A castle worth keeping: celebrating 10 years of community ownership

Imagine a castle and you probably think of something occupied by a wealthy family or run by the National Trust.

But Braemar Castle, a near neighbour of the Queen at Balmoral, boasts a different model – community ownership – and the 10th anniversary of that feat will be celebrated later this year.

The castle was once a site of tumultuous upheaval and conflict. The second Earl of Mar, who oversaw the construction in 1628, was a childhood friend of King James VI. But with the Jacobite conflict, Braemar suffered at the hands of the notorious Black Colonel, John Farquharson of Invervey, who burned the castle to a near ruinous state to prevent its use as a base for Government troops.

The British Army commandeered the castle from 1748 and, when the soldiers moved out in 1831, the landowners began a long programme of refurbishment and modernisation.

Braemar first opened to the public in the 1960s after the 16th laird married an ex-fashion editor of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. So many requests were received by the couple to visit their stylish abode  that they opened its doors as a visitor attraction.

So far, so typical. But what came next? Simon Blackett, chair of Braemar Community Limited, explains: “The castle was opened as a visitor attraction in the 1960s by the Laird and his wife. Forty years on, it had been franchised out but in 2004 the franchisee became ill and the castle closed.

“By 2007, Invercauld Estate decided they had no further use for it and were about to put it on the open market. It’s Braemar’s only under-cover visitor attraction so the community stepped in and offered to take the castle off their hands. Invercauld Estate agreed to a 50-year improving lease with the community responsible for the castle and all the extensive repair work required.”

Set up in 2004, Braemar Community covers many local projects in the vicinity. Its work includes the construction of two footbridges and the creation of a new footpath, but the maintenance and running of the castle itself is also a massive undertaking.

Simon says: “For the first eight years the castle was staffed entirely by volunteers. Almost £500,000 has been raised by the community, and the roof and chimneys have been repaired so the castle is now watertight. Probably somewhere in the region of another £750,000 will be needed to repair the harling and provide proper visitor facilities.

“We now employ a full-time manager and have also just taken on a part-time fundraiser and project manager to get our next fundraising plans under way. We employ students with relevant interests for two months across the summer, and provide audio guides in three languages.”

Braemar re-opens for the summer season on Saturday April 1 and, on July 23, the castle will celebrate 10 years of community operation with a Highland Fling event.

Simon sums up the pride felt in the local area: “The journey has been tough, exciting and rewarding. Thousands and thousands of volunteer hours have been poured into the project with much fun and laughter along the way. We feel blessed to have had the opportunity, and it is testament to the passion and dedication of this small community that we have succeeded in creating a unique, authentic experience for our visitors with the bonus of meeting people who take such pride in the castle.”

Find out more about the castle and its events here

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