A long and intriguing history has shaped Aberdeenshire’s Wardhill Castle, but its future is looking just as interesting, thanks to the young family who have made it their home
Photography Susie Lowe and Dan Wilcox
Words Catherine Coyle
There is a family tree on the coffee table of Wardhill Castle’s library that has so many branches, it’s as tricky to decipher as the noble houses of Westeros. The tree belongs to the Leslies; Wardhill has been in their family since the 12th century, and just four years ago, ripe for refurbishment, it was passed on to William Leslie and his wife Sarah.
The castle hit the headlines last summer when Will’s younger sister Rose married there. She played Ygritte in Game of Thrones and her wedding at her childhood home, to co-star Kit Harington (aka Jon Snow), put the sleepy village of Meikle Wartle in rural Aberdeenshire on the map, with fans and paparazzi flocking there in the hope of glimpsing the celebrity guests.
Sarah acted as wedding planner, not only so the couple could relax in the knowledge that their celebration would be handled sensitively, but also so that she could put into practice her plans for the estate.
“Will and I met when we were both living and working in London – we were friends for a long time before we got together,” she says. She recalls him explaining that at some point, he would be asked to return to Aberdeenshire to take over the family home from his parents. Sarah, who is originally from Yorkshire, had no desire to raise children in the city, so the thought of settling in the Scottish countryside didn’t faze her. “We moved here in 2014 and had our son, Harry, a year later. At the same time, we’d begun refurbishing Wardhill Castle and looking at ways it could provide an income.”
This was a radical break with tradition. The castle had been in the family for more than 800 years, but this was the first time it would be used as a business. “It’s a very expensive property to maintain and it wasn’t in a great state of repair when we moved in, initially with Will’s parents,” she explains.
As a chartered surveyor, she was in a good position to visualise how it might be transformed to work as both a home and a business. The couple began by reassessing the 750-acre estate, introducing a glamping site and refurbishing the gatehouse, stables, farmhouse and bothy so these could be rented out to holidaymakers.
The castle itself had been built up over centuries, with the oldest section dating from the 1300s. “The Georgians added bits, as did the Victorians,” says Sarah. “Will’s grandfather pulled down a section at the back in the 1960s. His great-grandfather had been a gambler and had sold the lead from the roof! The building is B-listed, so the family were fined.”
The interior has now been refurbished so that she, Will and three-year-old Harry live in their own wing; the rest of the castle – eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms, a formal dining room, library, snug and drawing room – is rented out on an exclusive-use basis for weddings, celebrations, shooting parties and holidays.
“When we arrived, there were some rooms that had been locked up for decades,” she recalls. “They were cold and damp – full of dead birds and furniture that had been forgotten about.” It was like having their own private auction house, where they could pick and choose what they wanted to decorate their new home.
The formal drawing room is perhaps the most striking space, so it’s no surprise that Sarah started there. “Its wallpaper had been hung for my father-in-law’s 21st birthday!” she smiles. “It’s such a vibrant design. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find anything with as wonderful a pattern so I decided to leave it up.” The curtains, however, had to go. Bought in the 1860s at the Paris expo, they’d hung in this room for more than 150 years but had turned ‘crispy’, like paper, Sarah remembers. “I have stored them safely away, though. They belong in the V&A archives. The fabric is an amazing design.”
She created a formal dining room from a redundant vestibule space, its shape lending itself to a long banqueting table. With the walls now painted in Farrow & Ball’s dramatic Studio Green, the mood is suitably grand. There are family portraits dotted all over the castle but one of the most striking, of Will’s great-great-grandfather, Guillermo de Landa y Escandón, hangs in this room.
“My great-grandmother was the daughter of Guillermo, who was the governor of Mexico City in the early 1900s,” explains Will. “Her name was Luz, and my great-grandfather, William Arbuthnot-Leslie, met her at a shooting party at Dunecht House, not far from Wardhill, in the 1920s.”
On the landing upstairs hangs a cloth depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe which belonged to Luz. “It was smuggled out of her home in Mexico City during the revolution in 1910,” says Will. “It has a bullet-hole in it, thanks to an unruly revolutionary, and it was taken first to Paris and then to Scotland when Guillermo bought nearby Lickleyhead Castle in 1922.”
Wardhill Castle is full of such treasures. It’s crammed with history – trunks filled with ledgers from centuries ago, cupboards packed tightly with fabric, children’s clothes, linens from generations of the one family. In the Spanish Room, the gilded bed was a gift from the Queen of Spain to Will’s great-great-great-grandmother, who was her lady-in-waiting.
In the Gold Room, meanwhile (which was previously the bedroom of one of Will’s siblings and which is reputed to have been blessed to keep spirits away), Sarah has mixed existing period furniture with more up-to-date additions such as a Kit Kemp-inspired Fermoie headboard made by her friend, the upholsterer Emily Douglas-Home. “I try to find one thread and build on that,” she explains. “I really wanted to bring modern touches in to work with the wonderful pieces we already have here.”
With its end-of-roll textiles, leather hides and upholstery fabrics, Shufflebotham & Son in Macclesfield proved to be a treasure trove for Sarah. She also looked to OKA, India Jane, Coach House and Rosanna Lonsdale to add an element of contemporary styling. It makes the house an eclectic celebration of different eras.
“It’s an evolving project,” Sarah smiles, “but we love it.”