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Issue 2 - Jewel in the crown - Culzean Castle

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 2
June 2002


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Jewel in the crown - Culzean Castle

One of Robert Adam's finest creations, Culzean is a historic monument with much more up its sleeve than a pretty face and nice gardens

Magnificent and spectacular, the great castle of Culzean presides in clifftop majesty over the waters of the Firth of Clyde on the south-west coast of Scotland. Built in the late 18th century by the architect Robert Adam for the 10th Earl of Cassilis, this most splendid of Scottish dwellings occupies the site of an ancient fortified house dating from the 15th century. Adam’s achievement was to transform what was, in effect, only a strategically placed mediaeval stronghold into a palace to symbolise the triumphant achievements of the Kennedies of Carrick.

The Kennedies appeared in the Carrick region of Ayrshire as early as the 13th century, descendants of a chief from the Western Isles during the reign of King Malcolm II of Scotland. In 1263, for supporting King Alexander III against the Viking invasion fleet at the Battle of Largs, they were granted the castle and lands of Dunure, south west of Ayr. Following this, it was not long before they established themselves as the most powerful family in the south-west of Scotland.

In a much later generation, one of their number, James of Dunure, married Princess Mary, daughter of King Robert III and widow of the first Earl of Angus, and in 1475, their son, a great influence at the Court, was created Lord Kennedy. The youngest of his sons became a renowned poet, and his grand-daughter Janet became the mistress of King James IV.
The Kennedies continued to be loyal to the Royal House of Stewart and in 1509, the third Lord Kennedy was created Earl of Cassilis, later dying with many of his clansmen fighting against the English at the Battle of Flodden, when every family in Scotland lost a loved one. The second Earl was murdered, and the third Earl poisoned in Dieppe where he had been sent to negotiate the marriage of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots to the Dauphin of France. The 4th Earl, although he died in his bed, is best remembered for having roasted the Commendator of Crossraguel Abbey on a spit in an attempt to acquire Abbey lands. All taken into account this was one of Scotland’s most turbulent dynasties.

When the eighth Earl died, the titles passed to his cousin, Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean and it was his brother David, 10th Earl of Cassilis, who commissioned Robert Adam to rebuild the house at Culzean as his principal seat.
Again the title was to pass to a kinsman, and it was his son, the 12th Earl, a close confidant of Prince William, Duke of Clarence, who was created first Marquess of Ailsa on his friend’s accession to the British throne.

Today Culzean Castle has become the jewel in the crown of the National Trust for Scotland, having been made over to that organisation by the 5th Marquess of Ailsa in 1945. Set in 565 acres, there is a magnificent walled garden, a camellia house and aviary, and in 1973, the grounds were designated Scotland’s first countryside park.

When the Ailsa family moved into their present home, Cassilis, near Maybole, many of the original furnishings of Culzean went with them. Over the years, however, furniture and pictures have been acquired, treasures made over to Her Majesty’s Treasury in lieu of death duties, gifts and loans.

So what we have today is a lavishly impressive visitor attraction featuring some of Robert Adam’s most imaginative and elaborate interiors. Caringly restored by the National Trust for Scotland, Culzean Castle and grounds each year attracts thousands of visitors, and more recently it has been possible to apply to stay overnight in one of the bedrooms.
On entering the castle today, the visitor is confronted by a magnificent display of armoury – weapons issued to the West Lowland Fencible Regiment in the early 19th century and items purchased from the Tower of London.

The room known as The Old Eating Room occupies the actual ground space area of the original keep. The ceiling is ornate with three roundels painted by Antonio Zucchi and this room was obviously intended for dining, although it is now furnished as a family sitting room. The dining room actually has a ceiling designed by Robert Adam, but recreated with the original 18th century colour scheme.

The Oval Staircase with its Corinthian and Ionic columns is undoubtedly a masterpiece, as is the Saloon where immediately below the windows lies a drop of 150 feet, the waves breaking against the rocks of the Firth of Forth. The view encompasses the Mull of Kintyre and Arran and, to the north, the hills at the estuary of Loch Fyne.

Once again, as is also the case in the anteroom, Adam’s original colour scheme has been re-created. Here there is a fine portrait of Sir Thomas Kennedy (1549 – 1602) who was implicated in the murder of Kennedy of Bargany and was in turn murdered himself.

A copy of a hand-blocked Chinese wallpaper was chosen for Lord Cassilis’s bedroom and a simple moire paper used in the adjacent Dressing Room. There is an impressive portrait of Susanna, Countess of Eglinton, daughter of Sir Thomas, by Gavin Hamilton. The First Drawing Room as it is called, with its anteroom, again has the original colour schemes. In 1976, the Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company was commissioned to weave the stylish blue damask for the wall coverings.
The Picture Room was once the High Hall of the old house. The roundels depicting Apollo and the Muses are by the Italian painter Antonio Zucchi. The next room, the State Bedroom, boasts a marble chimney piece originally located in the Dining Room. It is decorated with library figures, classical figures and globes at each end.

In 1973, the farm buildings were opened as the Home Farm Shop which incorporates a shop, restaurant and rangers’ offices. An interesting interpretation centre shows the life and times of Culzean Castle, illustrating its development from a simple tower house to the present day.

In 1946, in recognition of his services to Britain during the Second World War, President Eisenhower of the USA was presented with the lifetime use of a flat within the castle. An exhibition traces the General’s career and his associations with the castle.

Culzean Castle: pronounced 'kulian', it is open April to October 10.30am - 5pm. Call +44 (0) 1655 884455 for information.

For further information on National Trust for Scotland properties, call + 44 (0) 131 243 9300.