When creative couple Simon Mark Hunt and Stef Burgon bought a castle on the west coast of Scotland, little did they realise they were stepping back into family history
With a love of finding unique places to stay, and a joint passion for old buildings, Stef (40) and Simo (37) decided to ditch their successful careers and dive into the dream of building their own luxury-getaway concept together in 2019.
Kilmartin Castle, a two-hour drive from Glasgow, is a 16th century fortified castle located on the west coast. Stef, a radio presenter and Travel Journalist from Newcastle, and Si, an advertising creative from Australia, purchased the castle in 2015 after they fell in love with Scotland on a road trip.
The couple then got married at the castle in 2016 while living in Dubai.
However, while investigating the area’s history as they settled into their new home, Simo made an incredible discover.
He explained: ‘When we moved here, I researched my family tree, and discovered that eight generations ago, my family lived just five miles away from here. They are in the graveyard.
‘My family – the McColls – had to leave because of the Highland Clearances. They were crofters and they were told there was a place called Australia and they were being sent there. They didn’t know how to do anything but farm, to raise sheep, and it went well. For some reason, they decided to change their name by dropping the Mc, and added an ‘s’, so became Colls.
‘It’s very sad that they were removed from their homes, and it’s amazing that I’ve come back home. In Australia, I’m not very good with the temperatures there, so coming back here is incredible – my skin was made for the Scottish weather!’
The pair have been working hard on restoring Kilmartin Castle, and Stef said: ‘We are really happy with it. There’s been so much blood, sweat and tears gone into it.’
Architectural planning started in 2017 and the restoration took seven months between January and July this year, working with Lorne Haycock of LH Architecture, Glasgow.
Simo added: ‘We’re not sure how to exactly categorise our concept – luxury B’n’B seems like the closest fit. We have five individually designed en-suite rooms, with all the feel and comfort of a world-class boutique hotel, but without the formality. Perhaps we are a “micro-boutique stay.”
‘Online communities like Airbnb and Instagram are changing travel, people want to experience the stories of smaller more intimate places and are moving away from large hotel chains and resorts. This movement is encouraging younger people to buy these castles, once considered “money pits” as viable business opportunities.’
Driven by their own experiences in luxury travel, Stef and Simo added: ‘We just want to offer travelers the kind of unique experience that we would really appreciate as travelers ourselves.’
The concept has a rustic-luxury style mixing old and new. Exposed aging walls, log fires, four-poster beds, deep copper tubs, antique handmade tiles and Klaus Haapeniemi wallpapers all sit harmoniously together alongside smart new bathrooms in nearly 500-year-old castle turrets.
Going to great lengths to preserve the buildings rustic charm, oak floorboards were carefully lifted to lay heating service pipes for radiators on the upper levels, a grandfather clock cleverly conceals the pipework running between floors and the original castle flagstone floors were meticulously lifted to neatly hide underfloor heating and then re-laid.
Simo said: ‘We were working with a team of skilled builders and we were their unskilled labour. If they told us they needed something taken upstairs, then we’d do it.’
Anything new was subject to a stringent selection process.
Stef explained: ‘We spent a lot of time doing product research, asking ourselves how materials will wear and patina? Will their design stand the test of time? Would they deserve a place in an antique shop themselves in 100 years? We avoided anything purely fashionable now.’
Championing quality local produce at their big table breakfasts, the couple plan to host pop-up dinners, foraging tours followed by cooking classes in the castle kitchen, a local farmers market in the grounds and even a castle comedy festival.
Having opened earlier this month, they’ve already had a great review: Judy Airbnb – ‘We love to travel and experience the world. We love staying in luxury spaces that offer something unique that we can hold onto in our treasure trove of memories. Stef & Simon have delivered this on the grandest scale. Thank you for sharing a piece of Scotland and the Campbell Clan’s history with us. We will never forget it.’
The couple were followed by Channel 4 for The Great Hotel Escape and are now open, taking bookings for bed and breakfast. Find out more at website: www.kilmartincastle.com