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Issue 44 - Saved for the nation

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009


This article is 9 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Saved for the nation

Charles Douglas visits Dumfries House in Ayrshire, an 18th century mansion with an impressive collection of antiques.

By many it was seen as a leap of faith.

When Dumfries House, designed and built between 1754 and 1759 by the architects Robert, John and James Adam for the 5th Earl of Dumfries, came up for sale in 2008, it looked as if its contents would have to be sold separately and, in all probability, to an overseas buyer. What made this especially controversial was that these contents comprised the finest collection of 18th century furniture to be found anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Many of the furnishings were the work of that iconic British designer Thomas Chippendale and craftsmen William Mathie and Alexander Peter of Edinburgh, and had been specifically commissioned.

Nonetheless, Dumfries House’s owner, the 7th Marquess of Bute, was adamant. The property, which had previously been lived in by his grandmother, had to be disposed of in order for him to concentrate on the wellbeing of his other ancestral home, Mount Stuart, on the island of Bute.

Immediately the National Trust for Scotland began a fund raising exercise, but its initial valuation was rejected as inadequate. Then, just as the contents were on the point of being sold at auction, the Prince of Wales and the Scottish Government stepped in with £45million to purchase and safeguard the property and its contents for the nation. Since 2008, therefore, Dumfries House, under the ownership of The Great Steward’s Dumfries House Trust, has been transformed into a major Scottish tourist attraction.

The Stuarts of Bute, who became earls of Dumfries and marquesses of Bute, descend from a natural son of Robert II of Scotland who was appointed Hereditary Sheriff of Bute and Arran. However, the estate of Dumfries House only came to them four centuries later through marriage into the Crichton family, who had risen to prominence in 1439 when Sir William Crichton became Chancellor to James II.

His descendant, another Sir William Crichton, was created 1st Earl of Dumfries in 1633 and, two years, later acquired his Ayrshire estate, which was then called Leifnorris. At that time, it comprised a ‘tower, fortresse, mansion place, orchard yards and pertinences.’ Thereafter, the earldom and estate remained in Crichton hands until the death of the 4th Earl in 1768 when it was inherited by his nephew, Patrick MacDowall of Freugh, an army officer and member of parliament. It was his daughter, Lady Elizabeth, who in 1792 married John, Viscount Mountstuart, eldest son of the 1st Marquess of Bute, and thus Dumfries House passed into the possession of their grandson, who became 2nd Marquess of Bute and 7th Earl of Dumfries.

In 1897, extensions were added by the arts and crafts designer Robert Weir Schultz.

Electricity was introduced in 1909. In 1913, concrete floors and roofs were installed, and a new dining room and library were added in 1934.

During the Second World War, Dumfries House was requisitioned by the army, but hostilities over, and following the death of the 5th Marquess of Bute in 1956, his widow made it her home until her death in 1993.

What makes Dumfries House so special?

Well, to begin with its condition, immaculate and well cared for, which transports everyone who steps inside into a world of long ago opulence under the inquisitive gaze of portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn.

Modest in scale, gilded mirrors and chandeliers nevertheless sparkle over Chippendale sofas, tables, book cases and Axminster carpets... This is not an austere palladian mansion devised to intimidate.

Despite the family having moved out, it retains the warmth of a comfortable private home caught in the relentless passage of time. After touring the rooms, visitors are enticed into a welcoming café which serves homemade soups, sandwiches and vegetarian options.

However, be warned. It is best to pre-book your tour to avoid disappointment. As is the case with most mansions on the country house circuit, Dumfries House is available for private events such as weddings and business conferences, and is greatly in demand for educational purposes.

Connoisseur’s Tours led by the house curator provide invaluable instructions on specific aspects of the house collections, and all-day Study Tours hosted by experts are also on the 2009 schedule. In addition to these, there are the enticingly titled Indulgence Champagne Evening Tours, so it is advisable to make inquiries about availability before you set off.

Regeneration has become a catch word in the 21st century, and the Prince of Wales is conscious that in order to make Dumfries House pay for itself, the nearby Ayrshire town of Cumnock also requires a boost. With the success of his model village of Poundbury in England, now 10 years old, plans are therefore afoot to create a similar project with workshops on the Dumfries House estate, partly to repay his charity’s loan, but largely to help in the re-populating of an area of South West Scotland which has become sadly neglected with the passing of the indigenous coal mining industry.

More power to his elbow.


Tel: +44 (0)1290 425 959 Dedicated ticket line: +44 (0)1290 551 11 Open: Thursday to Monday, 10.00-16.30.

Admission prices (Adult) £10.00; Children (five to 16) £5.00; Under Five, free.