‘I sat with my lairdly cup of tea’: how a derelict Scottish tower was turned into a Landmark Trust retreat


“The day will come when the Mackenzies of Fairburn shall lose their entire possessions … Their castle shall become uninhabited, desolate and forsaken, and a cow shall give birth to a calf in the uppermost chamber of Fairburn Tower.” So prophesied Coinneach Odhar Fiosaiche (also known as the Brahan Seer), Scotland’s own Nostradamus, back in the 17th century.

Located amid farmland a pleasant five-mile stroll from Muir of Ord station in the Scottish Highlands – just half an hour’s drive north-west of Inverness – Fairburn Tower has had a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes. Only three years ago, it was just as the Brahan Seer predicted: a roofless, floorless wreck, the cracks running up its walls threatening to bring the whole edifice crashing down once and for all. That’s when the building conservation charity the Landmark Trust intervened. A phalanx of highly skilled craftspeople set to work, restoring the tower to the time of the Stewarts and the glories of the Scottish renaissance. The walls were repaired; the floors, roof, casement windows and spiral staircase reinstalled; and the bartizans (overhanging turrets) reconstructed. Finally, a pink limed-based harl was applied, giving the whole structure the look of a rosy sunset (or, if you prefer, sunrise), as if it had leapt straight out of a Sir Walter Scott novel. Now available as a holiday let for four, it’s occasionally open to the public to visit too – for the first time this Sunday (and it’s free).

The cosy sitting room of Fairburn Tower
Fairburn Tower’s cosy sitting room, with a ceiling featuring medieval motifs and script. Photograph: Roddy Ritchie/Landmark Trust

When it was built in 1545, Fairburn was an archetypal four-storey Scottish tower house – readily defensible but with pretensions to comfort. That latter tradition has certainly been adhered to in its renovation. A discreet array of solar panels provides electricity for the central heating. And rather than garderobes emptying on to the outside walls, there’s a highly civilised en suite in both bedrooms.

As I climbed the spiral staircase for the first time, I encountered a plain low door on each new storey, as if I’d stumbled on a giant Advent calendar. The first door revealed a kitchen – one rather better equipped than my own. It featured units handmade to fit around the uneven masonry, and uncastle-like luxuries, such as a dishwasher and half a dozen Le Creuset pans. One floor up I entered a cosy sitting room, its walls lined with heavy drapery as was the practice in all the best fortified homes. I was particularly impressed by the ceiling. Covered with medieval motifs and script, it was created by the artist Paul Mowbray using a 16th-century ceiling at Delgatie Castle in Aberdeenshire as his inspiration.

The view from a top-floor bedroom in Fairburn Tower
The view from a top-floor bedroom in Fairburn Tower. Photograph: Roddy Ritchie/Landmark Trust

The third floor was taken up with a double bedroom, dominated by a sombre portrait of a gentleman above a substantial fireplace; while the top floor was a twin. I was torn between the two bedrooms. The twin tempted me with its two circular bartizans (turrets), for I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never once slept in a bedroom with even a single bartizan. However, the double bed with its dark wood headboard looked too sumptuous to resist. It was also positioned so that in the morning I could swing open the sturdy wooden shutters, sit up against the pillows with my lairdly cup of tea, and gaze through the leaded window towards gently undulating ridges that were mercifully free of marauders and other ill-doers.

Such was not always the case when Murdoch Mackenzie built the tower. Murdoch had been sent to the court of King James V with his brothers and had clearly been a muscular lad because he was described as being “one of the Strongest Men of his Age”. He evidently caught the king’s eye because he was made Groom of the Bedchamber, a prestigious appointment. Years spent attending to the monarch’s most intimate needs turned out to be financially rewarding, since James eventually granted Murdoch various tracts of land on condition that he throw up a fortified dwelling and begin farming around it. Murdoch’s loyalty to the crown was thus secured while the king picked up a useful defensive outpost. Everyone’s a winner. Or everyone would have been had James not died at the tender age of 30, a few years before Murdoch got around to building his tower.

The spiral staircase at Fairburn Tower
Faiburn Tower’s spiral staircase. Photograph: Roddy Ritchie/Landmark Trust

In common with all Landmark Trust properties, there’s no television or wifi at Fairburn. There is, however, a carefully curated library bursting with books on subjects germane to its history, and a fulsome account of the tower written by Landmark’s historian, Caroline Stanford. This I delved into, curled up on a big sofa in the snug sitting room. I read of the 30 Swiss mercenaries once garrisoned there (which must have been a tight squeeze), and of Alexander, the 9th laird, who artfully kept himself and Fairburn out of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion by declaring that “a grasier or farmer is all I pretend to”. Lamentably, soon after this canny move the tower was abandoned. It was bought and sold several times, becoming ever more derelict until the most recent owners, the Stirlings of Fairburn, contacted the Landmark Trust.

For most of my stay I was content simply to lounge about and soak up the atmosphere of the place, but I did manage to see something of the outside world too. Fortuitously, the final Dingwall section of the 6km Peffery Way had opened the week before. It mostly follows a disused railway line along the Peffery valley, ending at the old Strathpeffer station, now occupied by a cafe and a small but fascinating Museum of Childhood. Even closer to hand are the Falls of Orrin, a 10-minute walk from the tower down through violet-strewn woodland where silver birches mingled their spring lime-green with the vibrant yellow of gorse. The wood also provided me with two firsts for the year – a cuckoo and a speckled wood butterfly.

And in case you’re wondering about the cow in the prophesy of Coinneach Odhar Fiosaiche, you’ll be relieved to learn that in 1851 the birth of a calf in the topmost room of the tower briefly made the ruin at Fairburn something of a tourist attraction.

Fairburn Tower (sleeps four) from £424 for four nights. The tower is open to the public on Sunday 14 May; free entry but book a time slot. It will also be part of the Doors Open Days festival on 2-3 September.