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Issue 38 - Bute's gothic palace

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


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Bute's gothic palace

Of all of the early dynasties who dominated Scotland from the 12th century onwards, the Stewarts were the most successful and most resilient.

Walter Fitz Alan was among the Norman noblemen who accompanied David I on his return from England to Scotland in 1124, whereupon he was appointed High Steward.

Through the marriage of his descendant to Princess Marjory, daughter of Robert the Bruce, the Stewards or Stewarts, as they became known, acquired the throne of Scotland on the death of Bruce’s only son.

And in 1371, Robert II, Bruce’s grandson, bestowed the lands of Bute, Arran and Cumbrae on his younger son, John, and created him Hereditary Sheriff of Bute. Thus began the bloodline of the Stuarts of Bute.

Throughout the following century, John’s descendants went about their duties and, in 1498, Ninian Stewart was made Hereditary Keeper of the Royal Castle of Rothesay, an honour still held by the family. With the passing of years, the spelling of his descendants’ surname was altered to Stuart, in keeping with that adopted by Mary Queen of Scots when she returned to Scotland from France in 1561.

Sir James Stuart of Bute was a firm Royalist supporter and was appointed Royal Lieutenant for the west of Scotland, but when Oliver Cromwell’s invasion prevailed, he fled to Ireland. As a result, his estates were broken up and he was obliged to pay a substantial fine to redeem them. His grandson, Sir James Stuart of Bute, however, supported the succession of William and Mary and, in the reign of Queen Anne, became a Commissioner for the Act of Union between the Scottish and English parliaments. In this role, he was, in 1703, created Earl of Bute. He later came to the conclusion that the Union was a mistake and withdrew from active politics.

The 3rd Earl of Bute was tutor to George III in his infancy, and was made First Lordof the Treasury, later becoming British Prime Minister. It was he who commissioned the architect Robert Adam to build Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire, his home in England.

The 4th Earl married the daughter of Patrick Crichton, Earl of Dumfries, and in 1796, was made Marquess of Bute. It was his son, the 2nd Marquess, who developed the docklands at Cardiff to rival Liverpool. This was so successful that when he died, his son John, the 3rd Marquess, still in his infancy, inherited a vast fortune.

The 6th Marquess of Bute was a stalwart of Scottish heritage and, for his work in this field, was rewarded with a knighthood shortly before his death in 1993. The 7th Marquess is perhaps better known as the racing driver Johnny Dumfries.

It was during the lifetime of the 2nd Earl of Bute, however, that the original house of Mount Stuart was built, only to be largely destroyed a century and a half later by fire, and it was under the direction of the 3rd Marquess of Bute and his architect, Sir Rowand Anderson, that the Gothic palace we see today was conceived.

The island of Bute lies opposite Wemyss Bay on the west coast of Scotland, south west of Glasgow, and there are regular Caledonian MacBrayne ferry services between Wemyss Bay and Rothsay, and daily flights from the mainland Prestwick airport. Once on the island, Mount Stuart is easily accessible from the picturesque town of Rothesay.

From the moment you enter, be prepared to be impressed. The marble hall is lined with rare Italian marble and soars to a height of some 80 feet. On the vaulted ceiling there are themes from astrology, with “the stars in their courses,” and zodiac-shaped windows.

In the dining room there are decorative friezes depicting squirrels and bird life. On the walls are family portraits from the 18th and early 19th centuries which include works by Alan Ramsay, George Romney, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Here is also to be found Raeburn’s magnificent portrait of the 2nd Marquess of Bute, “the Creator of Modern Cardiff.” On the table are featured the eclectic and much admired silver soup and fish plates that were specially designed for the house by William Burges.

From the marble hall, a marble staircase ascends towards the glittering stars that adorn the vaulted ceiling above. Within the archways are wall paintings featuring the six days of creation: in the final panel is the figure of a wallaby in honour of a colony of these Australian mammals that was introduced to Mount Stuart by the 3rd Marquess of Bute in the 1870s.

The vaulted ceiling of the gallery was designed by H. W. Lonsdale, and features the heads of 128 Grecian, Roman and Norse females. The bronze railing is an exact copy of the one in the palace chapel of the Emperor Charlemagne at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle).

Colour filters fitted to a series of roundels provides the illumination.

There is next the horoscope room and conservatory where the exact position of the stars and planets at the moment of the birth of the 3rd Marquess on 12th September 1847, are depicted. This room adjoins a glass conservatory which commands breathtaking views of the Firth of Clyde. When Mount Stuart was commandeered as a Navy hospital during the First World War it was used as an operating theatre.

The Henry VIII Room, as one might expect, not only contains Hans Holbein’s portrait of that monarch, but a painting of Henry’s sister, Margaret Tudor, wife of King James IV of Scotland. These are on display with furniture from the same period. The family bedroom pays tribute to the Bute family’s marriages from the medieval period to that of the 3rd Marquess and his wife, Gwendolen, in 1872. The frieze again by H.

W. Lonsdale, shows scenes from the life of the Scottish Queen, St Margaret, from whom the family is descended.

Next is Lady Bute’s room, where can be seen the original red Victorian silk wall covering, the colour chosen by Lord Bute because he said it matched his wife’s rosy complexion. Also on the walls are paintings by Aelbert Cuyp, Jacob Jordaens and Sir Anthony van Dyke.

There are three libraries at Mount Stuart which in total contain some 12,000 books.

The purple library, which is part of the tour, combines the scholarly and botanical interests of the 3rd Earl of Bute, who became British Prime Minister in 1761, and the 3rd Marquess.

The drawing room is probably one of the most stunningly beautiful rooms in the land.

Works by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese The drawing room is probably one of the most stunningly beautiful rooms in the land dominate the walls, while stained glass windows feature muses from Greek mythology. On the ceiling is the coats of arms of the male descendants of the 2nd Earl of Bute. Our tour ends with the marble chapel which, in contrast to the marble hall at the start, comprises pure white Carrara marble.

Amoment of reflection on the beauty that can be achieved with great riches.