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Issue 43 - Life in a country house

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009


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Life in a country house

Charles Douglas visits Pollok House, a Georgian mansion at the heart of a Glasgow country park.

With all of the celebrity that is attached to the magnificent Burrell Collection, gifted to the city of Glasgow in 1944, and housed since 1983 within a purpose built museum in Pollok Park, its neighbour, Pollok House, is often overlooked. Yet, built in the mid-18th century under the influence of William Adam, albeit not as elaborate as some of his other grand designs, this stately four-storey mansion house remains one of the finest Georgian buildings in Scotland.

Situated close to the north bank of the White Cart Water, the surrounding policies give the impression that it is located in the depths of the countryside. It therefore possibly comes as a surprise to realise that Glasgow’s city centre is barely more than three miles away.

Of course, when Pollok House was built, the Glasgow that we know today did not exist as such, and the Maxwell family, a branch of the more celebrated Caerlaverock dynasty from Dumfriesshire, had occupied three earlier castles here for 500 years.

An all-powerful Maxwell ancestor was Lord Chamberlain of Scotland in the 13th century, and it was under his patronage that the various strands of his family came to control swathes of Annandale, Kirkcudbrightshire, and Nithsdale.

However, the Maxwells of Pollok, who descend from the Nithsdale line, acquired Pollok through marriage, and rose to prominence in 1388 following the Battle of Otterburn where a Sir John of Pollok captured Sir Ralph Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland.

Thereafter, passing generations occupied their lands peacefully, continuing to marry strategically and loyally giving their allegiance to the Royal House of Stewart/Stuart. In 1630, Sir John’s descendant, another John Maxwell of Pollok, was created a baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles I. Having no direct heir, the estate, but not the baronetcy, passed to his kinsman Sir George Maxwell of Auldhouse and it was his son, Sir John Maxwell, who in 1682 was honoured by William II with a new Nova Scotia baronetcy. Two centuries later, when the 8th Baronet died in 1685, this title and the family estates passed to a nephew, William Stirling of Kier, who thereafter assumed the surname of Maxwell.

Sir William Stirling-Maxwell was a great traveller in the days of the Grand Tour and consequently became fascinated with Spanish art, writing a three volume history entitled Annals of the Artists of Spain. In his research, he also had the opportunity to purchase a number of outstanding paintings, several of which, in particular works by Goya, and El Greco’s Lady in a Fur Wrap, are today on view at Pollok House. Sir William’s acquisitive interests also included emblem books and print making, furniture, ceramics, silver and glass, comprising a magnificent legacy.

When he died in 1878, he left two sons, aged 10 and 12 and, and while the younger boy acquired the Kier estate close to Stirling, the elder, now Sir John Stirling-Maxwell, acquired the Pollok estate when he reached the age of 21 in 1887.

It was a timely bequest. Sir John inherited Pollok as Glasgow, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, flourished as never before and, as a consequence, the Stirling- Maxwell fortune also prospered. A leading figure in Glasgow society, Sir John approached the architect Rowand Anderson to design an expansion to the house and, in 1890, a service wing was added to extend the house to the west at basement level, and single storey pavilions were introduced on the east and west sides. To this end, the eastern pavilion was structured to contain a library of 7,000 books, and the western one was designed to accommodate a billiard room, later becoming a sitting room, then a dining room.

It was in 1931 that a meeting was convened at Pollok House to discuss the creation of a National Trust for Scotland as an independent charity. Ten years after Sir William’s death in 1956, his daughter Mrs Anne Maxwell Macdonald gifted Pollok House, its art collection, library and 361 acres to the City of Glasgow, and in 1998, the management of the house was appropriately passed to the National Trust for Scotland, which continues to oversee its welfare to this day.

Although there are parts of the house which are not generally open to the public, most of the beautifully furnished ground floor and a large section of the basement can be viewed. Especially impressive are the library, the dining room and the music room.

The curving main staircase connects the ground and first floors only, with some items of the art collection on view on the upper landing. The gun room in the basement is a particularly compelling example of Edwardian living, and the Edwardian kitchen has been transformed into an excellent restaurant popular for its baking. In the housekeeper’s room is a shop which is open to visitors.

Not least among the visitor attractions, however, are the extensive garden walks.

Alongside the river, which is spanned by an elegant bridge, there is extensive woodland and, upstream, can be seen a water-powered sawmill. To the south and east of the house lie extensive lawns, and even the old stable block is still fit for purpose.