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Issue 31 - A private palace

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007


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A private palace

Charles Douglas visits Falkland Palace in Fife, former home to the Stuart kings as well as a peculiar form of tennis

The Royal House of Stuart took possession of the estate of Falkland and its earldom in 1371, when the last Countess of Fife made it over to her brother-in-law Robert Stuart, Duke of Albany, brother of Robert III.

In 1402, David, Duke of Rothesay, heir to Robert III, died mysteriously while staying with his uncle, who, when his other nephew was caught and held prisoner in England, became Governor of Scotland. It was generally believed that Albany had contrived David’s death in order to place his own son on the Scottish throne, added to which he made little effort to liberate James.

However, after James I was released to return to Scotland in 1424, Albany and his son were executed for treason, and his property, including Falkland, passed to the Crown. In 1451, James II built an extension to Falkland, and eight years later gifted the castle to his queen, Mary of Gueldres. Seven years later, the town was made a royal burgh, and the castle was given palace status.

James III spent much of his childhood here, but it was his son, James IV, who took a real interest in improving the facilities and built the south range.

The style was very much of its time, rudimentary Gothic, but then along came James V. Having recently returned from a visit the French Court in 1537, he had seen just how successfully Italian Renaissance style could be blended with French castellated Gothic.

His architect, Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, was instructed with the understanding that all of the craftsmen employed should be either French or French trained. The result was the exquisite Renaissance ornament on the courtyard facade of the south range.

It should be appreciated, however, that Falkland was essentially only a country retreat for the Stuarts, used primarily for the practice of falconry, and hunting of deer and wild boar in the forests of Fife. Away from Dunfermline, Linlithgow and Holyrood, it was remote from Court life and a place of escape, hence James V, already ill from his defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss, dying here in 1542, a week after the birth of his daughter Mary, Queen of Scots.

Falkland Palace still belongs to the Crown, but, as was the custom with Royal castles, it was placed in the care of a hereditary keeper, often a relative, in this case a scion of the Marquess of Bute’s Crichton Stuart family. In 1952, Major Michael Crichton Stuart, hereditary constable and keeper of Falkland Palace, after consultation with the Queen, appointed the National Trust for Scotland as deputy keeper, and provided an endowment for the palace’s future upkeep.

His son, Ninian Crichton Stuart, is the current hereditary keeper.

Avisit to Falkland Palace today transports you back to a time when Scotland was considered a significant influence in Europe.

The passing of time, however, can reap havoc, and in 1654, while it was occupied by Oliver Cromwell during his invasion of Scotland, the east range was largely destroyed by fire. From then on, until the repairs of the 19th century, it was left to deteriorate. Happily, all of that is behind it now.

From the entrance hall of the gatehouse, you ascend to the keeper’s suite on the second floor, where the bedroom is dominated by James VI’s magnificent canopied bed. The room is hung with copies of full length Royal portraits and, adjoining, there is a dressing room and a small panelled bathroom.

The drawing-room was restored by the 3rd Marquess of Bute in the 1890s. On the oak ceiling are the coats-of-arms of the Stuart kings, and those of the different keepers of the Palace. The portraits here include those of Mary, Queen of Scots, Charles II and Catherine of Braganza.

The outstanding features of the 16th century interior of the royal chapel are the oak screen between chapel and antechapel, and the painted ceiling which was specially redecorated for the visit of Charles I in 1633.

The tapestry gallery is hung with 17th century Flemish tapestries and furnished with replicas of 16th and 17th century pieces of furniture. The old library displays memorabilia from the 20th century belonging to the Crichton Stuarts.

The south range contains the royal apartments with the king’s suite on the first floor, and queen’s suite above. This level overlooks the courtyard, significantly different in style from the Gothic street front.

The king’s bed chamber in the cross house, projecting from this range, has been fully restored. The windows have shutter boards below and leaded glass above and the painted ceiling display the monograms of James V and Mary of Guise. The golden bed of brahan is a good example of early 17 century Dutch workmanship.

Within the grounds, the foundations of the north range and round tower of the original Macduff, earls of Fife, stronghold are clearly visible. The gardens, richly replanted after they were used for growing potatoes during the Second World War, include shrubs, herbaceous borders, and a more formal garden.

Of specific interest here is the Royal tennis court, built in 1539 prior to Henry VIII’s court at Hampton Court. ‘Royal’ or ‘Real’ tennis is different from that played, for example, at Wimbledon. For a start, kings had their servants hit the first ball to begin a game, hence the origins of ‘serve’ in tennis.

In 1965, a ‘Real’ tennis club was formed at Falkland by local enthusiasts, and today numbers around 75 members. The ‘Real’ tennis racket was invented in Italy in 1583, 44 years after the Royal Court was built. It is smaller than a conventional racket in that its head is the shape of a palm, given that the game was originally played with the hand.

In 1989, the 450th anniversary of the Court’s creation was marked by an international tournament (won by members of the Falkland Palace club) and attended by Prince Edward.

Queen Elizabeth has visited twice, most recently in 1991, and on both occasions watched a demonstration match.