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Issue 38 - A castle legacy

Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


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A castle legacy

I have today just returned from a visit to Culross, in the Kingdom of Fife, the purpose of which was to inspect Dunimarle, a Victorian gothic mansion perched on a hill overlooking the estuary of the River Forth. Within the grounds are the remains of MacDuff’s Castle, where the long ago Thane of Fife’s wife, of William Shakespeare’s Scottish play, allegedly met her unhappy end with her children. More recently, the exteriors have provided the backdrop for the film The Little Vampire.

Castlehill, a small 18th century mansion house, was built here in the 18th century to exploit the site’s picturesque qualities.

Shortly afterwards, it was acquired and re-modelled by Magdalene Sharpe Erskine, sister and heiress to Sir John Drummond of Torrie. By all accounts a lady of independent mind, Magdalene’s marriage in her 50s to Admiral Kilpatrick Sharpe, lasted only three days, after which a permanent separation was arranged.

Perhaps it is a writer’s instinct, but I am always intrigued by old houses and the dramas that enfolded within their walls. The ghosts of fiction come to mind – Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre, Brideshead in Brideshead Revisited, Manderley in Rebecca, and the House of Shaws in Kidnapped. The story of Magdalene Sharpe Erskine is equally poignant.

With the collapse of her brief marriage, she turned her attentions wholeheartedly to her estate. She changed its name to Dunimarle, which means ‘castle by the sea,’ and commissioned the architects Robert and Richard Dickson to transform it into a Gothic fantasy.

Psychoanalysts would nowadays reach all sorts of conclusions concerning that.

Magdalene was obviously a woman of spirit and, in such circumstances, considerable wealth helps. To pass the time, she added on an orangery, a castellated gateway with monumental iron gates, a castellated garden gate, drum tower and screen wall, and an extensive raised terrace enclosed the forecourt. To the south, a long terrace overlooking the Forth and backed by a crenellated garden wall extended the picturesque composition. In a guidebook dating from 1884, the terrace is described as ‘ a perfect paradise of beauty, beautiful flowers, the most lovely views of wood, mountain, and sea with all the accessories of artistic decoration, which the most refined taste could devise.’ She was also an inveterate collector, amassing fine and decorative art, and, on the death of her brother, inherited a collection of pictures which included David Allan’s celebrated Highland Wedding.With all of this, who needed a husband?

The problem, of course, was what would become of it all when the time inevitably came for her to depart this earthly paradise?

Well, she obviously thought that she had the solution for that. She endowed a trust “to maintain at Dunimarle a collection of ancient specimens of pictures, marbles, bronzes and articles of porcelain and other articles of virtue for the encouragement of the fine arts… to form and maintain a garden for the encouragement and improvement of botany.” Alas, you cannot rule from the grave. The same year as her death, a flash flood wrought havoc on the terraced walkway, and although this was soon reinstated, the cost was considerable. During the century that followed, Magdalene’s treasures were made available for inspection, but in 1995, an agreement was reached to transfer the entire collection on loan to Duff House, the National Gallery of Scotland’s country house gallery in Aberdeenshire. This enabled the Sharp Erskine trustees to undertake necessary repairs on the building’s fabric. In the meantime, the caretakers, Stuart and Maureen Fisher, have lovingly cherished the spectacular gardens.

Alas, a house without contents is like an empty box of chocolates. There is always a sadness about empty rooms, and this will only be remedied when the contents return in 13 years time.

However, long before that the trustees will have had to decide what happens next. Are there sufficient funds left to perpetuate Magdalene’s legacy? Will the trust be able to afford the overheads involved in opening a house such as this to the public? Is there anyone willing to step in and take on the cause?

Culross has had a thriving annual music and arts festival centred on the adjoining Abbey House estate since 1976. With the scrapping of tolls on the Forth Road Bridge, and a further road bridge crossing in prospect, this picturesque village, less than a 40 minute drive from the centre of Edinburgh, has much to offer.

Magdalene obviously thought so.