Judy Mackie looks over Castle Fraser and hears tales of dastardly deeds and grisly bloodstains. Castle Fraser in Aberdeenshire holds an irresistible attraction for youngsters, with its secret passages, spooky staircases and tales of battle bravery and personal tragedy. Within the historic walls of the magnificent granite stronghold, children can take a trip back through the centuries, experiencing the triumphs and trivialities of north-east baronial life.
The 16th-century castle, set within a wooded and arable estate south of the River Don, has some very up-to-date ideas, with a dedicated education room available to school parties for role-playing, project work and hands-on experience.
The room's popular "feelie box" allows children to get to grips with original Victorian artifacts such as obscure kitchen implements, old photographs, button hooks and gloves, while yet more fun - and a memorable lesson in social history - can be derived from dressing up in a range of 17th and 18th century costumes, which can also be worn during the castle tour, for added atmosphere.
While the turbulent history of the Fraser family - some of whose members were Covenantors and Jacobites - has failed to produce a chain-rattling ghost. One thrilling tale will dispel and disappointment on that score, with its hints of a murdered princess and bloody stone staircase, which, no matter how many times it was scrubbed clean, persisted in revealing its ghostly stains. Since the staircase has long since been covered by wooden boards, no one now has the chance to disprove it!
A colourful character within the castle's history was Charles Mackenzie Fraser, renowned for his military bravery, strong sense of social duty - and his wooden leg. The result of an amputation following the Battle of Burgos, in 1812, which finished Charles' military career, the leg is kept in a box in an ante-room of the castle library and can be taken out and examined.
Another fascinating attraction in this stately room is a case containing two battle-worn bullets, one of which pierced Charles's hat (also on display). but miraculously failed to kill him, and the other which shattered his leg. No less grisly is Charles's own graphically written account of how he received his war wound.
Despite his devotion to his wife Jane, and their love of music and parties, Charles's civilian life was constantly marred by sorrow. The couple lost 11 of their 14 children mostly in early childhood, and a poignant reminder of their last lost baby is the beautiful lace-shrouded cradle in the Green Room.
Trapdoors leading to secret staircases are also popular features of the tour, although visitors are allowed only to look into the musty depths below. The Laird's Lug - a tiny chamber high within a wall of the Great Hall - has both a romantic and a practical explanation: Sir Walter Scott believed it was a secret listening place, while National Trust curators insist it was almost certainly used either as a strongroom for valuables, or as a prison.
A visit to the castle's two Tower Rooms reveal an unsettling assortment of stuffed birds and animals - including the scowling head of a giant mastiff - and a colourful collection of 18th century novelty mugs containing crouching china frogs.
And in the grand and opulent North Bedroom and Worked Room, younger visitors will be less interested in the hand-painted wallpaper and embroidered bedcovers, than the elaborate wooden commodes, one of which transforms into a set of stairs offering easy access to a four-poster bed.
The fun by no means finishes at the end of the tour. Set within 346 acres of land, the Castle Fraser estate offers hours of entertainment, with its tearoom, shop, adventure playground, picnic area, walled garden and two nature trails. The estate ranger naturalist - a natural with children - is happy to provide budding ecologists with an insight into the habitats and habits of the local flora and fauna (including creepy crawlies) and school parties are welcome to make use of the grounds for environmental studies.
During the spring and summer, Castle Fraser is a hub of community activity, playing host to mini Highland Games, Sunday school picnics, fetes and musical events enjoyed by young and old.
Contact: Eric Wilkinson, Property Manager, Castle Fraser, Sauchen, Inverurie AB5 7LD. Tel: 01330 833463.