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‘The steps are lethal!’ Ageing Alford aristocrat wins battle to install lift at historic castle home

Terpersie Castle dates back centuries, and its owner had to battle to secure permission for changes to ensure she could still live at the unique abode.

The steps at Terpersie Castle pose a danger to its elderly owner.
The steps at Terpersie Castle pose a danger to its elderly owner. Image: Kirstie Forbes-Sempill/Gerry Robb architects

Kirstie Forbes-Sempill loves her Terpersie Castle home “with an ill-disguised passion”.

The blueblooded Aberdeenshire pensioner, due to turn 80 soon, has spent her whole life living in the sort of place most of us would plan a Sunday outing around.

She grew up in Craigievar Castle, outside Alford, before it became public property in the 1960s.

Craigievar Castle was a family home until about 60 years ago. Image: DC Thomson

Since 2011, she has lived nearby at the 463-year-old Terpersie Castle.

But for the past few years, she has been locked in a battle with the authorities over her plans for an extension and lift designed to ensure she can remain there.

The aristocrat told us how “determined” she was to continue living at the 16th Century tower house.

We covered the wrangle in December 2022. Image: Clarke Cooper/DC Thomson

But she faced the prospect of moving out after Aberdeenshire Council refused her proposal.

Battle over extension went to the highest level

In a bid to have the local ruling overturned, she asked the Scottish Government to intervene more than a year ago.

Holyrood officials have finally given her their blessing to carry out the improvements.

And now the 79-year-old has lifted the lid on her campaign to retain her home – and told us all about life at Terpersie Castle…

A row over an extension at Terpersie Castle will go to Holyrood
Plans for the extension at Terpersie Castle near Alford have finally been approved. Image: Gerry Robb architects

Who is Kirstie Forbes-Sempill?

The hardy noblewoman’s full title is The Honorable Kirstine Daranyi Forbes-Sempill.

But she goes by Kirstie.

The peer, who is the daughter of the 19th Lord Sempill, grew up in Craigievar Castle back when it was still the seat of Clan Sempill.

After living in similarly historic properties over the years, she bought Terpersie Castle in 2011.

Terpersie Castle is a bit more humble than the Craigievar building the owner grew up in. Image: Kirstie Forbes-Sempill

The Tullynessle site is just eight miles from where she grew up at Craigievar.

What were the extension plans for Alford castle?

At present, the castle has just one main room on each floor with steps leading to bedrooms in the two towers.

This leaves Kirstie nervously ascending a narrow spiral staircase with a loose rope handrail to the master bedroom on the top floor.

She tells us that her desire was simply to “make the building more habitable in today’s world”.

Here is how the ground floor will look once the extension is added. Image: Gerry Robb architects
And this shows the first floor, with the new extension. Image: Gerry Robb architects

This would be achieved by building an extension, with a living room on the bottom floor and bedroom and bathroom upstairs.

It would have a “tiny lift hidden in a cupboard” to take her to her bedroom.

The lift is required to avoid her having to use the stone spiral staircase, which she describes in daunting fashion…

Scroll back and forth to see how the Alford castle extension will look:

“The stairs are uneven, steep and lethal,” she tells the P&J.

“I tell visitors that if they fall on either staircase, it is not the doctor I would invoke but the undertaker!

“It is a novel home perhaps for a romantically inclined couple, but certainly not for the elderly – like myself.”

A staircase in Terpersie Castle. Image: Kirstie Forbes-Sempill
The owner often warns visitors about the steps. Image: Kirstie Forbes-Sempill

‘I was afraid I might have to move’

And if the proposed work was prohibited, she would reluctantly have had to bid farewell to her beloved home.

Kirstie says: “I was afraid I may have had to move somewhere easier to live in… I am about to be 80.”

A historic drawing of Terpersie in years past. Image: Gerry Robb Architects

She added: “I am not in the least faint hearted, I have lived in buildings like this all my life.

“But I am very determined and, last but not least, love Terpersie with an ill-disguised passion.”

It was with this passion that she fought to overturn the council’s ruling.

What are the challenges in living at 16th century castle?

The property had been on the market for three years before its current owner moved in.

There were fears that, should Kirstie have to vacate Terpersie, it could spend years crumbling into ruin.

The castle became abandoned in 1885 and spent almost 100 years as a ruin before being restored as a grand home. Image: Gerry Robb architects

She tells us it is “not a suitable home for a family with small children”, and the efforts involved with its upkeep would limit its appeal to a “niche market”.

The “horrendous” heating costs could deter many, with log stoves “meaning constant hard work carrying wood up the stairs”.

She continues: “There is no gas nor oil.

“I feel strongly that her future would eventually be compromised by her tiny dimensions, mean and steep staircases, and steps either up or down on every floor.

“She would inevitably slowly deteriorate.

“Without heating and ventilation, the unforgiving Aberdeenshire climate would kiss her walls with mildew very rapidly.

“I heat her a little all the year round. Not many would be so indulgent I fear.”

So why did the council turn down Kirstie’s castle plans?

Despite the emotive pleas, historians called for the building to remain untouched.

As a structure with a rectangular middle block and towers at opposite corners, Terpersie is one of the earliest known “Z-plan” manor houses,

Historic Environment Scotland argued this makes it a treasure which should not be modernised. They slammed the “detrimental impact” of the extension.

Another design image showing the extension plans for the Alford castle. Image: Gerry Robb architects

And the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland said Terpersie Castle is a “textbook example par excellence” and a “perfectly comfortable house”.

Member William Brogden, suggested a stair-lift could be fitted and live-in help hired instead “if immobility should ever strike the owner”.

Why did government expert back Alford castle extension?

Towards the end of 2022, the Press and Journal reported that an appeal had been lodged with the Scottish Government.

And a top official was sent to the castle to inspect the plans in February 2023.

Finally, this month, the verdict has been published in a 13-page report.

Reporter Trevor Croft acknowledged it was a “finely balanced issue”, with “well argued views” for and against the changes.

The Alford castle extension plans have finally been approved. Image: Gerry Robb architects

But Mr Croft added: “In my opinion the applicant has gone to significant lengths to produce a proposal that reflects the history of the castle in a modern interpretation.

“I attach significant weight to the need of the applicant to adapt the castle to provide modern living conditions that would enable less able people to continue living there.

“At the same time it would provide a more secure future for the property, thus safeguarding its interest as an A-listed structure.”

Do you think the government was right to overrule the council? Let us know in our comments section below

Why does Kirstie Forbes-Sempill love Terpersie Castle so much?

Kirstie refers to the castle as a “she”, like a sailor would a beloved boat, and even sees the positives in occasionally being surrounded by “oceans of mud”.

The owner continues: “She has great charm and if one likes a small, old and idiosyncratic home, she is perfect.

“She is surrounded on three sides by a very active farm which you drive through to get to her.

“This generates oceans of mud in wet weather. I regard this as my “moat” and some may certainly be put off by such.

“There is, I suspect, no shortage of those who fancy living in a castle but the majority are put off by the complexities of doing so.”

Another vintage view of the property. Image: Gerry Robb architects

While she would “ideally” like the work started “tomorrow” the Aberdeenshire blueblood reckons construction might not be possible until the end of the year.

Kirstie also made sure to thank her Aboyne architects Gerry and Adam Robb, and planning consultants Aurora for being her “extra artillery” in “the maze that is necessary for a Grade A listed building”.

You can see the plans here.