Thirlestane Castle: Power and Prestige in the Scottish Borders

It’s always fun to visit new castles and learn the stories behind its artefacts and the people that once (and sometimes still do) lived there. Therefore, our recent castle ‘explore and discover’ mission proved particularly fascinating as it exceled in these elements and more. Join us as we head down to the Scottish Borders and visit Thirlestane Castle in Lauder. It’s a house filled with eclectic history, architecture, and a few fun surprises- you will not be disappointed!



While it was a raining a bit on the day of our visit, we didn’t let this stop us from enjoying Thirlestane Castle inside and out. In fact, I would like to point out that the stereotype that it rains all the time in Scotland is simply not true. All it takes is a scroll through our Instagram or Twitter feeds to see how beautiful the weather often is. In fact, in Edinburgh, we only had two days of brief rain for the 6 weeks spanning the end of May throughout June! Plus, in our opinion, even when it does rain, it only brings out the magnificent beauty of the Scottish landscape. Therefore, with all of that in mind, let’s begin our journey to Thirlestane Castle.



Well, if you are a subscriber to our blog, you will not be surprised to find out that Thirlestane Castle has a connection to Mary Queen of Scots. However, it wasn’t the famous ‘Mary stayed here’ connection. Afterall, the original keep of the Castle was built a few years after her execution by Elizabeth I. Instead, the link is due to the Maitland family- who were an influential family in Scotland with important relationships to the Stuart family. Sir William Maitland was Mary’s secretary and his brother, John, later became Lord Chancellor to Mary’s son, James VI. Chancellor Maitland was the one who built the original keep of Thirlestane Castle in 1590 with its four drum towers at each corner done in the Scottish Baronial style.



That Scottish Baronial style is the feel you get as you enter the Castle’s Entrance Hall. On the day of our visit, we were warmly greeted by our tour guide, Norman, in the hall as we joined our small group. The room has rich oak paneling and is filled with intriguing artefacts.



One of my favourites is the Armada chest. According to Norman, it was recovered from a Spanish shipwreck off the coast of Tantallon Castle. Sunken treasure?! It doesn’t get more exciting than that- my imagination immediately runs wild as I picture Tantallon’s dramatic coast and a ship butting up against the dangerous rocks that line the shoreline. Sorry, I digress, but it is easy to do when you live in such a rich, historic environment as Scotland. Let’s get back to the tour…



We continue and move on into the Panelled Room. This was the centre of the old keep of the Castle. Above the fireplace are paintings of significance. On the left is John Maitland- the 1st Baron- who built the castle keep. In the center is Mary Queen of Scots, and to her right is Sir William Maitland- her secretary.



Adjoining the Panelled Room is one of the cosier rooms of the Castle- the library. What is nice about Thirlestane is that there are lovely reminders that a family still lives there. For example, there are framed family photos throughout including some of when the Queen visited.



Billiards anyone? In addition to the large billiards table, there are photographs in the Billiards Room that line the wall and were taken by the 14th Earl of Lauderdale. Unfortunately, according to our guide Norman, there is no indication of the dates and places where they were taken. A particularly unique item in the room is the screen pictured below behind the table. It has over 1,000 flies for fishing featured on it that date to Victorian times.



After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy with Charles II, John Maitland, the 2nd Earl of Lauderdale, was elevated to the dukedom in 1672. He was also appointed Secretary of State of Scotland. As discussed on our tour, this essentially meant he was the uncrowned King of Scotland and had a great deal of power (as a side note for our American readers- yes, the name Lauderdale is connected to Fort Lauderdale in Florida as it was founded by a descendent of the Duke). Thanks to the money from his second wife, the Duke brought about Renaissance-style renovations. These created more of a palace feel to Thirlestane and were done to reflect his significant status.


The Duke's Bedroom

These additions to Thirlestane are simply stunning and reflect continental elegance throughout. My favourite room in the house is the Drawing Room. It was created in the 1800s by combining two state rooms. There are so many lovely paintings, antiques, and artefacts spread out around its vast space.



In one unassuming corner is a small bust of Captain Sir Frederick Maitland who accepted Napoleon’s surrender after the battle of Waterloo. The china on display below the bust was Napoleon’s.


When you are touring places- inside and out- don’t forget to look up. In the case of Thirlestane Castle, you will see some of the finest plasterwork in the state rooms and the principal staircase.



Can you imagine enjoying a meal in Thirlestane’s Victorian Dining Room? Don’t be surprised to feel like you are being watched as you enter this room because the walls are lined with almost the entire Maitland family line. Remember when we mentioned Napoleon earlier? Well, the dining room chairs also share a connection to that era as they are from a grand ball held by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels on the eve of the battle of Waterloo.



One especially interesting item in the Dining Room is this ram’s head. Can you guess what it was used for? Well, it wasn’t for a reason as elegant as it may look- it dates to around 1880 and was used to hold snuff. Of note is its large cairngorm- a quartz gem found only in Scotland.



If there is one individual who can rival the ‘Mary stayed here’ claim, it was Prince Charles Edward Stuart- aka Bonnie Prince Charlie. He stayed at many places throughout Scotland during the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 which included Thirlestane Castle. The Bonnie Prince Charles room is decorated as it most likely looked in the 1800s, but there are pictures of the famous Stuart throughout the room.



Scroll through some more photos from the exquisite rooms on the first floor:



The last room we visited is also the latest exhibition. On display are a variety of children’s toys from the Edwardian, Victorian, and Georgian periods.



Our tour was capped off with a rejuvenating cup of coffee and a delicious Tunnock’s tea cake. The Tea Room has the old bells used to signal the servants from the rooms throughout the Castle. Anyone who has watched Downton Abbey will be familiar with this setup.



As you can imagine, maintaining such a grand place as Thirlestane Castle has involved an incredible amount of restoration. Plagued by dry rot among other critical issues, the Castle underwent major restoration work starting in 1970 and again in 2012. Fortunately, the Maitland-Carew family were able to receive funding from the Government. According to Thirlestane Castle, “in 1984, to preserve its future, Captain Maitland-Carew gave the main part of the castle, together with its contents, to a charitable trust which was then endowed with a cash sum by the National Heritage Memorial Fund”. With the most recent required renovations, the Thirlestane Castle Trust applied for and received a large match funding grant from the EU (European Union). It is nice to know that our visit is one small way to help provide funding for the continued upkeep of the Castle.



When you visit, be sure to take the time to wander around the beautifully landscaped grounds around Thirlestane.



One fun fact about Thirlestane Castle, is that during non-pandemic times, they have an amazing car show every year- the Vintage Motoring Extravaganza.


Photo Credit: Thirlestane Castle

This blog post has been just a wee glimpse into Thirlestane Castle, and there is much more to learn about its past and present. Their annual car show is just one special event they offer. For example, you can stay at their self-catering apartments or dine in one of the State Rooms- including the Drawing or Dining Room. As of this writing, guided tours must be pre-booked, so be sure to check their website for the most up to date information to best plan your visit. Our guide, Norman, was fantastic and we were thoroughly pleased with his tour. We learned so much from the fascinating stories he told and appreciated his personable approach. Therefore, we highly recommend you take the time to make a trip to the Scottish Borders and a visit to Thirlestane Castle.


Until next time- Explore & Discover!

Photo Credit: Thirlestane Castle