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Issue 27 - Royalty's sporting headquarters

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 27
June 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Royalty's sporting headquarters

Charles Douglas visits Traquair House which, it is sometimes claimed, is the oldest inhabited house in Scotland

The lands of Traquair were once part of a royal hunting forest and, over the centuries, Traquair House has played host to 27 kings on sporting excursions into the rich forests of Ettrick and Lauderdale.

Long ago, there were bears, wild cats, wolves and boars in large quantities to be found. Although no written confirmation exists, it can be assumed that a house of sorts existed long before King Alexander I stayed here in 1107 and granted Traquair a Royal Charter.

In the 15th century, King James III gifted these lands in turn to a number of his favourites, but latterly to his half-brother, the Earl of Buchan. Thereafter they passed to Buchan’s natural son, James Stuart, ancestor of the present owner.

Located in the lush, rolling hills of Peeblesshire, the old fortress stands today a quarter of a mile from where the River Tweed winds its leisurely course through pastoral meadowland towards the tiny town of Innerleithen.

Once that lovely river passed so close to the house that, it was said, the Laird could fish from his windows, but when the front of the house was re-modeled, the course of the river was altered to prevent flooding.

Enlargements to the original keep had already begun when James Stuart of Traquair died fighting with his king against the English at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

In 1599, his grandson, Sir William Stuart, created the main house as we see it today, extending the existing buildings southwards and adding the steep slated roof and dormer windows. The low two-storey wings, ornamental wrought-iron gateway, and screen which enclosed the courtyard, date from the 17th century.

In 1633, Sir John Stuart, 7th Laird, was created Lord Stuart of Traquair, then 1st Earl of Traquair by Charles I. He soon became Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, but his loyal support of his king was to lose him everything and he died in poverty in 1659.

The 2nd Earl fought alongside his father in the civil wars, and both were taken prisoner at the Battle of Preston. The 4th and 5th earls became dedicated Jacobites (supporters of the royal line of Stuart). The latter was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years. A reminder of this time at Traquair is embodied in the ‘bear’ entrance gates, also known as ‘the steekit yetts,’ which stand at the end of a tree flanked avenue.

These gates were closed following a visit from Prince Charles Edward Stuart on an autumn day in 1745. It was pronounced that they would not be opened again until a Stuart is returned to the British throne, and they have not been opened since.

The 7th Earl, who lived mostly abroad, was succeeded by his son who, leaving no heir, passed the inheritance to his sister who died in 1875 aged 100. Thereafter, the estate passed to a cousin, Henry Constable Maxwell of Terregles, a son of the 10th Lord Herries, and it was he who added the Stuart name to his own.

One of the great attractions of Traquair House for visitors is that it is still very much a family home, the atmosphere relaxed and, in the words of one visiting writer, “care worn.” The front door has an elaborate wrought-iron knocker dated 1705 incorporating the reverse monograms of the 4th Earl and his wife, Lady Mary Maxwell. At the foot of the main stair is a carved oak door dating from 1630 and brought here from Terregles House in Dumfriesshire. The design incorporates two animals locked in combat: the Scottish unicorn and the English lion.

In the front hall there is a row of Georgian servant bells above the oak armorial which commemorates a visit from Mary Queen of Scots in 1566, and displays the Royal Arms of Scotland.

Below this hangs a copy of the warrant to execute Mary in 1587.

On her visit, Queen Mary spent the night in the King’s Room and is said to have slept in the magnificent state bed which has yellow hangings.

At the foot of the bed is the cradle she used for her infant son, later King James VI of Scotland and I of England.

In the Museum Room, there is a wall painting discovered in 1900 under wallpaper and dated around 1530. It shows a hound and a dromedary, probably copied from a contemporary book. The 18th century library carries some 3,000 volumes.

Each book carries the Traquair bookplate and has printed on its spine an exact indication of its corresponding shelf and place number. Two globes, celestial and terrestrial, are 18th century.

The ceiling cove contains paintings of busts of classical authors copied by the Edinburgh artist James West in 1823.

In the Sitting Room, or Still Room, there is a substantial display of porcelain which includes famille-rose c.1760. In the High Drawing Room are family portraits – Lady Isobel and Lady Jane Seton by Comelius Jansen, and of Christian Anstruther, wife of the 6th Earl.

The family were ardent Catholics, and had their own chapel which features 12 16th century Flemish oak carvings. Queen Mary’s rosary and crucifix can be seen here, along with a 14th century illuminated psalter. There is a secret staircase which allowed priests to escape at the time of the Reformation, and was later used by fugitive Jacobites.

Another major visitor attraction is the Traquair House Brewery founded in 1965 by Peter Maxwell Stuart, 20th Laird of Traquair. Since his death in 1990, it has been managed by his daughter Catherine Maxwell Stuart, the 21st Laird, and currently produces around 600-700 barrels of Traquair Ale per annum.

This summer’s Traquair Fair takes place in the grounds of the estate between August 5 and 6, but for a tour of the house it would be best to go either before or afterwards as the Fair is very popular.

Traquair House is a special place with a special charm, and well worth a visit.