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Issue 45 - Treasure of Lothian

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 45
June 2009

 

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Treasure of Lothian

Charles Douglas goes to West Lothian to visit the House of the Binns.

It is one of those Scottish u-plan baronial houses which resonates in history, yet visitors to Lowland Scotland often pass it by, unaware of its existence. Built in the 17th century, with the inevitable 18th and 19th century additions, it is still occupied by the Dalyells, one of Scotland’s oldest and, some might say, characterful families The House of the Binns, which is located in 200 acres of parkland in central West Lothian, west of Edinburgh, was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1944 by Eleanor, the mother of the current occupant Tam Dalyell, the well-known former Labour Member of Parliament for West Lothian. Until his retirement in 2005, the individualistic and outspoken Tam Dalyell was revered as Father of the House of Commons. His own father was Gordon Loch who in 1938 took his wife's maiden name, and he is a sixth cousin of the American President Harry S. Truman through the American President's descent from a daughter of the first Baronet Dalyell of the Binns.

The Dalyell family's fortunes began more than 400 years ago when Thomas Dalyell, an Edinburgh-based butter merchant, travelled to London to join the Court of James VI when he became King of England in 1603. As a relative of the earls of Carnwath, and married to a daughter of Lord Bruce of Kinloss, the Master of the King's Rolls, he was well connected and prospered accordingly. In recognition of his success, therefore, he acquired the Bynnis Estate and began building the House of the Binns in 1612. His descendants have occupied it ever since, notably his son General Tam Dalyell who raised the Royal Scots Greys regiment here in 1681.

General Tam, also known as ‘Bloody Tam’ or the ‘Muscovite Devil,’ was a Royalist General who took part in Charles I's expedition to La Rochelle at the age of 13, later serving with the Royalist Army in Ulster under General Munro and General Leslie.

On hearing of the execution of Charles I in 1649, he avowed never to shave his beard again as a penance for the behavior his fellow countrymen. Taken prisoner by the Commonwealth Army, he was released but forced to remain in Ulster until the following year when he rallied to the support of Charles II at the Battle of Worcester. Taken prisoner again, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Oliver Cromwell, but managed to escape abroad, returning three years later to lead a failed uprising in the Highlands.

Arewardof 200 guineas was offered for his capture dead or alive, but once again he escaped, this time to Russia where he entered the service of the Tsar and fought against the Turks and Tartars. With the restoration of Charles II, he returned to Britain and in 1666 was appointed Commander in Chief in Scotland with specific instructions to suppress the Covenanting movement. This he achieved with ruthless precision at the Battle of Rullion Green and, in the aftermath, imprisoned some 1200 prisoners in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. The cruelty that was meted out to these unfortunate souls was merciless and the specter of Bloody Tam has lingered on in the folklore of Scotland ever since. It was he who introduced the thumbscrew as an instrument of torture.

Inside the House of the Binns, the fine plaster ceilings by Alexander White in four of the main rooms were introduced in 1630 by the General's father, and there is an impressive collection of family portraits, furniture and porcelain illustrating the tastes of passing generations through the centuries.

Visitors who enter through the Laigh Hall, created from the original cellar, can inspect the table where, according to legend, the General often enjoyed a hand of cards with his friend, the Devil. On one such occasion, so the story goes, the Devil, having lost, threw the table at his opponent. It missed and passed instead through a window, falling into a pond. In 1870, after a particularly heavy summer drought, a marble topped card table was discovered in the low waters of the pond from which it was retrieved, repaired and reinstated inside the house.

Through a secret passage is the Blue Room which features a fine collection of blue porcelain, including items by Delft.

Adjacent to the Laigh Hall is the Businessroom, or Closet On the first floor is the High Hall with a stairway which leads to the King's Room which was specially decorated in anticipation of a visit from Charles I who chose instead to stay at nearby Linlithgow Palace.

Altogether a fascinating excursion, the interiors of the House of the Binns offer a fascinating insight into Scottish baronial life with General Tam's descendants largely serving out their lives as soldiers. The General's son, a Captain in the army, was created a baronet on account of his father's services. The title and estate then passed to his son, then to his daughter's son, James Menteith, who assumed the Dalyell name.

Both of the 4th and 5th Baronets were serving officers; Sir John, 6th Baronet, was Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland and wrote several works on history and science; Sir William, 7th Baronet, was a Captain in the Royal Navy and Governor of Greenwich Hospital; Sir Robert, 8th Baronet, was the British Consul to Erzeroum, Jassy an Roustchouk.

In the grounds is the Binns Tower built in 1829 by Sir James Dalyell, 5th Baronet, following an after-dinner wager, and restored in 2002. In addition to the woodland walks, there are panoramic views across the Firth of Forth to the north and over to the Pentland Hills to the south. On inky black nights it is said that the ghost of the General can still sometimes be seen mounted on a white charger entering his estate on the Bo'ness to Queensferry Road and cantering over the ruined bridge that spans the Errack Burn. Visitors are probably therefore best advised to leave before closing time.