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Issue 50 - The nation's treasures

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 50
April 2010


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The nation's treasures

Charles Douglas looks at 50 of Scotland's finest castles and houses, open to the public.

It can be no exaggeration to claim that Scotland has more ruined or inhabited, large and small, historic castles and fortified houses per square mile than anywhere else in Europe. However, with Scotland Magazine celebrating its fiftieth issue, it seemed an appropriate moment for me to reflect on where I have been.

I am beginning my journey in Berwickshire by recommending visits to two extremely grand but very different properties, both in close proximity to the small town of Duns, birthplace of the 13th century theologian Duns Scotus.

The approach to Paxton House is breathtaking. Built by Patrick Home between 1756 and 1772, his close friendship with the architect John Adam inspired a Palladianstyle masterpiece and it today serves as an outpost for the National Galleries of Scotland.

Manderston House is also a wonderful example of extravagance and style. Among the many sumptuous features of this marble floored house is a silver-plated staircase.

Often used as a film set to replicate Buckingham Palace, it is today the home of Sir James’s great-great nephew, Lord Palmer.

To the west, at Thornhill in Dumfriesshire, is the magnificent Drumlanrig Castle, one of several homes of the 10th Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry. It was completed in 1691 for the first Duke of Queensberry who is said to have been appalled at the enormous costs it incurred. Packed with fine furniture and paintings accumulated from Royal connections, it is a treasure trove for lovers of antiquities.

Along the Solway Coast at Kirkcudbright, the National Trust for Scotland opens Broughton House, a modest 18th century house lived in by the Victorian/Edwardian painter E. A. Hornel. With his purchase of the house in 1900, Kirkcudbright became the nucleus for a small artists’ colony.

Moving across into the central Scottish borderland, there are six notable palaces to be found. Close to Kelso are Mellerstain, home of the 13th Earl of Haddington, and Floors Castle.

At Melrose is Abbotford, the extraordinary gothic house built for Sir Walter Scott who despite his success as a writer, found himself on the brink of bankruptcy. His response was to place the house and his earnings into a trust for his creditors while he worked his way out of debt. At Selkirk is Bowhill, another of the 10th Duke of Buccleuch’s splendid homes, this one dating from 1795.

Thirlestane Castle, near Lauder, is the home of the Hon Gerald Maitland-Carew who has magnificently restored the home built by his maternal Maitland ancestors in the 1580s. In the old nursery quarters is to be found an enchanting collection of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian toys Traquair House on the River Tweed at Innerleithen was once used by Scottish kings as a sporting lodge, but the present building dates largely from the 16th century, allowing the claim that is the oldest continually inhabited house in Scotland. A major attraction is the Traquair House Brewery founded in 1965 by the 21st laird, Peter Maxwell Stuart.

For generations the powerful Clan Kennedy dominated the south west of Scotland and Ayrshire, and overlooking the Firth of Clyde, they commissioned the architect Robert Adam to re-model their opulent but still formidable clifftop fortress of Culzean. Today it incorporates an apartment used by Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States of America.

On the outskirts of the mining town of Cumnock is Dumfries House, designed and built between 1754 and 1759 by architects Robert, John and James Adam for the 5th Earl of Dumfries. Containing the finest collection of Chippendale furniture in existence, it was saved for the Nation by HRH The Prince of Wales who has linked it to ambitious regeneration plans.

Further north on the Ayrshire coastline is Kelburn Castle, the centrepiece of the popular Kelburn Country Centre. The home of the 10th Earl & Countess of Glasgow, the early part of the castle dates from the 13th century As everyone knows, the City of Glasgow was built on the trading wealth of the River Clyde, but when Pollok House was built in the mid-18th century for the Maxwell family, a branch of the celebrated Dumfriesshire dynasty, Glasgow was little more than a village. In 1887, his fortune boosted by the Industrial revolution, Sir John Stirling- Maxwell employed the architect Rowand Anderson to build an extension to the original house. In 1956, it was gifted to the City of Glasgow who passed its management over to the National Trust for Scotland.

Another visitor attraction in the Glasgow conurbation is Hill House at Helensburgh, designed for the prosperous publisher Walter Blackie by the iconic architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. With its integrated interior designs and decorations, is it the most complete example of Mackintosh’s genius and is now also in the portfolio of the National Trust for Scotland.

At the heart of Scotland’s Capital are Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, both resonating in the turbulence of centuries. A visit to this profoundly unpretentious residence is to step back into the time of Mary Queen of Scots and her Royal ancestors.

