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Issue 86 - Georgian Splendour with an ancient lineage

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016


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Georgian Splendour with an ancient lineage

Charles Douglas visits Balbirnie House at Markinch in Fife

At one time or another more than 13 branches of the influential Balfour family owned estates in Fife, their surname collectively acquired from the lands of Balfour in Markinch. The first to be recorded was Siward, son of Osulf Balfour in the reign of King Duncan I (1001-1040) who in return for the head of Ottar the Dane was granted lands in the Orr Valley and the Isle of May. As early as 1229, an Ingelgramus de Balfour, Sheriff of Fife, appears in connection with the monastery of Aberbrothwick.

In the following centuries, the Balfour family both proliferated and distinguished itself: John de Balfour falling in battle against Edward I of England at the Sack of Berwick in 1296, Sir Duncan dying at the Battle of Blackironside in 1298, and both David de Balfour and Malcolm de Balfour were present at Robert the Bruce's parliament at Cambuskenneth in 1314.

Held from the 12th Century by descendants of Orm, a son of the Abbot of Abernethy, the lands of Balbirnie were subsequently acquired by a family that took the name of ‘Balbirnie of that Ilk’ and were almost certainly relatives of the extended Balfour dynasty.

Around 1640, the lands were purchased by George Balfour, who had made a fortune as a clothier in London and Edinburgh, before passing to his son, John, in 1767. In 1777, John Balfour replaced the estate’s existing dwelling house with one of much grander design, the work attributed to both James Nisbet and John Baxter Jnr. Gardens in the style of Capability Brown and based on plans by landscape designer Robert Robinson were also created. At the time, John Balfour’s income was somewhat modest, around £1700 per year, with £90 to spend on house staff. However, by 1813, the last year of his life, income at the estate had increased to over £7500 per year, yet staff costs had only increased to around £130. This significant growth in revenue was largely due to the increased demand for coal and agricultural produce caused by the war in France and proved to be a real boon for the Balfours.

By 1815, this increased income allowed for a transformation of the existing building into a grand country house for Lieutenant General Robert Balfour, formerly of the 2nd Dragoons, son of John Balfour, 5th of Balbirnie. The General obviously had aspirations and the architect Richard Crichton was commissioned for a sum of £16,000 to create grand neo-classical facades, in addition to new apartments in the southeastern wing. Crichton had previously worked on Gask House in Perthshire (1801), however at the time there were few comparable properties, Gask included, in terms of size and style from which inspiration could be directly drawn. It has been suggested instead that it is the New Town of Edinburgh that is evoked by Balbirnie’s design, with particular reference to motifs visible in Robert Reid’s drawings of Great King Street (1804).

The extension was built almost as a separate villa and included a very grand central entrance flanked by sizable rooms on either side; this continued into a long gallery leading from the entrance hall and along the back of the original house, joining them. Its two grand neoclassical fronts, facing south and west, would go on to inspire future developments throughout Scotland, and one 19th Century commentator remarked that it could be considered as significant a contribution to architecture as Gillespie Graham’s Blythswood in Renfrewshire (1820) and William Burn’s Camperdown near Dundee (1821)

Despite this extensive redevelopment, the original Nisbet house can still be viewed today through the garden facade and occupies the first seven windows from the north along the garden front. General Balfour’s changes also included work on the original designed landscape, inspired by Robert Robinson (c.1779), which was extended by Thomas White Jnr. This incorporated parks and trees, among them specimens supplied by Sir Joseph Hooker, the celebrated explorer and botanist.

Helped, in part, by a sizeable inheritance from an aunt, there were sufficient funds remaining to aid his two brothers in building their own houses at Whittingehame in East Lothian, and Newton Don in Roxburghshire. His younger brother James, who married
a daughter of the 8th Earl of Lauderdale, acquired the Whittingehame estate and was the grandfather of Arthur Balfour, who served as British Prime Minister from 1903 to 1905.

Throughout Scotland's history, the Balfours can perhaps best be described as a military family with an interest in agriculture, politics and a dedication to public service. In a more recent generation, John Balfour of Balbirnie, who died in 2009, chaired the Fife Health Board; his wife Dr Jean Balfour was Chairman of the Countryside Commission of Scotland between 1972 and 1982. The family still farms locally.

In 1969, the Glenrothes Development Corporation was set up to create Glenrothes New Town, and the grounds of Balbirnie House were acquired to create a large public park with an 18-hole golf course. In 1990, Balbirnie House, which is now Category A listed, was transformed into a luxury hotel and officially opened by the Right Honourable Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who at the time was Secretary of State for Scotland.

With 31 bedrooms, two restaurants – The Orangery with speciality grill section, and The Balbirnie Bistro – and eight private rooms accommodating seating for up to 250, Balbirnie House has become especially popular for weddings. Throughout the property guests can view a number of pieces by Scotland’s leading contemporary Colourist painter, Archie Forrest. In April 2016, Balbirnie House was named Scottish Hotel of the Year.