How a couple turned a castle in Scotland into a luxury Airbnb

  • Stef Burgon and Simon Hunt have transformed a 16th century castle in Argyll, Scotland into an Airbnb.
  • The couple paid $463,000 for Kilmartin Castle and took 10 months to renovate it.
  • It now has five en-suite bedrooms and was voted the UK’s most desirable property at the Eviivo Awards.

In January 2014, Stef Burgon, then a British radio host, saw a classified ad for a castle in Scotland in a newspaper that immediately caught his eye. “He said you could buy a Scottish castle for the price of a car park in London,” she told Insider.

Burgon and her husband, Simon Hunt, an Australian creative director, had just returned home to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from a three-week road trip in Scotland, and they missed the green hills and lochs.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we call the realtor? ‘” Burgon said. From there, Hunt added, “it kind of got out of control.”

After taking out a mortgage and completing the paperwork, they bought the fairytale Kilmartin Castle in Argyll, Scotland in May 2015 for $463,000. “Our friends said, ‘You’re not buying this. Don’t be ridiculous, “and it made us want to do it more,” Hunt said.

Here’s how they transformed the dilapidated estate into an award-winning guesthouse.

Quitting their job to manage and renovate a castle

a castle in Scotland

Kilmartin Castle.

Simon Hunt and Stef Burgon

The 16th-century castle had been empty for 10 years when they discovered it, Burgon said. When they first got a good look at it, water was running down the back of the fireplace and the hanging pictures looked like they had melted into the walls. But the couple were not discouraged. “It looked shabby, but I felt like maybe all it needed was a lick of paint,” Burgon said.

They took three weeks off and returned to Scotland to help give it a facelift. They organized builders to fix the leaking roof. And when finished, at the end of the summer, they listed the renovated castle on Airbnb for $379 per night. They hired a local manager and immediately received reservations, they said.

A woman painting

Burgon under renovation.

Simon Hunt and Stef Burgon

“We traveled a lot and stayed at a lot of original Airbnbs. We were big fans,” Burgon said. “We haven’t announced it anywhere else.” But as the months passed, they received bill after bill for maintenance work on the creaky castle. They decided to save as much as they could, quit their jobs in Dubai, and run the castle as a full-time guesthouse.

They quit their jobs in the summer of 2018, traveled around Europe and returned to Scotland in January 2019, ready to make renovating the castle their full-time job. This time, instead of doing one-off works, they gave it a complete overhaul. The three-bedroom house with a shower has become five en-suite bedrooms with three bathrooms. The entire chateau now rents for around $2,200 a night.

“I would call it a restoration rather than a renovation, because we ripped it to the bones of the building and started over,” Hunt said.

One of the bedrooms at Kilmartin Castle, where the bed is tucked into a double-vaulted exposed stone ceiling.

The Snug, the smallest bedroom in the castle. The vaulted exposed stone roof has stood since its original construction in 1550.

Simon Hunt and Stef Burgon

None of them had renovated a property before. “The most I had done was sand a staircase,” Burgon said. But they were determined. They didn’t make it easy for themselves, as they also had a cameraman following them during renovations for a British TV show called “The Great Hotel Escape.”

Support builders throughout the process

a man who completes renovations in a red helmet

Hunting during the restoration.

Simon Hunt and Stef Burgon

Hunt and Burgon hired an architect and a team of builders, but to cut costs the couple worked for free as builders’ laborers. While the builders did the skilled work, the pair performed tasks such as carrying copper tubs up spiral staircases and carrying ceiling rafters to the top floor. “Builders would leave at night and say, ‘You have to pick up the trash from the top floor and take it to the landfill,'” Burgon said. “So we would throw him out the window, put him in the motorhome and drive him there. Then we had to clean the motorhome so we could sleep in it. It was a never-ending day for us.”

a stone hallway

A vestibule of the castle.

Simon Hunt and Stef Burgon

YouTube became their go-to resource for all the advice they needed for the renovation. The biggest job the couple undertook was lifting the original ground floor slabs. It took them six weeks to dig out the cumbersome stones so that the insulation and underfloor heating could be placed underneath.

During the 10 months of renovation, they faced many calamities including flooding midway through the project as there was no drainage around the castle. And all the purchases for their castle makeover didn’t make the trip in one piece: They soon forgot to receive a box of broken tiles when they saw all their bespoke heaters slip out of the truck’s tail lift. delivery and crashing to the ground.

But disasters have often turned into memorable moments. Once, when it looked like it would have to resort to modern-looking fire doors to comply with fire regulations, a team of craftsmen who built the doors of the Disneyland Paris castle proposed to create more authentic pieces. “We went way over budget,” Burgon said. “We wanted to incorporate fixtures and accessories that would stand the test of time.”

Dealing with pandemic closures

They welcomed their first guests after the renovation in a cozy chateau filled with luxurious touches. But three months after reopening their home to guests, COVID-19 hit and they had to close again. “We were closed for seven months and not allowed to leave,” Burgon said.

But rather than panic, they decided to boost their plans. “The banks gave you interest holidays and the government gave you enough money to survive,” Hunt said. They also eliminated a British government Ready Bounce, which was offered to small businesses during the pandemic. Businesses could borrow up to $63,000 at a low interest rate. “We did our 10-year plan for the castle in two years,” Hunt said.

They could not accommodate any guests during the quarantine, but they could work in their garden. So they called in a landscaper to Chelsea Flower Show to create the garden of their dreams.

“When you were driving into the castle, there was a big marshy field, which you couldn’t cross with normal shoes,” Burgon said. “Now there is an orchard with apple and pear trees, a raised lawn, a fire pit and a wild swimming pond.” Burgon also came up with the idea of ​​creating a giant nest for adults and children to sit in from the trimmings of their birches.

a pond in a castle in Scotland

The swimming pond.

Simon Hunt and Stef Burgon

They have also created a garden where they grow produce for breakfast. “We make homemade chutneys, which we put on the breakfast menu,” Burgon said. “We serve sourdough, labneh and roast beets from the garden, with pistachios and saffron honey.”

a man holding a basket of potatoes

Hunting in the garden.

Simon Hunt and Stef Burgon

Customers have since returned, and Burgon said occupancy was close to 90%. Since the relaunch, the castle has caught the eye of Hollywood director Ridley Scottwho booked the castle for his family on New Year’s Eve. It was a big moment for the couple, as was winning an award for being the UK’s hottest property in the Eviivo Awardconsidered the Oscar of independent hotels.

Fulfilling and lucrative work

a living room in a castle in Scotland

The Great Hall.

Simon Hunt and Stef Burgon

While they started with $10,400 in savings to spend on renovations, Burgon and Hunt said they ended up spending $521,000. But it was worth it. “We earn more now than when we were in corporate positions,” Burgon said.

“We feel like we’ve had builders’ apprenticeships to build the castle,” Hunt said. “I feel like we could do another project now almost on our own thanks to what we’ve learned.”

Today, when they’re not preparing breakfast for their guests or serving wine and cheese platters, they spend the day strolling the hillsides or taking a boat trip along the coast. .

“One of my favorite times is breakfast, when people are gathered around the table,” Burgon said. “That’s the best thing – hearing laughter and seeing the castle come to life.”

Are you an Airbnb host who wants to share your story? Email Lauryn Haas at [email protected].

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