart desires. They were absolutely charming and probably the highlight of my visit, even if they did play their part to eerie perfection.
Eerie indeed. Because, as interesting as it is to gaze upon valuable paintings and tapestries, fittings and fixtures from eras past and reside in bedrooms filled with documents, photographs and letters belonging to guests from hundreds of years ago, you nevertheless soon get the feeling you’re on the set of a haunted house movie. My room (one of 25) was situated near the very top of the tower itself and could only be accessed by an impossibly narrow spiralling staircase, which meant escaping ghouls in the middle of the night might have been difficult. So I just slept with the light on. You may laugh but I had just spent an evening kicking back with men in plaid, drinking spirits, smoking cigars while listening as the gamekeeper gave a whistle stop tour of the castle’s rich history, intermingled with some truly horrific ghost stories. The worst involved the barbaric Dugald Keith, who owned the castle in the 15th century. He took a liking to local girl Helen Gunn, but she turned down his advances because she was betrothed to another. His solution? To pull a Boy George and lock her in the tower until one day, while trying to escape, she fell from it and died, leaving a woman-shaped imprint on a rock outside (apparently). She now haunts the tower, but thankfully, let me be during my stay.
After a troubled night’s sleep in what was ironically one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever known, my second day at Ackergill Tower brought with it a chance to try my hand at clay pigeon shooting. It’s just one of the many activities on offer, including golfing, mountain biking, horseback riding, and – brace yourself – whale watching. Half expecting to be horrendous at it, I competed in and won a shooting tournament. I now have a taste for the sport to rival Madonna’s, a pleasant discovery that halfway compensates for the cancelled white water boat trip around the coast I had been so looking forward to (the sea was too stormy that day).
The list of competitive and group activities on offer at Ackergill Tower makes it a perfect destination for corporate events, celebrations and gatherings where privacy is essential; it’s a retreat favoured by the stars after all. But being true professionals, none of the staff would repeat any names. Although we heard murmuring of GT favourite Heather Small performing there a couple of years ago...
A two night stay at Ackergill Tower costs from £700 per person plus VAT and includes exclusive use of the castle, the complete care and attention of the household staff, breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. It’s a mere 10-minute drive from Wick airport (you’ll be collected and dropped off again, probably by a Range Rover), which is accessible from Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports. For more information visit amazingretreats.com/ackergilltower.
Words: Patrick Strudwick