Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 54 - A sense of pilgrimage

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010


This article is 7 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.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

A sense of pilgrimage

Charles Douglas visits Fingask Castle in Perthshire

Situated between Perth and Dundee on the foothills of the Sidlaws, with leisurely views to the south over the Carse of Gowrie to the Firth of Tay, Fingask Castle rises majestically from the surrounding woodland like a fairy-tale chateau.

In a distant age, pilgrims and Scottish kings paused here to pray at St Peter’s Well in the adjacent dell before journeying on to Scone, or to the shrine of the saintly Queen Margaret at Dunfermline. A marker still carries the lines: Drink, weary pilgrim, drink.

And bless St Peter’s well Unscathed by sun or scorching ray, Or frost or thawing swell.

All around you is rich agricultural land which, with a southerly outlook and low rainfall, makes this corner of rural Perthshire ideal for fruit growing, hence strawberries and raspberries are integral to the local economy. But the demands of owning and maintaining a historic country house are constant, and the Fingask estate has seem more than its fair share of highs and lows.

A castle certainly existed here as early as the reign of Alexander I in the 12th century, but little is known of its early history until the fifteenth century when it passed into the hands of the Bruce family who held a Charter for the lands of Rait. These Bruces belonged to the senior line of the Bruces of Clackmannan, descended from a nephew of Scotland’s hero king Robert the Bruce, and a stone in the house records their having been here in 1594. However, family fortunes rise and fall, and by 1671 the last of the Bruce lairds of Fingask was obliged to sell to settle his “pecuniary involvements.” The new owners, the Threipland family, who derived their name from a vale in the parish of Kilbucho in Peeblesshire, renovated the existing house and laid out the gardens. In 1674, Patrick Theipland was knighted for his diligence in the suppression of the Covenanters, and in 1687 he was created a Baron of Nova Scotia.

Alas, disrupting forces were at work throughout the land and the politics of the 17th century divided Scotland in a succession of devastating conflicts.

When the Stuart monarch James VIII fled into exile, he was supplanted on the British throne by his daughter Mary and son-in-law William of Orange, thus bringing to an end the hereditary rule of the House of Stuart. The Threiplands, in common with so many of Scotland’s old families, the Erskines, the Setons, the Gordons and the Keiths, took up arms in support of their exiled monarch’s Jacobite Cause, and consquently paid the price. Sir Patrick died in Stirling Castle where he was held a prisoner, and his son Sir David, having fought at Sheriffmuir, had his baronetcy attainted and the family properties confiscated.

As was the fate of so many Jacobite properties, Fingask was purchased from the Government by the York Buildings Company which held on to it until 1782, albeit leasing it to Sir David’s second wife, Dame Katherine. She was a doughty lady who gave birth during the castle’s occupation by Hanovarian troops. The captain in charge of the troops sent word to her asking what she wanted the boy christened. “Stuart” came the reply.

In the subsequent Rising of 1745, Sir Stuart, now a physician, became Bonny Prince Charlie’s personal physician. After the disastrous Battle of Culloden in the following year, he found himself alone and lost on the moors and was about to fall into a nest of redcoats when, according to his story, an angel came down and told him not to go that way, but to follow a different path to where a group of fleeing Jacobites could be found.

This apparition had such an effect on Sir Stuart that 20 years latter he commissioned the French artist Eugène Delacroix to paint a picture of the occasion. The picture is now in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland and is displayed in their gallery at Duff House, near Banff. By 1783, the Jacobite threat was minimal and the Government allowed exiles to come home. Sir Stuart, obviously a man of parts, returned to Edinburgh to set up practice as a fashionable physician, ending up as an early President of the Royal College of Physicians. His medical chest can be still seen in the society’s palatial headquarters.

The York Building Company went bankrupt in 1783, and a sale of the attainted estates which the company had bought from the Government took place. The story goes that the ‘rightful heirs of the Jacobite estates formed a ring at the auction by hiring some rough looking Highlanders to keep all bidders apart from the old Jacobites out’. By this means, Sir Stuart was able to buy back the castle and estates of Fingask.

It says a lot about the resilience of blood-line. In 1826, Stuart’s son Patrick, after adopting the Budge and Murray surnames from whom his mother’s wealth had been inherited, had the family baronetcy restored by Act of Parliament. It was he who made the additions to the west facing front of the castle, also building onto the south front.

Contemporary accounts such as the recently published The Butler’s Day Book, give an account of the day-to-day preoccupations of the household However, in 1882, the property passed to a cousin, Colonel William Scott Kerr of Roxburgh, who assumed the surname of Murray Threipland.

He and his wife owned other properties in England and Wales and, in 1917, sold the estate to Sir John Henderson Stewart, a prosperous Dundonian Scotch whisky merchant. A casualty of prohibition, Sir John died in 1925 owing a spectacular £570,000 which meant that once again Fingask was up for grabs.

This time, the estate, which at this juncture comprised 2587 acres, was bought by the Gilroy family of Ballumbie, a neighbouring Angus estate, who demolished the 19th-century additions. In 1969, the estate reduced to 75 acres, it returned to the Threipland family when it was bought by William Murray Threipland’s grandson Mark, and purchased from him in 1995 by his brother Andrew Murray Threipland, the current laird.

Andrew and his wife Helen are an engaging couple with a young family, and Fingask Castle is again very much a family home. It appears that a strong emotional connection exists between the family of Threipland and Fingask.

It is not often that a house has been bought by the same family four times!

In a highly competitive market this has not been at all easy, but in keeping with the family motto: Animis et Fato (“By courageous acts and good fortune”), the Threiplands have persevered In addition to wedding receptions, conferences and celebrations, which take place throughout the year in the elegantly situated Pavilion on the Lawn, Fingask now plays host to a series of highly entertaining and eccentric events, notably the annual mid-summer promenade of the Edinburgh-based Really Terrible Orchestra, and an eclectic Scottish book festival.

The Fingask Follies, a musical review conceived by Andrew and which takes place in May, is now in its 15th year. A light-hearted and themed comedy and song extravaganza, it is scripted by Andrew and his life-long friend Lofty Buchanan, and consists of two acts of 35 minutes with an hour break for supper.

Such is the demand for tickets that it has now been expanded to 16 shows taking place in May before going on tour to venues in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dumfriesshire and as far south as London.

One of the great joys of Fingask on a summer day, or indeed at any time of year, is to take a leisurely stroll through its topiary gardens and encounter the statuary hidden among the many picturesque, secluded walkways.

For example, there is a hilarious group of figures from Scots literature by the Victorian stone mason David Anderson from Perth, and characters from the works of Alexander Thomson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott; also a full length statue of the British prime minister William Pitt the Younger, a naked black figure of Doryphoros, some small pieces by Charles Spence, and a head by the contemporary sculptor Sandy Stoddard An unexpected leafy oasis in the eastern extremities of Perthshire, Fingask Castle envelopes itself in beauty and enchantment, continually coming to life with the energy of its current occupants. There is a lot to be said for the commitment of 400 years of dynastic love.

Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue