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Issue 14 - A touch of madness

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


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A touch of madness

Charles Douglas visits Haddo House, home to some colourful people

Haddo House is a magnificent 18th century palladian mansion designed in the north east of Scotland by the architect William Adam for William Gordon, 2nd Earl of Aberdeen. It was built on the site of the Gordon family’s former tower house, Kellie Castle, and was the marvel of its time, although in the centuries that followed it has always remained a welcoming family home.

In her memoirs, Mary Welfare, adopted daughter of the 4th Marquess of Aberdeen, remembered singing in its corridors.

“It often seemed that everyone wanted to join in and share our childhood,” she wrote, likening the experience to living in a mad boarding house.

But then the Gordons were an extraordinary family, and some of them were just a little mad. The earliest record of the name in Scotland appears in the late 12th century and is connected with the Parish of Gordon in Berwickshire. By the end of the next century they had moved to Aberdeenshire with the senior line emerging as Earls of Huntly.

Through marriage and purchase, however, another offshoot acquired the lands of Methlick, Haddo and Kellie, upon which they built their first stronghold, Kellie Castle.

In the 17th century, John Gordon, a staunch Royalist, fought for Charles I against the Covenanters. When he eventually surrendered, he was executed for treason and Kellie Castle burned to the ground.

His son, however, made a spectacular comeback, becoming Lord High Chancellor of Scotland in 1682 and 1st Earl of Aberdeen. He was succeeded by his fourth son, William, who became 2nd Earl of Aberdeen.

No wonder the aristocracy has a reputation for incest. The 2nd Earl married three times, first to the daughter of the Earl of Leven & Melville, second to a daughter of the Duke of Atholl, and third, to a daughter of the Duke of Gordon. It was he who commissioned William Adam’s creation of Haddo House in the 1730s.

He died in 1745 and was succeeded again by a fourth son, William, who, aged 23, had visited a pub in Yorkshire and been so taken by the cook, Catherine Hanson, that he indulged in somewhat more than her cuisine.

On a subsequent visit, she confronted him with pistols and persuaded him to marry her. Although he soon established himself with other mistresses, he had five children by Catherine and lived to be almost 80.

Sadly his eldest son, Lord Haddo, was killed killed in a riding accident at Gight Castle, the ancestral home of their cousin, the poet Lord Byron, described by one of his many mistresses, Lady Carline Lamb, as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

There might not have been much in the way of money in the coffers for the 12-year old 4th Earl when he inherited the title, but there was a great deal of influence to fall back on.

Such was his father’s popularity, that his godfathers were William Pitt, the British prime minister, and Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, who through his political power north of the Border had become known as the “uncrowned King of Scotland.”

Pitt and Melville served their godson well, seeing to his education at Harrow and Cambridge, and at the age of 23 he was sent off to France where he dined with Napoleon.

He soon became a friend of the Duke of Wellington and entering politics, served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In 1852, Queen Victoria approached him to become her Prime Minister.

Like all Gordons, the 4th Earl had prolific marriages. His first wife bore him four children, his second, five. Additions were made to Haddo House by Archibald Simpson, with landscaping of the grounds by James Giles. He lived to be 76 and died in 1860.

The 7th Earl, his great-grandson, also had an impressive career in politics, but as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Governor General of Canada, and Viceroy of Ireland. In 1880, it was he who commissioned a new ground-floor entrance hall and staircases on the west front of Haddo House.

In 1916, he was created 1st Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair. By 1872, the Aberdeen family lands had grown to 75,000 acres, including a mile of the River Dee in West Aberdeenshire and salmon netting rights at its mouth. However, over the next 60 years the estate shrank rapidly to 15,000 acres.

The problems of maintaining such a property in the 20th century were becoming apparent and in 1974, the 4th Marquess began negotiations with the National Trust for Scotland and Grampian Regional Council.

Five years later Haddo House and grounds were officially opened to the public.

Entering through the oak-panelled entrance hall, visitors can enjoy the inset scenes representing Aesop’s Fables, by Aberdonian artist John Russell. The staircase is dominated by a portrait of Lord Haddo (1764-91).

A large group portrait by Sir George Hayter shows the three daughters of the 4th Earl. At the top of the stair is Madame Canziani’s idyllic painting of the 1st Marquess’ two sons seated in a potato filled wheelbarrow.

The former entrance hall is now known as the Ante-Room. A marble bust of Queen Victoria was presented by the Queen herself.

There is a romantic portrait of the 4th Earl as a young man by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and other portraits here are of his contemporaries – William Pitt the Younger, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington. A George II silver table inlaid with brasswork stands next to the fireplace.

A staircase leads to the principal bedroom, and in the square which forms an anteroom to these, there are marble busts of the family by Sir Francis Chantry.

Queen Victoria visited Haddo in 1857, and the four-poster bed in which she slept retains the original simple hangings. The Brussels loop carpet is an exact copy of the one supplied in 1880. Next is the morning room, divided into three and marked in Adam’s original plan as the family bedroom with a separate staircase to the nursery. The drawing room remains the same as it appeared in 1880.

The piano, an early Broadwood, was a gift from the 4th Earl to his daughter-in-law, whose portrait hangs on the opposite wall.

Plasterwork in the dining room is Adam Revival, and much of it is fabricated from papier-mâché. The room is hung with family portraits and the table is laid with silver, china and glass. The silver ice buckets were made for the 4th Earl by Philip Rundel in 1882.

There is so much more to see in this great house – the China room, the library with the 4th Earl’s Greek and Latin texts, the premier’s suite lobby with its fine portraits, the chapel, the Gordon room, the Giles room and the Lower North Quadrant.

The National Trust for Scotland is to be congratulated. At Haddo House there is still that feeling of it still being a family home, yet on the grand scale from a bygone age. The ghosts of the past are never far from sight.

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