No visit to Edinburgh is complete without an excursion to South Queensferry to inspect magnificent Hopetoun House, home of the marquesses of Linlithgow, and Dalmeny House, the residence of the 7th Earl of Roseberry. Hopetoun boasts a combination of style produced by Sir William Bruce, William, Robert and John Adam, and its inspiring frontage is spectacular. Dalmeny, overlooking the Firth of Forth, dates from 1817 and is the work of the English architect William Wilkins.

Arniston House at Gorebridge was built by William Adam in 1726 for the influential Dundas family, a dynasty of prominent legal figures in the Edinburgh establishment. Close to Dalkeith is Newbattle Abbey,originally built in the 12th century as a Cistercian abbey, passing to the Ker family who were enobled as marquesses of Lothian, To the west of Edinburgh is The House of the Binns in West Lothian, which dates from 1612, and is yet another property held by the National Trust for Scotland.

It is nevertheless, the home of Tam Dalyell, the well-known former Labour Member of Parliament.

East of Edinburgh is East Lothian, and Lennoxlove, a house formerly known as Lethington, which once belonged to the first and last Duke of Lauderdale. Many of the treasures on display came from the Hamilton’s former residence Hamilton Palace which was demolished in 1921, and include the Death Mask of Mary Queen of Scots and the silver casket in which she kept her letters to her third husband, the Earl of Bothwell.

Another East Lothian property is Fenton Tower, a superbly restored 16th century tower house once occupied by James VI.

Across the Firth of forth in the Kingdom of Fife are two notable National Trust for Scotland properties. The first is Falkland Palace, used by James IV and James V as a hunting lodge, and which provided a childhood home for the infant Mary Queen of Scots.

Over in the East Neuk of Fife is Kellie Castle which dates from the 12th century and was owned for generations by the earls of Mar and Kellie.

The region of Tayside stretches from Loch Tay in the west to Dundee in the east, and at Weem, close to Aberfeldy west of the A9, is Menzies Castle, the restored 16th century stronghold of Clan Menzies. Next to the town of Perth is Scone Palace, home of the earls of Mansfield and which was formerly the site of a 12th century abbey in which kings of Scots were traditionally crowned.

Another notable Perthshire clan stronghold is Blair Castle, which nestles white against the Cairngorm mountains north of Pitlochry. With its roots in the 13th century, it has been held for generations by the Murray clan, and it was the last British castle to come under siege in 1745.

Adjoining Perthshire is the county of Angus where, close to the village of Kirriemuir, is Glamis Castle, the childhood home of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Crossing over to Argyll, it soon becomes evident that this is Clan Campbell country, centred on the chateau-style Inveraray Castle on Loch Fyne, the home of the 13th Duke and Duchess of Argyll.

Scotland’s west coast islands, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, also feature some spectacular locations, not least Mount Stuart, the seventh Marquess of Bute’s dramatic home on the Isle of Bute, and Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran, occupied in the fifth century, but demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century.

On the Isle of Skye is Dunvegan Castle, the fortress home of the Clan Macleod. On the Isle of Mull, within canon shot of each other are Duart Castle, guarding the waterways of the Firth of Lorne, and Torosay Castle.

On the mainland again, on the land locked Black Isle is Castle Leod, headquarters of Clan Mackenzie and ancestral seat of the earls of Cromartie.

East of Inverness in Nairnshire is Cawdor Castle, and in adjoining Morayshire, is Brodie Castle, a fortress built by the Brodies, one of the original Pictish tribes of Scotland. Also to the east, in Banffshire, is Ballindalloch Castle, a stronghold of a branch of the Grant Clan. In Aberdeenshire, is Haddo House, home of the Gordon earls and marquesses of Aberdeen, and the romanticly named Castles of Mar, loosely taking in Crathes, Craigievar, Drum, Fyvie, Castle Fraser and Leith Hall, all of them cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.

In Sutherland to the north is Skibo Castle, formerly the home of the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, but now transformed into the exclusive Carnegie Club.

And at Golspie, there is the italianate Dunrobin Castle, ancestral seat of the earls and dukes of Sutherland.

In the very far north at Thurso in Caithness is the Castle of Mey,overlooking the windswept Dornoch Firth.

These buildings steeped in the heritage and character of the Scottish psyche are accessible, and every opportunity should be taken to explore them.