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Issue 47 - Breathtaking impact

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 47
October 2009


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Breathtaking impact

Charles Douglas visits Arniston House, Midlothian .

The Dundas family, with their family seat near South Queensferry, acquired the Arniston Estate eleven miles south of Edinburgh in 1571 for James Dundas, the youngest son by the second marriage of the sixteenth Laird of Dundas.

An open courtyard was built for him, probably on older foundations, and from this base James founded one of the most dazzling Presbyterian legal dynasties, with five successive generations represented on the Supreme Court of Scotland, each taking the legal title of Lord Dundas.

It was not until 1688 that the second Lord Arniston set about making further improvements to his home; thirty seven years were to pass before he engaged the architect William Adam to build him a new house. He had left it a bit late as he died the following year, but his son Robert, another Lord Arniston, who during his father’s lifetime had risen to become Solicitor General for Scotland, then Lord Advocate, was equally committed.

As with a number of his projects, William Adam made the best of what was there already. A section of the old house is incorporated in the main hall, while the seventeenth century Oak Room at the back remains virtually intact. But it is the details of Adam’s interiors which remain the triumph, especially the hall with its spectacular plasterwork by the brilliant Dutch stuccoist Joseph Enzer, whom Adam also employed for two other Scottish projects – Yester House in East Lothian, and The House of Dun, near Brechin.

Unashamedly, Classical, Baroque and Rococo styles are blended to create a breathtaking impact upon entry. Upstairs in the former library, transformed during the nineteenth century into the Porcelain Room, the plasterwork is equally dramatic.

All would have gone well had it not been for the expense of creating the elaborate formal garden. There was a waterfall over white stone on the hill beyond the house which, by means of a mechanical device, could be turned on and off – an amazing extravagance at the time. At this stage, the budget started to get out of hand, and Lord Arniston, with a family of nine children to bring up, pulled the plug of further expenditure.

His son and heir, the fourth Lord Arniston, inherited a mountain of debt. Happily though he had married Henrietta Carmichael, an heiress, and it was her fortune that was used to complete the house. The chosen architect this time was William Adam’s son John, who amended his father’s plans and ordered rooms to be built on two floors instead of three, while maintaining the original facade.

To say that the fourth Lord Arniston was a bit of a collector would be an understatement.

The set of terracotta portrait busts which look down on the Porcelain Room were acquired while he was at Utrecht University and took holidays in Italy. In this same room are displays of Meissen, Sevres sets and Bealby glass. The ancestral portraits date back to the sixteenth century, with fine examples of the work of Allan Ramsay and Sir Henry Raeburn.

Among them is the portrait of Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, half brother of the fourth Lord Arniston who as William Pitt’s War Minister and Home Secretary, and for the influence he exercised over Scottish politics, became known as “The Uncrowned King of Scotland”.

As had by then become almost a tradition, Robert Dundas, son of the fourth Lord Arnisto, in turn rose to the bench of the Supreme Court as the fifth Lord Arniston, although he declined to become Lord President of the Court of Session owing to ill health. To compensate, he ploughed his energies into improving his estate which he extensively furnished with gateways and bridges fabricated in stonework which he acquired when the facade of Old Parliament House in Edinburgh was demolished around 1808.

Further improvements were made to the great house in the nineteenth century. A porch on the north side was added, and the colonnades linking the pavilions were heightened. The stone floor of the hall was replaced by parquet.

When the present chatelaine of Arniston, Althea Dundas Bekker, inherited the house and estate in 1971, the responsibility for keeping it wind and watertight seemed almost overwhelming. During the 1950s, an outbreak of dry rot had led to the John Adam rooms being stripped of timber and internal plasterwork. In 1980, the roof of the main block had to be entirely renewed.

Fortunately, Althea is a resourceful lady, and was wholeheartedly supported by her South African husband Aedrian until his untimely death in 1990. With financial support from Historic Scotland, the national conservation agency, the repair work began.

For example, the hand-painted wallpaper in the Drawing Room, provided by de Gurney, is a copy of the original design used in the eighteenth century.

In the policies, ancient beech, lime and oak trees have survived the storms of time, and visitors are encouraged to visit the charming sunken garden.

A much loved family home, Arniston House remains a great treasure in the portfolio of Scotland grand designs, containing a stately treasure trove of Lowland Scottish antiquary which resonates with the ghosts of ages past. More recently the management of Arniston has been taken over by Aedrian and Althea’s capable daughter Henrietta, and pre-booked visits can be arranged out of season.


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