Working At A Castle in Scotland
Downton Abbey in the twenty-first century — behind the scenes in a traditional Scottish castle
When Josephine Rombouts moves with her family from Holland to the west coast of Scotland she jumps at the opportunity of a job as housekeeper at the local castle. Unhampered by any knowledge of housekeeping or of the British elite, she miraculously manages to stay afloat in her new surroundings where she finds herself confronted with English landowners, French cooks, Scottish independence, local roofers, a ghost, and a serious amount of etiquette.
Looking for a change in lifestyle — and a greater change is barely conceivable — Rombouts leaves a busy Dutch city with her husband and two young sons hoping to settle in the beautiful Scottish Highlands. Neither she nor her partner has a job lined up but before long the author has been hired by the chatelaine of Cliffrock Castle for a trial period. The estate manager warns her that however sympathetic the Lady may seem, ‘You must keep your proper distance.’
Drawing all her instructions from an antiquated book she discovers in a turret bedroom — The Butler’s Guide to Clothes Care, Managing the Table, Running the Home & Other Graces — Rombouts soon realizes that working in a castle will require more than just some simple cleaning. With humour and incisive observational skills, she describes a micro-culture whose continuing existence is almost unthinkable in today’s world.
Tables lain with a yardstick, the strict rules for wearing tweed, where to offer a plumber a cup of tea, uncomplaining employees whose gardens are suddenly cut in half by a deer fence — she is often amazed and has to learn fast.
As a pragmatic, direct Dutch woman Rombouts tries to get to the bottom of many unwritten social codes and nuances she never could have dreamed of in the egalitarian Netherlands. After a while she starts to understand what is at play: the privileges and restrictions of class, complex social dynamics, boarding school syndrome. Soon she has learned about ‘making oneself scarce’ and the best way to discreetly refer to a dog poo in the parlour.
‘I found it a brilliant piece of theatre, where you are mindful of all considerations. As long as you’re in the play waving your duster it’s fun; if you don’t play along the gilt wears off ‘, the author said in an interview.
Scotland’s desolate and rugged nature forms an attractive and sometimes treacherous backdrop to experiences which, beyond a career in castle upkeep, lead the author to form closer connections with the people around her, including the chatelaine who steps into the breach when one of Rombout’s children becomes seriously ill.