Home renovations are exciting creative endeavors as well as huge labor-intensive projects. Though each one is distinct, some of the most fascinating processes involve expanding the boundaries of what the meaning of "home" is. Not all renovations are simply a house after all.
In this series, This Is Home, we're sharing unique houses from all around the world in which everyone from DIY enthusiasts to design experts has transformed an unexpected space into one that's not only livable but design-focused, too. These stories delve into the backgrounds of remarkable places, the processes, and all the challenges and wins along the way while making a home out of it, whether it's a barn, castle, cabin, or schoolhouse. No matter what, they're spaces that people call home.
Living in a castle is not restricted to the pages of a history book. At least, not for Stef Burgon and Simon Hunt, who took a Scottish castle and transformed it into a bed and breakfast that still feels like you're living amongst royalty without compromising on access to modern-day comforts (like electric heaters and running water). While the husband and wife team was living in warm and sunny Dubai, they began hatching a plan that would take them to the misty and mystical countryside of Scotland.
"It all started whilst on holiday, that’s usually where all our big life-changing decisions are made, sitting at a cafe on a terrace somewhere tends to be the setting of our impromptu life meetings," says Hunt. They were starting to feel tired of their jobs and the itch for a new adventure was getting harder to ignore. "We traveled a lot for fun and work, and spent a lot of time researching interesting places to stay, finding that the smaller, more intimate and more remote the place was the happier we would be! It turned out the idea of creating some kind of boutique experience stay together was one we both shared." In January of 2014, they took a trip to Scotland and everything changed.
"When we traveled around Scotland we were always so mesmerized by all these awesome rambling medieval castle ruins, but then when we’d find a castle hotel to stay in it would be disappointing; castle vibes on the outside but boring modern hotel room interior on the inside," says Hunt. The fantastic stonework was often covered with paint, the character was obliterated, and most had "horrifically modern bathrooms." He adds that "you’ll never be so offended by a white ceramic basin and chrome tap set than in a 600-year-old castle."
The couple wondered why the best parts of a castle couldn't be balanced out with modern updates. Rather than being forever befuddled by these painfully modern estates, they had a chance to test their theory of preservation meets renovation when they came across Kilmartin Castle for sale. The large stone fortress was built around 1550 for a Scottish bishop named John Carswell.
"It was a Southern outpost of the much larger Kilchurn Castle, positioned to guard over the entrance of Kilmartin Glen," explains Burgon. "It was a ruin for nearly 200 years until the 1980s when a couple of farmer castle enthusiasts restored it using only the stone that had fallen from the building." She notes that the stonework had stood the test of time, and the building was outfitted with "barrel-vaulted rooms and hallways, three adorable rounded princess turrets, and arrow slits and musket loops everywhere." The inside was a slightly different story, and the '80s interior style was in need of major care and repair.
When it comes to renovations, finances are often a bit murky. It's easy to dream about redoing a home, but where does the funding come from? How much does it really take? The couple was extremely transparent about how they tackled costs and put everything they had behind their renovation, from using all of their personal savings accounts to selling their car. And although you can try to budget, surprises never fail to show up.
Instead of jumping right into renovating, Burgon and Hunt decided to get married in the castle in 2016 (who wouldn't take that opportunity?). Unfortunately, the "'extra flow' from our friends over four days of solid festivities ruined the basic septic system," noted Hunt, which led to a hefty $4,000 fix. That same year, several other major maintenance bills popped up and they needed to regroup.
"We decided (while in a cafe) we needed to move out of our rented apartment in Dubai and into the free rent spare room of our awesome friends Will and Britt," says Burgon. "The deal was that we would look after their dogs while they traveled so they didn’t need to pay for doggy boarding. An AWESOME deal! It was actually a really fun time, we’d practice breakfast recipes on them, and all discuss together the castle floor plans that were getting drawn up by our architects." They also took the time to take stock of their life savings and assets, which gave them a good idea of what they could sell and use to fund the reno.
"[We took] the sale of Simon’s house in Australia, our individual savings, selling our car, how much we could borrow from the banks and compared it all with the quotes we had from builders," explains Burgon. "Amazingly we could just do it, we could just scrape through... So we decided then and there based on a rough sum scribbled on the back of a napkin that we’d both quit our jobs in June that year. That was it, wheels were in motion!"
