Glenapp Castle Hotel in Scotland
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Glenapp Castle ~ Press Reviews

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Scotland on Sunday At Home Supplement (September 2005)


Graham and Fay Cowan restored a castle in South Ayrshire. Last week it won the prestigious title of AA Scottish Hotel of the Year.

"Houses like these were built as a statement for owners: ‘look at me, I’ve arrived’. They were meant for grand entertaining and that’s not really any different from us, except now we run Glenapp Castle as a business," says Graham Cowan, sipping coffee in the library.

Glenapp Castle in South Ayrshire is owned by the McMillan family of hoteliers, and run by their daughter and son-in-law, Fay and Graham.

An exclusive country hotel set in 30 acres of gardens, it enjoys an enviable international reputation for luxury and service, which was confirmed last week when it was named as the AA Scottish Hotel of the Year.

Although Fay and Graham’s hospitality and the excellent cuisine have earned effusive write ups in magazines including Conde Nast Traveller, the success of the award winning venture is in large part thanks to the grandeur of the building and its stylish interior.

"We wanted the castle to be as close as possible to how it would have been in its original heyday," explains Graham.

"There's an old saying that classic never goes out of style. So for some people, this might not be their thing, but we believe that it works."

Graham is right. The place is awash with antiques and original oil paintings. Squashy sofas sit alongside vast fireplaces. Twinkling chandeliers shine down on half-tester beds.

The overall impression is of an opulent country house that is lavish enough to satisfy guests who like their surroundings sumptuous, yet never spilling into the realms of poor taste. Among the Cowans’ main priorities was to create an impression that this was a home, rather than a hotel – hence the limited amount of chairs and the absence of a main reception. Indeed, if the original owners were somehow propelled into the 21st century, they would feel right at home. Renowned architect David Bryce built Glenapp in 1870 for James Hunter, the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ayrshire. In 1917, the house was taken over by James Lyle Mackay, the first Earl of Inchcape, whose descendants owned it until 1982.

Graham and Fay first set eyes on the place in 1993. Graham was a vet in Lockerbie, while Fay worked in the family business in Stranraer. “We never saw each other,” says Graham. Too many nights spent driving the 100 or so miles home, only to find that Graham had been called out to deliver a calf, convinced Fay and Graham that they needed to find a joint venture.

The initial plan was to buy a manageable Victorian house with the idea of turning it into a bed and breakfast or small hotel. A sprawling 17-bedroom castle was never in the equation. However, when Glenapp came on the market, they were so depressed by the prospect of viewing yet more 1970s-style patterned carpets in other peoples houses that they thought they would take a look.

"It was stunning – even in its awful, neglected and derelict state," recalls Graham.

The finances required to buy and restore the castle were out of the young couple's league, but with the backing of the family, they bought the house and moved in 1994. And so began an epic six-year restoration.

Grounds Before Restoration  
Grounds Before Restoration Grounds After Restoration
Grounds After Restoration

A Japanese conglomerate had owned the house. The owners had hardly been near the place, however, they had sanctioned a program to try and halt the rampant dry-rot.

"When we arrived, bits of whole wings were gutted," says Graham.

"There were toadstools growing out of the cement. Floorboards were missing, live wires hung in the hallway and fungi grew up through the carpet in the dining room."

It took three years to ensure that the dry-rot would not recur in parts of the B-listed building. Meanwhile the Cowans moved into a cottage in the grounds. They had more than enough to keep them occupied. The gardens were wild and in need of some TLC. Thankfully, their two young sons – Ruadhan, now 8, and Kerr, 9 – were easier to tame.

The family now live in part of the house. If guests wandered in by accident, they would probably find it not too dissimilar to the rest of the place.

"Our house is full of Victorian stuff, which we would have done anyway," says Graham. "I grew up in a house like that – my mother is very interested in antiques and I have always been keen on nice furniture. Fay has acquired a taste for it."

Much of the furniture in the hotel was bought at auction. They had particular success with the clocks initially, until a tactful nudge from Graham’s mother-in-law suggested they stop adding to their collection. The Cowans had huge fun bidding for items. They were particular about keeping the furniture authentic to the period. Georgian was allowed as well as Victorian, because owners would have had pieces from both eras in their homes.

Entrance Hall Before Restoration  
Entrance Hall Before Restoration Entrance Hall After Restoration
Entrance Hall After Restoration

Some concessions made to ensure guests enjoyed some modern comforts. For example, Victorian bathrooms, with their plain white tiles, would have looked too cold and abattoir-like, says Graham. Original roll-top baths now sit in toasty large bathrooms, with at least a splash of colour and plenty of fluffy towels.

In their bid to make the place look and feel warm, the Cowans have also spent a lot of time deciding on the colour schemes using heritage paint ranges. The dining room is a luxurious deep red, which is perfect for a room used in the evening.

"We get the most wonderful sunsets," says Graham.

The light- filled drawing room is full of delicious buttery yellow and creams, Anxious to add a hint of Scottish theme without going over the top, the Cowans have also added splashes of Tartan on chosen items of upholstery.

Keeping an old building such as Glenapp in great condition requires year round maintenance – the majority of which is done after the New Year. The good news for valued guests is that there are no plans for a massive makeover. The stylish interior is there to stay. As Graham puts it, why mess with a winning formula?

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