Melville Castle, Scotland
Before we get started, it’s important you get the idea of an old stuffy lord owning a castle out of your head. This is no Downton Abbey – this is the real thing. And in the case of Scotland’s Melville Castle, it’s David Hay – young, single and handsome – who has the keys to the castle.
“Would you like to come back and stay at my castle?” We joke about the potential for pick-up lines in nearby Edinburgh, but David claims he’s never made the most of the opportunity.
“Other people may have made more use of the fact they could go into town and say ‘by the way, tell that girl I’ve got a castle’ but it’s never changed my life at all.”
The grand old Melville Castle estate with its huge main building, bounding plains and distant gate has not always been in the Hay family.
David’s father bought it about 20 years ago when the opportunity arose and the family then undertook a complicated reconstruction to get it back in working order. About five years ago the building was leased out but the Hay family took it back 18 months ago and has been working hard to do it up.
When I ask David what it’s like to own a castle, he’s quick to answer.
“Well, it’s a considerable burden”, he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to have but there are a hell of a lot of bills.”
Melville Castle has seven large public rooms – including a ballroom – and 32 bedrooms of various sizes. Recently it has been used for weddings and corporate events but David Hay and his staff have been focused on opening it as a hotel – hopefully as soon as next month (November 2013).
That takes away a bit of the glamour of swanning around the plush rooms acting like a king or a lord.
“I’d like to think I’m not snooty about it”, David says.
“But I am conscious of the effect some people will think ‘oh god, he’s running a castle’. But when it comes down to the day to day working of it, it’s the same as any other job. I spend all day in a little office with a fluorescent light speaking to staff about prices or what we’re trying to offer and so on.”
Listen to the full interview with Melville Castle’s David Hay…
A tour of the castle takes longer than I expect. Each room deserves close examination, with the details of the design both beautiful and authentic. Much effort has gone into trying to restore the former glory of Melville castle.
There’s the room with the bar and comfortable leather seats next to a fireplace, the ballroom with mirror-like windows waiting to catch the twirls of gowns as dancers glide by, the dining room looks out over the grounds which have been carefully landscaped, and the smaller reception room mixes comfort with practicality.
All this elegance comes at a price, though. Hotels are expensive things to run at the best of times but it’s even harder when you’re dealing with a castle that’s centuries old.
“The most obvious thing is maintenance”, David tells me when I ask about the difficulties.
“We have a very old building which requires a lot of maintenance. The roof is quite complicated, there’s a lot of leadwork in the roof which should be lasting for a hundred years or so but occasionally we get leaks and so on and bad weather affects the castle.”
“Then secondly there’s a lot of grounds. City hotels don’t have 54 acres to take care of and we’ve got a lot of grounds, a kilometre-long driveway, trees falling down… there are lots of trees!”
All the effort will soon be worth it, David hopes. After being used only for private functions recently, it’s almost time to open the doors to the general public. For David and his family, there are mixed emotions. It will mean Melville Castle will have been restored to its glory… but it will make it seem even more like a place of employment.
“When I’m leaving at night”, David says, “I’ll sometimes look back at the place and realise how lucky I am to work in a place so pretty. But on other occasions I’m just looking at a desk or a computer like anyone else.”