They were not going to rush the process either and deck out the castle with quick buys and furniture that didn't fit the atmosphere. For the best outcome, they purchased a camper van and did "an epic antiques hunting road trip adventure." While the storage unit carrying all their personal belongings from Dubai to the UK ended up falling into the ocean, they managed to still have fun driving around and sourcing items—with a furry friend, of course. "Frank our cat came along for the European journey with his pet passport and loved it."
Renovating a house is no small thing, but a historic structure presents a whole range of other challenges. Unsurprisingly, there aren't as many online videos and extensive guides on tackling turrets or putting in heating for a 16th-century castle. Hunt and Burgon wanted to preserve its look and were also dedicated to doing the work as sustainably as possible, too.
They acquired quite a few new skills along the way, especially when it came to flooring. "We ended up lifting the entire original flagstone floor ourselves," says Hunt. "An amazing suggestion early on by our builder. We went and purchased a 60-pound SDS hammer drill from B&Q and set about carefully lifting about 250 flagstones—it took eight weeks, with the heaviest stone probably weighing as much as a human. But this work allowed us to lay waterproofing, insulation, plumbing, electrics, and modern underfloor heating, then the original flagstones back down in exactly the same pattern."
By doing this, they were able to camouflage all the modern tech and fixtures behind the structure's surface. "Now the castle is transformed into a cozy warm space and there are no visible radiators against the stone walls, so it feels even more original."
Money was also tight and it was a challenge to find more streams of funding and borrowing. Other difficulties arose when they came across advice and professionals who weren't on the same page when it came to preservation. Most had the outlook of saving money at the expense of building damage. "The quick and cheap way is never the best for a building like this," says Burgon. "We felt out of our depth so often, but soon found our way thanks to endless Google research and Youtube! It's great that we had each other through the process."
Their Herculean efforts paid off, and the bookable B&B has successfully retained its castle appearance and atmosphere while still providing a comfortable and stylish place to stay. The two describe the space as "rustic luxe," which wasn't an easy style to perfect. They focused on choosing luxurious fixtures, appliances, and hardware that really stood out so the castle didn't merely present as just rustic.
As mentioned, they didn't simply shop at big box retailers or place a ton of online orders, they looked locally. Many of the pieces featured throughout the rooms come from Scottish artisans and craftspeople. For instance, they commissioned pottery for the bathroom and selected unlacquered taps that would patina over time. The door handles were made by a local blacksmith and much of the tile was reclaimed. Each room is cohesive and grounded, featuring warm color palettes and plenty of cozy tweed, but there is a playful pop of color here and there, too.
Sustainability was (and still is) key for them as well. They've worked hard to get rid of single-use plastics and have implemented refillable containers. The walls have been coated in non-toxic lime paint and their own garden produces a good portion of the items found on their breakfast menu. This conscious effort to consider the environment and the original state of the castle makes this renovation feel all the more important. It's hard work, but it has its fun parts, too.
"It’s pretty fun to live in a real-life castle; occasionally we’ll block out booking days for a birthday and invite a bunch of friends over for a three-day eating, partying, and dancing sleepover," says Hunt. "The perks of being your own boss and owning your own tiny hotel."
They've also finally achieved the castle bathrooms of their dreams—no more terribly modern designs in an old worldly fortress. "We’ve never found a bathroom experience that we’ve loved as much as ours," says Hunt. "An entire turret shower room with underfloor heating is hard to beat." They also curated a gorgeous space outside that guests and visitors can utilize. "One of our favorite spaces is our outdoor area that we built during the Covid lockdown," says Burgon. "It has a wild swimming pool, outdoor BBQ kitchen, and fire pit. It’s just the most fun place to be on a sunny day. We love it."
The contrast of the immense challenges and financial burdens against the fantastic celebrations and perks of castle life may be too much for some people to handle, but not for these two. When asked if another renovation was in the cards they answered with a resounding "Hell YES!" and were certainly eager to take on more. "This project crushed us at times, but it is one of the singular most personally rewarding projects we’ve ever completed, as well as being our opportunity to get out of the corporate game and be our own bosses. We’ve achieved the kind of rewarding work-life balance that we’d only ever dreamed of. (While on holiday, life-scheming in a cafe)."