A visit to the home of the dukes of Atholl

  • A dining table in the State Dining Room of Blair Castle in Atholl, Scotland, is set as though still waiting for grand company to arrive. Contributed photo/Candi Ashenden

  • All of the clothing on display were actual items, not reproductions, that had been found in suitcases in the attic of the castle. Contributed photo/Candi Ashenden

  • Right: This view looks down the staircases of Blair Castle, Atholl, Scotland. That’s the Rev. Dr. Candi Ashenden looking up from one of the landings. Contributed photo

  • The Rev. Cindy LaJoy and the Rev. Dr. Candi Ashenden pose for a photo outside Blair Castle, Atholl, Scotland, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Atholl. Contributed photo

  • Inside Blair Castle, showing a writing desk and portraits of two dukes of Atholl, Scotland. Contributed photo/Candi Ashenden

  • One of the celebrated garden paths of Blair Castle, Atholl, Scotland. Contributed photo

  • The key to the city of Athol, Massachusetts. Contributed Photo/Candi Ashenden

  • The fairy-tale-like Blair Castle rises from the middle of the Scottish Highlands. Contributed photo/Candi Ashenden

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 8/9/2022 11:04:32 AM
Modified: 8/9/2022 11:01:15 AM

In 1987, the 10th Duke of Atholl, Scotland journeyed to Athol, Massachusetts in celebration of the town’s 225th anniversary. During his visit, Athol presented the duke with a key to the city. Twenty-five years later, for the town’s 250th anniversary, the 12th Duke of Atholl, His Grace Bruce Murray, visited the United States to celebrate the anniversary of the incorporation of the Central Massachusetts town. The Atholl Highlanders, who are his own private infantry, accompanied him and put on a musical performance clad in the official tartan of Clan Murray.

Now, 10 years later, in 2022, only shortly after our world reopened to overseas travel after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rev. Cindy LaJoy, a newly ordained interfaith pastor who has just been appointed as the volunteer community outreach coordinator at the Athol Congregational Church and I, the Rev. Dr. Candi Ashenden, pastor of the same church, took a detour from a long-awaited vacation to travel to Blair Castle in Atholl, Scotland, to tour the original home and gardens of the Dukes of Atholl.

Driving onto the estate, we were first struck by the almost fairy-tale-like castle rising from the middle of the Scottish Highlands. The whitewashed walls of the towers gleamed and immediately we were transported back to the 11th century, when construction of the castle was first begun. Over the years, the castle has gone through many renovations and iterations, the last of which occurred when the architect, David Bryce, restored it to its original look in 1872.

The moment we opened the doors of our rental car, the lilting music of Scottish bagpipes reached us. Following the sound, we crossed a lovely little bridge over a babbling brook and as the full castle came into view, right in the front courtyard area, was a young female bagpipe player dressed in full Scottish regalia … and the scene was set.

Entering through the main door, we discovered more than 30 rooms on full display, each one full of Scottish cultural history, period furnishings, clothing of the day, and even a dining table in the State Dining Room set as though still waiting for grand company to arrive. Speaking with one of the workers who lived on the grounds, we learned that all of the clothing, from ball gowns to more simple dress, were actual items (not reproductions) that had been found in suitcases in the attic of the castle when the dukes changed their primary residence and turned Blair over to be a museum.

A grand Georgian staircase took us from the entrance hall featuring weapons used at the Battle of Culloden up to the grandeur of the drawing rooms, each wall we passed lined with classic portraits of the Dukes and their families as well as classic landscape paintings.

Downstairs, the two highlights for us were the Victorian Ballroom, decorated throughout with 175 pairs of antlers and, in a small display room where the Dukes’ international visits were featured, a plaque with the “Key to the City” of Athol, Massachusetts.

Leaving the castle, we roamed through the magnificent 9-acre, walled Hercules Garden. Full of fruit trees and local flora and fauna, it was a delight to the senses. And as we walked the paths by the pond where many Atholl Dukes have previously, and recently, walked, our sense of connection to our town’s namesake deepened and the world became smaller. Nothing like a trip into the past to better understand how our history always shapes our future … and how it does so for the better, if we take the time to understand from whence we cometh.

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