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Issue 32 - Bonnie on the Clyde (Kelburn Castle)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007


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Bonnie on the Clyde (Kelburn Castle)

Charles Douglas visits Kelburn Castle in Fairlie, Ayrshire, the seat of the Earl of Glasgow

In common with most of Scotland’s great families of Norman origin, the de Boyvilles, having been part of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066, came to Scotland in the 12th century to serve that most enlightened of Scottish kings, David I, whose sister was married to Henry I of England.

Being cousins of Hugo de Moreville, Hereditary Great High Constable of Scotland, the de Boyvilles were well connected and were allocated lands at Kelvin, in Glasgow.

When the immediate male line of this family died out in 1196, another branch of the family, already established at Fairlie in Ayrshire, took over as representatives of the family name.

It was these Boyles who built Kelburn Castle on a site both picturesque and strategic. Commanding fine views up and down the Clyde Coast and over to the islands of Cumbrae and Arran, their fortress was ideally located to defend this important section of Scotland’s west coast from the unwelcome and regular attention of pillaging Viking invaders.

But it was in the early 18th century that the family fortunes really took off. David Boyle, a lawyer and distinguished Scottish statesman, who had been raised to the peerage as Lord Boyle in 1699, was created 1st Earl of Glasgow in 1703. In 1709, with his friend the 2nd Duke of Queensberry, he was one of the leading architects of the Act of Union which integrated the Scottish and English parliaments.

By the middle of the Victoria era, the earls of Glasgow had become considerable landowners throughout Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, Dumbartonshire, Fife and Northumberland. However, such was the benevolence of the 6th Earl that by 1888, everything he owned had to be put up for auction to pay his debts, whereupon his cousin, David Boyle of Shewalton, who was to become 7th Earl, sold his own lands near Irvine to raise the money to buy Kelburn.

In 1892, this 7th Earl was appointed Governor General of New Zealand and an interesting diversion at Kelburn today is the garden museum he built in 1898 at the end of a duck pond for his Antipodean collection.

There is no documentation to confirm when Kelburn Castle was built, but there is evidence to suggest that the early part dates from around 1200. In 1581, additions were built on and the castle re-roofed so cleverly that it is hard to tell which is the old and which is the new. In 1700, the 1st Earl doubled the size of the building, adding on a William and Mary style mansion house, and finally, in the Victorian period, when Kelburn was actually leased out to the local member of parliament, a new wing was added.

Interiors reflect different period styles with something for almost everybody to enjoy.

Because most of the historic treasures were auctioned off in 1886, the house is furnished with informal furniture brought from the 7th Earl’s home at Shealton. Nevertheless, there are imposing Chippendale bookcases, a wealth of family memorabilia and a large collection of family portraits to be admired.

There is fine panelling on the great staircase and the heavy wooden balusters are reminiscent of the stone baluster at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The 1st Earl’s dining room is now the drawing room incorporating architectural panelling with Corinthian pilasters. This room is strongly Victorian having been redecorated around 1850 with gold stenciling.

Next to it is a small study where, above the mantelpiece, there is a charming painting commissioned by the 1st Earl and showing a bird’s eye view of the estate. The dining room is richly hung with ancestral portraits on original William Morris wallpaper. The bedrooms are of different shapes and sizes with walls dating from a period between 1150 and 1880. Each has its own character, notably the south room with its fine four-poster bed.

To inherit such a property with the accompanying land can be a daunting prospect, particularly if you are sensible to family tradition and feel a sense of duty to preserve history for future generations.

Patrick Boyle, 10th Earl of Glasgow and his countess, Isabel, both of whom used to work in television broadcasting, met the challenge by converting the Old Home Farm into a Country Centre in 1977. During the years this has proved an enormous success with families and children and also attracts visitors who enjoy outdoor recreational activities such as nature walks and pony trekking.

There is even a commando assault course and opportunity to explore “Scotland’s most unusual secret forest,” which has a gingerbread house and a crocodile swamp.

Although Kelburn Castle is not open to the public on a daily basis, it is open for tours from 29 July – 25 September, and caters for small conferences, weddings, dinners and receptions throughout the year.

The beautiful coastline and a mild climate give this part of Scotland an outstanding appeal, particularly since Kelburn is within a 40 minute drive of Glasgow. From the house, gardens and country park are fine views over sea lochs, mountains and islands. The Boyles certainly knew what they were doing when they came here 900 years ago.