The Castle on the Sea: Ackergill Tower

My senior year of college, my mom and I went to Dublin over spring break. Ever since then, she’s been talking about staying in a castle. This past summer, she got just that chance, just not in Ireland.

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The last big(ish) city in the north of Scotland is Wick. Pretty much everything ends there: It’s home to the last train station and the last airport on mainland Britain, and about ten people (I kid – there are just over 7,000 people who live there year-round). Beyond Wick, there’s just a series of small towns, farms, and sheep. And a castle.

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Ackergill Tower has been standing for at least 500 years. In 1354, the leader of the Clan Keith, John Keith of Inverugie, inherited the lands outside of Wick. According to the story, his son built the castle where it stands today, but the first mention of it in local histories comes in 1538. Despite the gap in the local records, the architecture is typical of the 15th century, so it’s safe to assume that John Keith’s son did in fact build the tower.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the way Ackergill Tower was built was that it’s front door opened onto the sea. (Inspiration for the Ironborn in GoT, perhaps?) A defensive moat was dug all the way around the building, and access was gained through a drawbridge on the sea-facing side of the tower. This suggests (to me, anyway) that the lairds of Ackergill got an awful lot of seafood deliveries from the local fishermen.

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After the Battle of Flodden in 1513, the heirs Keith and Marshall married, and their estates were combined. At this point, the Keith/Marshall family was one of the most powerful families in Scotland and owned huge swaths of land. It was said that the laird of Ackergill could ride from Berwick (a town of the English border) to Ackergill without staying anywhere but his own house. For some reference, that’s like saying you could ride your horse from Detroit to Mackinaw City and be able to sleep in one of your houses every single night for the whole way.

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Naturally, the home base of such a powerful family was fraught with turmoil. Right from the beginning, the Keith family earned a name for itself. Dugald Keith, the laird of Ackergill Tower, fell for a local beauty named Helen Gunn, who was known as the Beauty of Braemore. In a rather blatant flouting of the chivalric code, Keith kidnapped Helen on her wedding night to keep her from marrying someone else. He locked her up in the tower, and she, preferring not to have anything to do with him, jumped out a window. Thus began the feud between the Keiths and the Gunns, Scotland’s own Hatfields and McCoys. The inheritance of the castle and its estate was almost always contested, and on one occasion Marie of Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, had to mediate.

Luckily, the fighting has quieted down quite a bit and is reduced to loud quibbling in pubs. The castle is now a venue for fancy events, like weddings and conferences. Lucky members of the public can even book rooms between such events and pretend to be Scottish nobility!

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The rooms are first-rate, as you would expect from a castle. Mom and I stayed in the very top of the tower, (I mean, very top), where Helen of Gunn’s ghost is said to still lurk about. If that’s true, she’s a very quiet ghost who has the good sense not to disturb guests, so don’t let that put you off. The room was surprisingly large, given that it was built in the 15th century, when my 5’9″ self would have been considered a giant and people needed less space. The dining experience at Ackergill Tower is also impressive. You can opt to have dinner in their dining room, which serves market-fresh fare prepared to a five-star standard. After dinner, you can enjoy a drink in a cozy, broken-in leather chair in one of the drawing rooms, or enjoy a game of billiards. In the morning, you can enjoy breakfast in the dining room and have a wander about the estate.

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So if you’re looking to pamper yourself in the Scottish Highlands, why not check out a castle?

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