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Issue 65 - Auchinleck House - Home to a Man of Letters

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 2012


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Auchinleck House - Home to a Man of Letters

Charles Douglas visits the Ayrshire home of the Boswell family

Much of the fascination surrounding this elegant country mansion is inevitably fired by the relationships between three men: Lord Auchinleck, the Scottish Court of Session judge who built Auchinleck House; his son, James Boswell, an Edinburgh lawyer, and Dr Samuel Johnson, the celebrated London-based lexicographer.

The first recorded members of the Boswell family came to Britain with the Norman invasion of 1066 and are thought to have originated from the town of Beauzeville in France. It is uncertain exactly when they arrived in Scotland, but they emerge in the following centuries as being established at Balmuto in Fife while in the 13th century, Auchinleck, which is located in East Ayrshire, was the seat of the Auchinlecks of that ilk.

In 1504, however, Thomas Boswell of the Balmuto family married the daughter and heiress of Sir John Auchinleck, and the union was enthusiastically endorsed by James IV. Thomas was to die with his king on the battlefield of Flodden in 1513.

Up until then, the Auchinleck family had at first occupied a castle situated high up on a crag, moving in the 15th century to an equally defensible house nearby, the ruins of which can still be seen.

In 1591, Thomas's grandson John Boswell, a notable Freemason, was exposed as a practicing necromancer, having allegedly dabbled in witchcraft, sorcery and other devilish activities. He fled the country. Thereafter his family appear to have kept a low profile through the ensuing generations with at least two of their number suffering from mental illness, but in 1754, Alexander, 8th Laird, was appointed to the Court of Session, taking the title of Lord Auchinleck. In 1755, he was appointed Lord Justiciary.

It was Lord Auchinleck who decided to build himself and his heirs a house appropriate for prosperous landowners, a mansion in the Adam style (the design of which he is said to have orchestrated himself), and hence the house that we see today. Certainly a major influence must have been the neighbouring Dumfries House, which had only recently been built for the Earl of Dumfries by the Adam family of architects. Incidentally, Dumfries House has recently attracted a considerable amount of attention following its purchase by HRH The Prince of Wales, who is anxious to bring regeneration to the surrounding area.

Auchinleck House was therefore an undeniable statement of status. Above the front entrance is a frieze with symbols illustrating the vocations of Lord Auchinleck, his brother and his sons. Music, martial arts, scales of justice, a sceptre of authority and the serpent-entwined staff of Aesculapius the healer are featured and grouped around the central motif, a hooded falcon from the Boswell family crest. Carved into the stone in Latin are the words of Roman lyric poet Horace, “Quod Petis hic est, est ulubris, animus sit e non deficit aequus”, translated as “What you are looking for is here at Ulubrae, if only balance of mind does not desert you.” However, while Lord Auchinleck concentrated on his distinguished legal career, commuting between Ayrshire and Edinburgh, his relationship with his eldest son and heir became increasingly strained. The young James Boswell, rebelling against his parents and seduced by the bright lights of London, was dismissive of his parents' Calvinist beliefs, and while in London, fell under the fatherly spell of Dr Samuel Johnson, compiler of The Dictionary of the English Language, and arguably the most distinguished living man of letters in England, 31 years his senior.

In 1773, at the end of their celebrated tour of the Hebrides, of which both men left published accounts, James brought Johnson to stay at Auchinleck where Johnson, the devout Anglican, and Lord Auchinleck, the strict Presyterian, famously argued over politics in the library.

Always in the shadow of his father, James Boswell's legal career continued to disappoint throughout his life, but his greatest achievement, his towering biography of Samuel Johnson, was achieved after both Lord Auchinleck and Johnson had died. Preferring to base himself in London, he nevertheless, for health reasons, agreed to settle his wife and family (two sons and three girls) at Auchinleck, passing on the responsibilities of running the estate to his eldest son Sandy. He died at the age of 54 and his remains are interred in the Auchinleck Mausoleum.

Auchinleck remained with the immediate Boswell family until it passed through the female lines to the Irish Malahide family. In the 1920's, Talbot de Malahide, sold the estate to his cousin, Lt. Col. John Douglas Boswell.

During the Second World War, Auchinleck was occupied by officers from the armies of Poland, Canada and France. In 1986, it was handed over by the current James Boswell to the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust which repaired the roof and thus ensured the survival of the building.

In 1999, Auchinleck House was purchased by the Landmark Trust, the historic building preservation society. The magnificent crimson walled library was saved, and within the grounds, the pavilions, the obelisks and bridge across the Dippol Burn where there is an ice-house and grotto. Renovated in its entirety, the house is now used for holiday lets, and is occasionally open to the public for events such as the annual Boswell Book Festival in May (

The Boswell Museum and Mausoleum Trust was established in 2010 to restore the Boswell Mausoleum in Auchinleck churchyard and, to create a museum to celebrate the life and work of James Boswell. The well-known conservation architect Ben Tindall has been appointed to undertake an initial survey of the buildings. A business strategy is in the process of being developed with initial funding from SCORE and The Cumnock and Doon Minerals Trust.