Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 67 - The Adam Family

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013


This article is 5 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.

The Adam Family

John Hannavy looks at the work of some of the Great Scots who made the country even greater

On the edge of the little Lothian town of Yester, almost completely shrouded by trees and undergrowth stands a stranglooking little church. This was once the medieval Bothans Collegiate Church, originally a 13th century parish church, but elevated to collegiate status at the request of the de Hay family in the early 15th century.

But what greets the occasional visitor today looks anything but medieval – and it is not, for the church was extensively restored, and the west front completely rebuilt, when it became the de Hay family burial vault in the 18th century.

The restoration work, the design and construction of the ornate Gothic west façade, completed in 1753, was just one of many commissions undertaken by that most famous member of Scotland’s most eminent family of architects – the 25 year old Robert Adam.

Robert was born in Kirkcaldy in 1728, third child and second son to William and Mary, but the family moved to Edinburgh when he was just a few weeks old. His father, William Adam, was the leading architect of the time and much in demand throughout Scotland, designing some of the country’s most iconic buildings.

Among William Adam’s most impressive buildings is, undoubtedly, his redevelopment of Sir William Bruce’s design for Hopetoun House.

Hopetoun had been completed only 20 years earlier when Adam was commissioned to extend it.

At the same time he was supervising the building of Floors Castle in Kelso, the first stones being laid in 1721. Sadly, little remains visible of Adam’s design, as the house was enlarged, heightened and refaced in the 1820s by William Henry Playfair.

Internally, the surviving Adam interiors, as well as much of Playfair’s work, disappeared during a major internal redevelopment in the 1920s.

His other great houses include Duff Castle near Banff, and the striking House of Dun near Montrose, built in the 1830s, the north front of which is especially remarkable.

Perhaps the most famous of Adam’s public works is the famous Tay Bridge at Aberfeldy, most commonly linked with General Wade. Wade may have been in overall charge of the road-making and bridge-building works which included the bridge, but the design is pure William Adam.

The year Robert Adam was born, his father reportedly had as many as 20 different projects all in progress at the same time, so significant was his reputation by that time.

But however famous William Adam was in his day, he would be completely eclipsed by his son Robert, who left his mark on so much of the Scottish landscape – and made an even greater impact on the architecture of England.

Robert’s ideas were, with some notable exceptions, more usually inspired by Classical styles. Indeed, he is now recognized as one of the leaders of the Classical Revival movement which inspired many of the great public buildings we still see around us today – Edinburgh’s City Chambers and the General Register House to name just two in Scotland, and many others south of the border including The Adelphi and Fitzroy Square, both in London. In some of these projects he was partnered by his older brother John, and in others by his younger brother James.

Among his many achievement’s Robert’s most magnificent project was Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square, completed in 1791 – a terrace in the grandest Georgian style, and recognised as one of the finest street frontages in Europe.

One of the earliest houses Robert Adam worked on was largely his brother John’s design.

The beautiful Palladian mansion, Dumfries House, built in the 1850s, is significant as being one of the few 18th century mansions in Britain to have survived largely unchanged, and to still contain the majority of the furniture originally manufactured for it.

Paxton House in Berwickshire was a real Adam family affair. It was designed by John and James Adam, with interiors by Robert. Harewood House near Leeds, and Kedleston Hall near Derby are two more Adam houses – the former completed in 1771 and the latter 1765. By the time Robert became involved with Kedleston, he was working on his finest Scottish mansion – Mellerstain House also in Berwickshire.

That, too, was a project which involved more than just one member of the family. Work on the house had been started in 1725 by Robert’s father, but only the two wings of the house had been completed by the time the money ran out. It was 45 years later than Robert was commissioned to build the main house.

Mellerstain, was still under construction when Bishop Richard Pococke visited in the autumn of 1760. William Adam had originally been commissioned by George Baillie of Jerviswood to design his new house in 1725 and an earlier house on the site was demolished to make way for Adam’s design.

Baillie’s grandson, George Hamilton, inherited the estate the year before Pococke visited. Robert Adam was given the commission in 1760, but work did not start in earnest for another decade.

Pococke wrote to his sister that “Mellerstain is well sitauted on an eminence with a hill behind it to the west, adorned with Plantations formed into Ridings and Stars. The offices are finished and there is a fine lawn and wood both to the Front and back of the intended house.” What emerged was not the Palladian house envisaged by William, but a striking and elegant mansion which is pure Robert Adam. William’s wings still survive, but the main house is entirely Robert’s work, and remains the most complete example of his skill as an architect. Inside are elegant saloons with the soft pastels and delicate plaster work we associate with Robert’s finest work, and the library especially, is a masterpiece.

In between all this high quality work, Robert Adam even found the time to seek – and win – election to Parliament as MP for Kinross.

He died in London in 1792 – the same year as his brother John and is buried in Westminster Abbey, and two years later his brother James also died.

Between them the three men had left an almost indelible mark on Scotland, and had been a major influence in the development of British architecture.

One of Robert Adam’s earliest designs – in 1748 – had, perhaps fittingly, been a mausoleum for his father William which still stands in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Churchyard.

Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue