By Kitty Pilgrim
As Americans swoon over Downton Abbey, Kitty Pilgrim examines the Anglo-American connection on a visit to a Scottish castle once owned by President Eisenhower.
On a transatlantic voyage, eastbound from New York to England, I first heard the words “Culzean Castle.” The ocean liner, Queen Mary 2 was filled with British travelers returning to Southampton and Americans making the “crossing.” My nightly dinner companions, a young couple from Glasgow, were hoping to tempt me into making an excursion to Scotland by listing various points of interest.
“Have you ever heard of Eisenhower’s castle?” the man asked one evening.
“You mean President Eisenhower?”
They informed me that the Scottish people gave the former U.S. General a castle as a gift, to thank him for his service during World War II. I had to admit; I had never heard of it, but their description sounded spectacular.
A short time later I had an opportunity to visit the historic site. I was traveling to Edinburgh to research locations for my novel, The Stolen Chalice, and was accompanied by my mother. The topic of the “Eisenhower Castle” came up, and suddenly we were both enthusiastic about the idea of finding it. Mom wanted to visit the vacation home of an inspiring historic figure she remembered from World War II, and I was looking for a new interesting location for my thriller novels.
Making inquiries at the concierge desk of the Balmoral Hotel, we discovered that the castle was in Ayrshire, a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive away. The grounds are open all year, and we are told that the National Trust for Scotland maintains the 600 acres of Culzean as a wilderness park for hikers and weekend guests. Tours of the interior of the castle are only available during the summer months. This being late October, Culzean (pronounced Cull-AINE) Castle was closed for the season.
Sensing our disappointment, a phone call was made to see if something could be arranged. The manager of the estate Paul Pomfret was very accommodating. Rather than turn us away, he offers to give us a personal guided tour of the top floor – the so-called “apartment” that President Eisenhower used as a private residence. Accommodations are available for the night should we choose to stay, and the staff will provide tea and dinner and also breakfast the next day.
Scarcely believing our luck, we set out immediately. The drive is straight across Scotland from one coast to the other. We take the scenic route, A-71, and our rental car creeps along the two-lane highway, meandering through picturesque villages and past sheep-dotted pastures. We are rained upon periodically, but it’s a gentle drizzle, like mist coming off the sea. By early afternoon we start to see signs for the estate.
Driving through the stone archways, we are instantly transported to the kind of a setting I have seen only in films. Culzean is the quintessential country estate. Beautifully groomed parkland stretches out on either side of our car, a thick bramble of woods goes on for miles. We follow a circuitous driveway past formal gardens and various stone outbuildings.
But nothing prepares us for the last turn, when the stunning promontory of coastline and beach come into view. There are majestic stone battlements like something out of romantic novel, with the waves dashing the rocks and a vast expanse of turbulent sea.
We are warmly welcomed, our luggage whisked away and we are invited to select which bedroom we would like to use. Walking through the various rooms, Eisenhower’s own bedroom is offered as an option. My mother looks at me with surprise and delight. Of course, we would like to sleep in the actual Eisenhower Suite, the one he used when he came here to stay.
Feeling like visiting royalty, we settle in, ogling the enormous bath, the immense bedroom and dressing room. Outside the windows, the Firth of Clyde is stormy, but on good days the coast of Ireland is visible across the water. The suite is decorated in very English floral fabrics and there is a bust of Eisenhower on the mantle. But we cannot tarry; daylight is waning. So we immediately set out for a frigid walk about the grounds, the formal gardens, swan pond, the clock tower and high cliffs, whipped by the bracing sea air.
At four PM a polite knock on the door informs us afternoon tea is ready. We are ushered into a beautiful oval sitting room with fireplaces on both ends. The set-up is lavish, fragrant black Darjeeling served in a sterling silver pot. There is a tiered cake-stand with finger sandwiches, scones and pastries. We while away the late afternoon by the fire, reading and talking. By eight o’clock, we are formally dressed and making our way to the elegant dining room.
The meal is sumptuous, featuring local produce, including smoked Scottish salmon, roasted lamb with rosemary gravy and blueberry compote with shortbread. And after dinner, the butler unlocks the drinks cabinet and we are offered a bottle of the estate’s special “Eisenhower” scotch. Pouring a dram, we have the thrill of raising a glass to the famous general right in his own living room.
My mother reminisces about his pivotal role as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe. All around is memorabilia, photos, books and some of the Eisenhower’s personal honors and awards on the walls. We are told he came here first in 1946 accompanied by his wife Mamie and found time to visit often, including once during his second term as 34th President of the United States.
On the way to bed, we noticed a painting he had attempted of the Scottish countryside - apparently his doctor had suggested art as an antidote to stress.
We are bid goodnight by the pleasant staff, with the promise of a tour of the historic rooms on the following morning. We awake early, ready for another day of discovery. At 8AM we learn just how big a Scottish breakfast can be: porridge, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, buttered toast and marmalade, baked beans, fried potatoes, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, fruit compote, juice and coffee.
Adequately fortified we take our tour, hearing about the historic site, which dates back to the 1400’s. The history of the manor begins in 1569 with Sir Thomas Kennedy who began construction on the original structure. Enlarged over the centuries, master architect Robert Adams turned the modest structure of Culzean Castle into an 18th Century masterpiece with a sweeping oval staircase connecting all the floors. Some recent refurbishments were done through the estate of an American millionaire with a strong interest in Eisenhower. The present heirs to the castle live in a smaller establishment, not far away.
On the ground floor we see an armory, with hundreds of antique firearms and swords, a round drawing room with beautiful period furniture. All around are life-sized portraits of Scottish earls and ladies in period dress. There are even a few ghost stories to titillate our spirit of adventure. The tour culminates in the enormous kitchen, hung with copper pots. There is an open hearth and a long trestle table, which can seat at least a dozen servants.
By mid-afternoon we are on our way back to Edinburgh quite enthralled with the lovely estate. We both agree, even for people of the modern world, there is nothing more romantic than a castle in Scotland.
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