Hogmanay celebrations are always special, but they’re even more memorable in the grand setting of a Scottish castle.
For 3 days you get to live like a lord or lady, in beautiful atmospheric surroundings. You enjoy fine dining, and see in the new year with live music, dancing and the haunting sound of the pipes as the strike of twelve approaches. Then you can party to the wee small hours and enjoy a late sleep-in, with a full Scottish brunch to help with the hangover.
This post was originally written in December 2019 and has been updated.
Fonab Castle, Pitlochry, Perthshire
Fonab Castle hotel was the setting for our first luxury Hogmanay experience. We were chauffered from Pitlochry railway station to the castle, which is only a few minutes’ drive away. On arrival we were greeted by a female piper and offered a wee dram and a piece of freshly-baked shortbread in the entrance hall, while our luggage was taken care of. This wonderful welcome was a good indication of what the next 3 days were going to be like.
We had chosen to stay in the old castle itself, rather than the newer annexe, as we loved the atmosphere – turrets, high ceilings, stone staircases, cosy carpets and wood panelling. Our gorgeous room had an impressive fireplace and great views over the surrounding countryside. There were even some wrapped gifts waiting for us on the side table!
Following afternoon tea in the restaurant, with its views of Loch Faskally, we settled in and relaxed for the rest of the day. After a gourmet dinner, a wee nightcap in the whisky lounge (above right) seemed the right thing to do for two weary travellers.
New Year’s Eve
Next day, after a tasty breakfast, we explored Pitlochry and Loch Faskally, although the drizzly weather did not keep us out for too long. Besides, we had to prepare ourselves for the gourmet Hogmanay dinner and party that evening.
Not all the party-goers were staying in the hotel like us; some people had simply bought tickets for the dinner and ceilidh and were not staying at the castle. This meant that the party numbers were expanded beyond the hotel’s resident capacity and it made for a great atmosphere.
After the strike of twelve and Auld Lang Syne, we danced till dawn.
The party was held in a function room in the newer part of the hotel. Everyone had dressed up in their glad rags for the occasion. We were shown to tables which had been beautifully decorated with festive greenery and candles. It was time to make new friends. On our table were 3 other couples, who hailed from Glasgow. They were great fun and we really enjoyed their company.
New Year’s Day
Pitlochry holds a fun New Year’s Day street party, which most of us braved despite inclement weather. People dressed as vikings carried flaming torches, a ceilidh band played, and we drank mulled wine while exploring the street stalls and shops. Another bracing walk around Loch Faskally and it was time to return to the castle to relax then enjoy our final gourmet dinner before preparing for our departure next morning.
Since our visit, Fonab have opened their Woodland Spa which offers all the usual treatments plus a 15 metre pool. That would be a lovely antidote to a walk out in the crisp snowy air! I also note that they have included laser clay pigeon shooting to their 2021 Hogmanay package. If this is a success I’m sure it will become a standard activity.
Glenapp Castle, Ayrshire
The stunning, award-winning Glenapp Castle hotel is located near the small coastal town of Ballantrae. From our cosy suite we could look out across the gardens to the Irish Sea and Ailsa Craig, rising mysteriously from the mist. As at Fonab, our room had a wonderful fireplace and beautiful period furniture.
About 40 of us were staying for Hogmanay, and over the 3 days we got to chat to most of the other guests, who came from Scotland, England, Switzerland, the US and Australia. The owners, Paul and Poppy Szkiler, were also there, and made a point of chatting with every guest. This personal touch made the occasion extra special. We felt like we were house guests rather than hotel guests.
New Year’s Eve
Next morning we were treated to a falconry display, with audience participation fully encouraged! It was amazing to see these impressive birds close at hand, and watch them soaring and diving. Fortunately the weather was unseasonably temperate, which made for a perfect pre-Hogmanay morning in the fresh air.
As at Fonab, we were treated to gourmet food at all meal times. The gala Hogmanay dinner was fabulous, and as there were no external guests, we were all seated around one long table. A piper attended before the strike of twelve, then a ceilidh band played as we danced until the early hours.
New Year’s Day
After a suitably late brunch we boarded a coach and headed to Stranraer to participate in a curling competition. I’d often watched curling on TV and thought it was a rather strange sport, but as I was a keen ice skater in my youth, I thought it would be rather fun to give it a go. My husband was enthusiastic too, especially since the winning team was promised a desirable prize!
On arrival at Stranraer, our coach driver pulled into the car park of a modest hotel, the North West Castle. I assumed he had been given permission to use the car park for the afternoon. But no, we were led inside the hotel itself. Perhaps we were going in for a cup of tea? Not that either. We were led through the hotel, down various corridors, and then…. to an ice rink! Within the hotel itself. We were absolutely amazed. I’ve since learned that it’s the only hotel in the world to have its own curling rink. It’s absolutely fantastic.
Each team was given a professional coach to talk us through the rules of the game and to give us tips on how to throw the stones. The competition went on for a couple of hours, and was such great fun. Afterwards we enjoyed afternoon tea in the cafe bar upstairs before returning to Glenapp. That night, our final dinner was followed by prize-giving. I was fortunate to be on the winning team, and walked away with a rather nice box of miniature whiskies!
Since our visit, Glenapp have opened their fabulously luxurious-looking Castle Penthouse Apartment, which sleeps up to 8 people. They have also refurbished their Victorian glasshouse, which is situated in the Gertrude Jekyll-designed Italian garden, and opened a restaurant in there called the Azalea Glasshouse and Bothy. Although it doesn’t feature in the Hogmanay line-up, it looks like a beautiful place for lunch during other times of the year.
So which Scottish castle experience did I like best? It’s hard to say, as they were both so special in their different ways. The welcome at Fonab, with the piper, whisky and shortbread, was wonderful. The party there was also the best, because of the larger numbers and variety of entertainers – pianist and singer, DJ and ceilidh. But we really enjoyed the more personal, house party atmosphere at Glenapp, and the sensational food. And the daytime activities there were brilliant.
A shout-out to the staff
In both castles, it was the staff who made our occasion so special. They were friendly, professional and knew exactly how to balance helpfulness with respect for privacy. Everyone – concierges, receptionists, bar staff, wait staff, chefs, cleaners and managers, were exemplary and a credit to their profession. The musicians and entertainers were brilliant too!
There are other castles in Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales that offer both Christmas and New Year party stays. Celtic Castles is one of a number of specialist companies that can organise this type of holiday for you, or you can book directly with the castles as we did. I’d definitely recommend the experience, as it is unique and unforgettable – and perfect for the season.
If you don’t want to fork out for the 3-day package, which is not exactly cheap, you can find a castle like Fonab which offers a party ticket only, or you can dine at a castle just before or after the main Christmas and New Year public holidays, to get a taste of the atmosphere. If you do go for one of the 3-day breaks, I recommend that you book as early in the year as possible, as places do tend to fill very quickly.
If you’d like to read a good mystery on your Scottish holiday, then you might well enjoy Marion Todd’s gripping crime novels set in the historic town of St Andrews. You’ll be kept guessing right to the end! Find out more about Marion on her web site and get a taste of her writing too!
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