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Issue 62 - Oxenfoord Castle - A Fine Ancestral Home

Scotland Magazine Issue 62
April 2012


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Oxenfoord Castle - A Fine Ancestral Home

Roddy Martine visits the Dalrymples' family estate in Midlothian

As a callow youth I frequently visited Oxenfoord Castle, near Pathhead, in Midlothian, when it was an exclusive boarding school for young ladies. Those visits were notably in the Spring when the grounds were over-run by daffodils and snowdrops, and relatives and admirers on the inmates were admitted for open days. We were given sandwiches and cups of tea and allowed to mingle with the girls, an interaction that was not otherwise permitted during the school term.

In such close proximity to Edinburgh, I wonder how teenage girls would react to such restraints nowadays?

From 1931 until 1993, Oxenfoord School was presided over by the imperious figure of Lady Marjory Dalrymple, a sister of the 11th Earl of Stair. Tall, and rather grand, I recall her as having a twinkly sense of humour. I knew several of the girls under her watchful eye, and they regarded her with a mixture of awe and enormous affection. Lady Marjorie died in 1971 and although the school continued for a further two decades, in 1993 the house reverted to the Dalrymple family as a family home which is now successfully managed as a corporate and wedding venue. A fine example of the domestic genius of two great Scottish architects, Robert Adam and William Burn, it provides a splendid backdrop for such occasions.

As early as the 12th century, the lands of Oxenfoord in Midlothian were occupied by the Riddel family, passing to the Murrays and then to the MacGills, who built the original L-Plan Tower House in the sixteenth century. In 1651, James MacGill was created Viscount Oxfurd in 1651.

It was Oxfurd’s son Robert who in 1663, having returned from extensive travels abroad, the “Grand Tour” as it was known, embarked upon an extensive building programme but he eventually ran out of money. In 1758, the estate was inherited by Thomas Hamilton of Fala, a grandson of the 1st Viscount Oxfurd, and whose daughter Elizabeth, married her cousin, Sir John Dalrymple, in 1760.

Thus, the estate came into the Dalrymple family.

In 1771, Sir John succeeded to the title of Lord Dalrymple of Cousland A lawyer, politician, and scientist, he had known Robert Adam at Edinburgh University and as a result, he commissioned him to rebuild his home. In an early example of Scottish baronial style, Adam created a castellated house to encase the old tower and incorporated grand public rooms as befitted the family’s status.

When Lord Dalrymple of Cousland died in 1810, he was succeeded by his son, who thirty years later, inherited the family earldom of Stair from yet another cousin. It was therefore the ninth Earl of Stair who extended the park, laid out the terraces on the south and east side of the house and commissioned William Burn to design extensions to the castle.

William Burn’s alterations are described in the architectural historian Colin MacWilliam’s admirable book Buildings of Scotland - Lothian as “weighty and... solid, undoubtedly the convenience of the times, have taken precedence over the 18th Century clarity”.

The north-east elevation has a single storey and basement addition while the south and west fronts had the bat windows altered with a ‘Tudor’ style, full-height bay added to the west. The interior of the principle floor features a Library and elegant Drawing Room on the south side, of the “most magnificence”, and a Dining Room to the west with carved woodwork dating from 1750 and an ornate Robert Adam ceiling.

In 1853, the eighth Earl of Stair was succeeded by his brother North as ninth Earl and continued to develop the plantation of pine trees established by his brother to the south of the house. In 1846, his son John, married Louisa Dalrymple Hamilton, the heiress of Bargany in Ayrshire, but when eighteen years later he succeeded as tenth Earl , he chose to concentrate on the development of the family’s other home at Lochinch Castle, at Stranraer. Thereafter, Oxenfoord played more of a secondary role in the family until 1931 when it was turned into a school by Lady Marjorie Dalrymple.

Today, viewing of the castle is by appointment only, but the 68 acres of parkland and woodland provide a perfect location for outdoor activities such as team building, Highland games, clay pigeon shooting and archery.

The castle is available for corporate events, weddings and private parties, or as a setting for a traditional Scottish evening complete with “The Beating of Retreat” on the gravel sweep in front of the house.

Situated only 12 miles from Scotland’s capital, it is enormously gratifying to see this fine old ancestral house taking on a new lease of life.