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Issue 41 - House of art & history

Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008


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House of art & history

Charles Douglas visits Duff House, one of north east Scotland's greatest treasures.

Duff House, surely one of the most strikingly elegant examples of the Scottish architect William Adam’s iconic creations, has experienced a chequered career. Situated on the River Deveron, which rises in the Cabrach Mountains, it stands close to the royal burgh of Banff. Having during the past century functioned as a palm court hotel, sanatorium and prisoner-of-war camp, it was opened, after extensive renovation, as a visitor attraction and art gallery 12 years ago.

But there were problems from the very start of its existence. William Duff, for whom it was built, was the Member of Parliament for Banffshire from 1727 until 1734, after which he was created first Lord Braco of Kilbride in 1735, then Viscount Duff and 1st Earl of Fife.

To assert the pre-eminence to which his great wealth undoubtedly entitled him, in 1735 he commissioned William Adam to create him a palace.

Ancient tradition has it that the noble House of MacDuff had the hereditary privilege of crowning the Kings of Scots, and that, in the 11th century, it was MacDuff, Earl of Fife, who opposed Macbeth and met an untimely end as a result. This old earldom became extinct in the 14th century, but was revived for William Duff in the Irish peerage of Great Britain in 1759. Duff, an ambitious man, was therefore aware of the importance of the dynasty he represented.

And he had been particularly fortunate in that his father had not only left him estates at Dipple, Pluscardine, Aberlour, Keith, Grange and Mortlach, the latter including Balvenie, but a rental income of £6,500 sterling, in those days the largest fortune in the north of Scotland.

So he began by building himself a house at Balvenie (now famous as the home of Balvenie Single Malt), then commissioned Duff House in 1740, not appreciating that the eventual cost would rise to the then astounding sum of £70,000. This led to a protracted dispute with his architect which, latterly caused great discomfort to all concerned and said to have brought on Adam’s untimely demise at the age of 59.

As a result, building work was not resumed until 1754, and although wings to the house had been intended, they did not materialise, and it was not until 1870 that the kitchen and bedroom extensions were added by yet another fashionable Scottish architect, David Bryce.

The fortunes of the Duff Family, however, continued to prosper with a series of judicial purchases made by the 2nd Earl, who doubled the family landholdings and changed the name of the town of Doune to Macduff, procuring for it a Royal Charter constituting it as a burgh.

The 4th Earl, a Major General during the Peninsular War, was awarded the Order of St Ferdinand of Spain, and the Sword of Sweden. He latterly retired to Duff House and died in 1857, whereupon the earldom and properties passed to his nephew.

It was his great-nephew, Alexander, however, who brought further distinction to the Duff family when, in 1889, he married Princess Louise Victoria, the eldest daughter of Edward VII. That same year, Alexander was created Duke of Fife with a special remainder which allowed the dukedom to pass to their daughters, Princess Alexandra and Princess Maud. As a result, following the death of Princess Alexandra, whose only son by her marriage to the Duke of Connaught had predeceased her, the Fife dukedom passed to the descendants of Princess Maud, who in 1923 had married the 11th Earl of Southesk.

In the meantime, Duff House had ceased to be practical as a family home and was offered to the towns of Banff and Macduff in 1906. It thereafter entered into a more mundane and practical future, first as an hotel, then in 1913 a convalescent home. However, this soon outgrew the available accommodation and the operation moved to new premises at Ruthin Castle in Wales.

Between 1923 and 1928, Duff House was again run as a hotel, but was requisitioned at the start of the Second World War to accommodate German prisoners-of-war.

Over this period, the Bryce wing was seriously damaged by a stray Luftwaffe bomb and, when hostilities ceased, the future of the property looked extremely bleak.

Indeed, a Government file dated 1952 requested that it be demolished should it be unable to function in the grand manner of its design.

Happily, now containing paintings by Sir Henry Raeburn, Alan Ramsay and El Greco, tapestries, and a fine collection of Chippendale furniture, Duff House today entirely fulfills such a requirement, reinstated to some extent to its former glory. Also featured in situ is the Dunimarle Library collected by the Erskines of Torrie during the latter half of the 18th century and early part of the 19th century. However, this is available to researchers by appointment only.

In addition, on display from the National Galleries of Scotland, there are notable portraits by the celebrated English artists Thomas Gainsborough, and David Allan’s portrait James Erskine, Lord Alva and his Family, 1780.

In partnership with Historic Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and Aberdeen Council a lively programme of lectures and musical events has been launched, drawing upon the surrounding population for support. The Long Gallery is available for corporate events, and has become a popular venue for weddings.

There is no admission charge to the tea room, formerly the housekeeper’s room, which is situated on the ground floor.

Although some of the exhibitions which take place at Duff House are contemporary (for example, the current series of North Sea portraits by the Edinburgh and Crete-based artist Fionna Carlisle), the atmosphere of this great house is still pervasive, reflecting a by-gone age of supreme elegance and impeccable taste.

Entry into the extensive grounds is free, with opportunities to explore the extensive woodland walks leading past the ice-house to the Duff Mausoleum dating from 1793. To my mind, no visit to the north east of Scotland is complete without an excursion to Duff House.

Duff House, Banffshire AB45 3SX Open daily between 1 November and 31 March, Thursday to Sunday 1100-1600 1 April to 31 October, daily 1100 to 1700 Admission: £6.20 Tel: +44 (0)1261 818 181 Web: Email: