Mar Hall Ghosts and All

by Nancy Lyon

Evolving from a Tudor-Gothic pile to a wartime hospital for limbless soldiers, Mar Hall is now a five-star Scottish resort, ghosts and all. Not even the hotel staff knows how many rooms it contains. One hotel reviewer commented, rather bizarrely, that Mar Hall was the “perfect place to play out English Patient movie fantasies.”

Mar Hall exterior

In austere stony grandeur, Mar Hall commands the 240-acre estate on Scotland's River Clyde where the Castles of Mar have stood since the 14th century. Drifting mists from nearby Loch Lomond grace the Kilpatrick Hills, providing lots of Scottish atmosphere in which to ramble, dream and ponder. Could the Glasgow Airport be only 5 minutes away, and Glasgow nightlife only 20? Nonsense! Mar Hall is centuries away from all that clobber. 

Quarried from local stone, this colossal Tudor-Gothic dream mansion was started in 1828 by the 11th Lord of Blantyre, one of the Earls of Mar. The Earl died in Brussels in 1830, fifteen years before the house was finally completed at a cost of £50,000. A massive £15 million renovation by the Small Luxury Hotels of the World consortium has transformed the Neo-Gothic masterpiece 2 km northwest of Erskine in Renfrewshire into a five-star golf and spa country hotel. Architect David Major of Whitehill Designs has revived all the classic opulence, respecting the work of the original architect Sir Robert Smirke, MA, designer of the British Museum in London. But no one, not even the hotel staff, knows how many rooms the house contains. Every time they are counted the number seems to change, lending even more mystery to this imposing baronial demesne.

You’d expect a grand entranceway and a posh lobby, but Mar Hall is an historic Listed Building. Scottish law restrains changes to the original foyer, so you enter a stark stone room appointed with a modest welcome desk. Designer Lesley Wallace of Wallace Interiors has graced Mar Hall and its 41 bedrooms and 12 suites with period antiques, tapestries, weighty tasseled drapes, and a fortune in decorator cushions. So many cushions, in fact, that when you enter the Grand Hall--which at 118 feet long is indeed grand--you don’t know where to sit. Louis IX chairs and plush sofas are filled to the edge, and you toss and turn wondering what to do with them. Pile them neatly on the Oriental carpet? Hold them in your lap? Sit on top of them? You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s gauche to sit at all… 


The Grand Hall, formerly known as the Picture Gallery, makes a regal setting for wedding shots. Watching a wedding magazine photographer clicking away at a model in a gorgeous gown, I could hardly imagine that the sunlight flooding through these towering windows once shown upon limbless sailors and soldiers in wooden wheelchairs. Their false limbs came from a River Clyde shipyard, and some of the amputees even set to work making their own wooden legs, such was the wartime need. 

From 1916 on, Erskine House, as it was called, served as the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers, and then the administrative offices of the Erskine Hospital. This sad interlude in Mar Hall’s history is not evident today. But it may have influenced my initial perception of my gargantuan Classic Room Number #7 as being vaguely funereal: the high four poster bed which requires a step to mount was canopied and draped in black; the headboard was black and the black sofa bed was filled with black cushions. But the view of the river and Kilpatrick Hills through the tall sash windows was stunning. 

Mar Hall Funeral Suite

Honeymooners might feel shy in the hushed, polite atmosphere of Mar Hall and shrink from the palatial dimensions of rooms whose echoey bathrooms showcase marble fireplaces, high-tech claw-foot tubs and power showers,telephones, bidets, his- and-her wash basins and satiny chaise longues. But consider this: the walls of Mar Hall are three feet thick. Sounds escape not. 


The spa’s windowed lounge area, where one can lunch on organic treats, is surprisingly formal, with richly upholstered chairs where you dare not drop a crumb. The huge swimming pool is luscious, with water looking as rich and thick as blue jelly. There are Vichy Showers, a hair salon, a Fitness Centre, sauna and steam room. Twelve therapy rooms offer fusion stone massages, Reiki, aromatherapy and reflexology, Indian head massages, and rosemary mint awakening wraps. Not to mention manicures (popular with men) and pedicures. 

Mar Hall Rooms overlook the River Clyde and Kilpatrick Hills (wherein an ancient hill fort hides) or the formal gardens. Footpaths wind through the estate.  According to the Ulster King-of-Arms, the Earl of Mar is the most ancient title in Great Britain. In Mar Hall’s corniced-ceiling, crystal-chandeliered grand ballrooms and the Cigar Bar paneled with oak shipped all the way from Quebec, you feel Earldom in the air. Corporate clients don’t expect fussy sentimental things like chocolates on the pillows at night, and don’t mind ringing the butler to make tea or coffee instead of having an unsightly tea tray and kettle about actually inside the room. They enjoy the convenience of Mar Hall’s seven meeting rooms, all the high-tech conference facilities, and are not shy about soothing their corporate stresses at the state-of-the-art Aveda Concept Spa. 

A Bizarre Tale of Scottish Revenge

In Scotland’s ancient Pictland, the province of Mar was one of the seven Pictish kingdoms. Its ruling governors were called “Mormaors” until 1120 A.D. when this Gaelic title was supplanted by the Saxon title of “Earl.” The most famous earl was the 11th Earl of Mar, who inspired the First Jacobite Rebellion to restore the Kingdom of Scotland. Other distinguished Earls of Mar became Regents of Scotland and Great Chamberlain of the Realm. Mar Hall’s history refers to a “Donald” who fought at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 as the earliest Mormaor. But the lineage of Mar's ghosts floats all the way back to 800 A.D. – and the most bizarre tale of Scottish revenge you will ever hear. 

Maelbrigte was a ninth century Mormaor of Mar who was known by his stupendously prominent front tooth. They called him “Tusk.” Imagine a sabertoothed tiger with a buck front tooth. You might as well, for the damage this snaggle-tooth caused.

One day Maelbrigte met up with a marauding Viking Sigurd of Moere who had become the first Earl of Orkney. This Scandinavian had received the title from his brother Earl Rognvald of More in 872 A.D. After conquering the north of Scotland, Sigurd invaded the province of Mar around 893 A.D. and infuriated Maelbrigte. Maelbrigte and Sigurd agreed to battle it out each with 40 men and 40 horses, but Sigurd cheated and put two men on each horse. All the Scots were killed and beheaded. As was their custom, the Vikings tied the severed Scottish heads to their saddles in arrogant triumph. 

Sigurd chopped off Melbrigda’s head (as you do) and slung it around his saddlebow (as you do). But as Sigurd was galloping victoriously, egomaniacally, over the battlefield, shouting Norn curses on the souls of his Scottish victims, the tooth in Melbrigda’s severed head cut a nasty gash in the flesh of Sigurd’s thigh. The wound festered. Sigurd died. Killed by a dead man, was Sigurd. Now buried in Orkney, near Oykelbridge, and now more renowned for his death than his life. 

Toothy tales aside, the delectable cuisine in Mar Halls' Cristal Room offers fresh Scottish produce infused with tastes from around the globe. Do you like your fillet of Angus beef with roasted root vegetables, asparagus and Madeira Jus? Or do you prefer it with wasabi mash and pickled ginger gravy?