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Issue 16 - Thirlestane Castle - A border castle packed with surprises

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 16
September 2004


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Thirlestane Castle - A border castle packed with surprises

Charles Douglas visits Thirlestane in the Scottish Borders

The Maitland Family has been established in the Scottish Borders for centuries. William Maitland was secretary to Mary Queen of Scots, and his brother became Lord Chancellor of Scotland and 1st Baron Thirlestane. It was the Lord Chancellor in the 1580s who built his castle on the old Lauder Fort which for centuries had guarded the southern approaches to Edinburgh from England.

The Lord Chancellor’s son was created 1st Earl of Lauderdale in 1624, and his son, the 2nd Earl, became the 1st and only Duke of Lauderdale. A formidable man, the duke soon became a confidant of King Charles II and served as Secretary of State for Scotland from 1661 to 1680. It was he who instructed the architect Sir William Bruce to enlarge and decorate Thirlestane and, in doing so, to create a magnificent palace suitable for a man who, at the time, was the most important figure in Scotland.

By the 19th century, however, with large sporting parties a regular feature of the entertainment, there was a necessity to further enlarge Thirlestane. To this end, the architects David Bryce and William Burn were employed to design two large wings flanking the central keep.

The south wing was constructed around a central courtyard and housed new kitchens, with additional bedrooms for staff. More bedrooms were introduced in the north wing.

The undertaking was handled with great sensitivity to Bruce’s plan of two centuries earlier.

The towers of the new wings were designed to match the outer towers of the original keep, and the central tower raised, its roof flanked by a series of turrets with conical roofs. To fully appreciate the magnificence of the characterful castle/mansion house that was thus created, the visitor really needs to stand well back. The effort is truly worthwhile.

The Duke of Lauderdale was a powerful man. His second wife was the Countess of Dysart in her own right. The entrance to their principal Scottish home (they had several others including Ham House at Richmond, in England) was designed for impact. No-one could simply ride up to the front door. All had to dismount at the foot of the broad flight of steps leading to the great terrace.

Once inside, visitors are now welcomed through the hall into a panelled reception area with pink granite fireplace. Next is an antechamber created within the walls of the old keep by William Bruce and panelled in oak. The library has that wonderful country house feel so much beloved of the Victorians, and positioned above the bookcase are items from a Chinese porcelain collection, another great enthusiasm of country house dwellers. A billiard room was incorporated in the 18th century, and here are framed photographs taken in the early days of the 20th century by the 14th Earl of Lauderdale, a keen amateur photographer.

Thirlestane Castle boasts some of the finest restoration ceilings in existence. When William Bruce began his redevelopment work in the 17th century, he diverted craftsmen from the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse. The immensely impressive ceilings in the state rooms, as a result, are the creation of George Dunsterfield, an English plasterer, who was specially introduced to create them.

The ceiling of the duke’s room therefore features the ducal coronet in each corner and the Maitland crest in the centre. Items of interest in this room include a French desk of tortoiseshell inlaid with brass by Andre-Charles Boulle, Royal cabinet maker at Versaillies to Louis XIV of France.

The state bedroom has been restored and has on loan a magnificent early 19th century four-poster bed from Burleigh House in Lincolnshire. In the small room next door, Prince Charles Edward Stuart stayed after the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745. Although the Duke of Lauderdale died in England in 1682, the rooms above this are said to be haunted by his ghost and certainly his looming presence can often be sensed here.

Certainly one of the finest salons here is the spacious large drawing room, formed from two rooms during the 1840 reconstruction. The large carved over mantel mirrors dramatise the effect of the ceilings, and in the north wall, between these rooms, is a secret doorway behind which a spiral staircase leads to the bedrooms above. Two anterooms come next on the tour, the second, known as the Chinese room and featuring more items from the castle’s porcelain collection.

The dining room, with its Jacobean-style ceiling, is situated in the south of the two wings added by Burn and Bryce. Dominating this room is a collection of family portraits. The dining chairs were made for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball held in Brussels on the night before the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The castle’s main kitchens date from 1840, a time when a ton of coal was being burned every day and there was a resident staff of 40. Beyond are wet and dry laundries which have been recreated to show how these activities were carried out.

Thirlestane Castle is full of surprises, and one of the innovations introduced by its current owners is a collection of Edwardian, Victorian and Georgian toys in the old nurseries. Many of these are from Thirlestane, but the majority are from the collection of the late Mrs Marguerite Fawdry, owner of the Pollock’s Toy Museum in London. Housed around the old kitchen courtyard are also remarkable displays of country life from bygone days.

On a summer’s day, the exterior of Thirlestane Castle glows rose-pink in the soft sunlight, but when Captain the Hon. Gerald Maitland-Carew, younger son of the 6th Baron Carew, inherited the castle from his grandmother, the Countess of Lauderdale, he was faced with daunting repair
problems and formidably entrenched dry rot.

That was more than 30 years ago, and today, thanks to generous grant money and many skilled craftsmen, the castle has been restored to its former glory and is recognised as one of the great houses of Scotland. In 1982, Gerald gifted the main part of the castle into a charitable trust which was then endowed by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, with his own family continuing to own and live in the north wing of the castle. Thus a great treasure has been saved for the nation for the foreseeable future.

Thirlestane is truly a great experience to visit, especially with members of the Maitland family still very much in evidence.

Open daily, except on Saturdays, 10.30 to 4.30 until 30th September; last admission 3.30 pm.
Open at other times for pre-booked parties of over 30 persons.
Groups of under 30 persons can be accommodated subject to a minimum charge.
Thirlestane Castle Trust, Lauder,Berwickshire, Scotland TD2 6RU.
Tel: +44 (0)1578 722430;
Fax: +44(0)1578 722761.
Web :

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