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Issue 88 - Perpetuating the tradition of Scottish country life

Scotland Magazine Issue 88
August 2016


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Perpetuating the tradition of Scottish country life

Charles Douglas visits Gargunnock House near Stirling

Beginning its existence as the site of a fortified tower house, the Gargunnock estate - which lies six miles west of Stirling - was subsequently occupied by a succession of notable Scots families. From 1470 it was home to Alexander Hepburn, a relative of the earls of Bothwell, then Alexander Elphinstone and Ninian Seton, the Campbells of Ardkinglas, and finally the Stirling family.

Ranked as a Category A listed laird's house, it has recently been sensitively restored to meet the requirements of the 21st Century and, although not open to the general public as such, the property can be leased for holiday accommodation through the Landmark Trust. Elegant and serene in appearance, the grand Gargunnock House recaptures all of the style and historic dignity of a bygone age.

The earliest known fortification in the district was the Gargunnock Peel Tower which Scotland's Guardian William Wallace retrieved from English occupation in 1297 and promptly demolished. This is known to have stood some hundred yards north of the current Gargunnock House, close to where the Gargunnock Burn meets the River Forth.

The Elphinstones, who took their name from the lands of Airth and Plean, rose to prominence when Sir John de Elfinstun married Margaret of Seton, a niece of King Robert I. The Elphinstone family is on record as owning the estate in the early 16th Century and credited with building the L-shaped tower house; although this is by no means certain as thereafter the Setons of Touch were granted 'five mercates of the lands of old extent of Gargunnock, together with tower, fortalice and mansionhouse lying in the Sheriffdom of Stirling' for 100 years thereafter.

In a document from 1530, John Seyton, a natural son of Sir Alexander of Touch, having married Janet Turnbull, a co-heiress of Gargunnock, is referred to as 'of Gargunnock.' In 1534, he handed over 'half the lands and barony' to his son, also named John, who sold them to his nephew Sir Walter Seton of Tullibody in 1547, who had already inherited the remainder of the estate from his grandfather.

After this, Gargunnock passed in time to Sir Walter's own grandson, John Seton of Touch, who handed it over to his brother Alexander. On being appointed a Scottish judge, Alexander took the judicial title of Lord Kilcreuch and continued to do rather well for himself. He also acquired Culcreuch Castle at Fintry, near Glasgow, in settlement of monies owed to him by his brother-in-law Robert Galbraith, who was obliged to flee to Ireland to escape his debts.

In 1624, the estate was sold to John Erskine, 2nd Earl of Mar, and gifted through the marriage of his granddaughter to Sir James Campbell, 11th Laird of Ardkinglas in Argyll (See: Scotland Magazine #80). During the Jacobite Rising of 1745, while on their march eastward to Edinburgh, Gargunnock was garrisoned by Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his men.

Sir James Campbell added three wings to the existing house in the 18th Century, with the final extensions completed in 1794. This included the current drawing room and exterior Georgian facade, along with the stable yard and carriage houses. The quirky octagonal doocot dates from the early 19th Century and is Category B Listed, as is the sundial that was created for the walled garden, but can now be found in the formal garden.

In 1835, Charles Stirling, the 5th son of John Stirling, 6th Laird of Kippendavie and a prosperous Glasgow merchant, purchased the estate. Scion of the old Stirling family of Cadder (or Calder), the property thereafter passed through Charles' descendants for four generations.

These Stirlings had evolved from a Pictish line established in Scotland in the 12th Century. At one stage or another, their land holdings included Faskine, Mansfield, Ardoch, Cadder and Muiravonside, Glorat, Garden, Gargunnock, Fairburn, Larbert, Auchyle, Kippendavie, and Keir. Wealthy, landed and successful in business as they were, the various branches of the family went on to make a significant contribution through the generations to the military and public life of Scotland and the United Kingdom. The imposing facade, in the style of architect William Adam, bears testimony to their success.

From the entrance hall, the principal access to the main part of Gargunnock House is through a games room with a low ceiling, or a staircase connecting to the rooms on the floors above. All of the principal rooms are on the first floor.

The drawing room, with its generous open-hearth fireplace, was added in 1794 and, with ornate cornicing and embellishments to the ceiling, is hung with a series of imposing family portraits. There is also a fine grand piano that is said to have been played by Fre´de´ric Chopin when he visited the house in 1845. The Polish composer had been invited to Scotland by Colonel Stirling's cousin Jane, who had been brought up at Kippenross House, near Dunblane. Jane became an accomplished pianist herself and, although their relationship is claimed to have been purely platonic, she devoted her life to Chopin's brilliance. Indeed, it is said that she declined thirty proposals of marriage.

Up to 18 guests can be seated at the large table in the dining room at Gargunnock House. Between the dining room and drawing room is a small library and a bedroom. Off the passageways are small circular stairs that lead to the second and third floors, and the additional bedroom accommodation. Suitable for large parties, the four double bedrooms, four twin bedrooms and five bathrooms allow 16 people to sleep comfortably in the house. The fully fitted modern kitchen has an electric cooker, two dishwashers, two fridges and a full complement of cooking utensils, crockery, cutlery and glass.

The remarkable Viola Stirling was the last of her immediate family; she bequeathed Gargunnock House and much of its contents to a charitable trust. Today the property is leased to the public through the Landmark Trust. It was Viola's specific wish that Gargunnock be 'preserved and administered so as to exemplify and perpetuate the tradition of Scottish country life.' As a young woman she had, in 1938, formed the first Auxiliary Territorial Service platoon in Stirling and in 1948 retired with the rank of Controller. Following her father's example, it was she who was responsible for the extensive planting of ornamental trees, azaleas and rhododendrons along the drive. More recently, the delightful gardens have been lovingly maintained by Willie Campbell, a former BP employee, who took early retirement at 50 to become Gargunnock's head gardener.

Today there are five acres of mature gardens open to the public on Wednesday afternoons throughout the summer months, from mid-April to mid-June and over September and October.

Visitor Information
Gargunnock House Gargunnock, Stirling, FK8 3AZ
+44 (0) 1786 860 392