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Issue 9 - DunrobinCastle-FairytaleSplendour

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 9
July 2003

 

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DunrobinCastle-FairytaleSplendour

CHARLESDOUGLASEXPLORESTHESPLENDIDANDBEAUTIFULRESIDENCEOFTHESUTHERLANDS,DUNROBINCASTLE,ANDLOOKINTOTHEFAMILY'SCOLOURFULHISTORY

Sincethe18thcentury,theSutherlandsofDunrobinCastle,nearGolspie,havehadabadpress.Butthatdoesnotmeantosaythattheyhavelargelydeservedit.Unfortunately,memoriesintheHighlandsarelong,andthespectreoftheLandClearancesofthe19thcentury,whentenantcrofterswereforciblyremovedfromtheirancestralplots,stillcastsalongshadow.

Itwasthemarriageoftheonlydaughterofthe18thEarlofSutherlandtoGeorgeGranvilleLeveson-Gower,anEnglishman,whichcreatedtheproblem.Anenormouslywealthyman,Leveson-Gower,aprominentLiberalpolitician,becameMarquessofStaffordin1803and,withthebestpossibleintentions,announcedhiswishtoimprovethelotofhiswife’stenantry,whowerespreadacrossthevast,ofteninaccessibleterritoriesofthefarnorth-eastofScotland.Alas,LordStafford’swell-meaninginitiativesweretobackfirehorribly.

Althoughlivinginprimitiveblackhousesinabjectpoverty,themajorityofthe5,000inhabitantsoftheCaithnessandSutherlandregionwerehappywiththeirlot.Theirancestorshadlivedinthiswayforcenturies.Suchsettledcommunitieshadnodesiretomovetothealternativemodernhousingwhichtheirlandlordwasprovidingforthem,alongwithemployment,onthecoast.

Whentheyrefusedtobudge,itwasthebeginningofoneofthesaddestepisodesinHighlandfolklore.ThespeedandbrutalityemployedbyLordStafford’sagentsfollowingtheordersoftheiremployerwastocreateabitternessthathasstainedtheSutherlandnameeversince,despitemanyofthoseevictedmovingontoaninfinitelybetterwayoflifeonthefarsideoftheAtlantic.

Butthatisanotherstory.Sixmonthsbeforehedied,LordStaffordwascreated1stDukeofSutherland,andhismassivestatuebySirFrancisChantreystandsonamountain-topoverlookingGolspie.AlsodominatingthelandscapeistheSutherland’sFrenchchâteau-stylecastleofDunrobin,builtonthesiteofa13thCenturykeepandmuchadded-tothroughthecenturies.

Botharememorialstoanerawhereenormouswealthsatside-by-sideandclashedwithwretchedpoverty.Hopefully,thecommissionofaClearancesMemorialbythesculptorGeraldLaing,tobeerectedby2008atnearbyHelmsdale,willgosomewaytowardscreatingabetterunderstandingofwhatactuallydidtakeplace200yearsago.

Inthemeantime,thereisDunrobinitselftobeexplored.Asectionofthemediævaltowerstillstands,butmostofthestructureseentodaywasrebuiltinthemiddleofthe19thcenturyontheordersofthe2ndDuke,whocommissionedSirCharlesBarry,architectoftheHousesofParliamentatWestminster,tocreateaFranco-Scotspalace.

However,agreatdealofBarry’sworkwasdestroyedinafirein1915,andthedistinguishedScotsarchitectSirRobertLorimerwasbroughtintooverseerepairwork.

Althoughnotinhisbrief,hegraspedtheopportunitytoremodelmuchoftheinterior.

Andtheresultisthismagnificent,toweringedificewhichseemssosurprisinglyoutofplacesofarnorth.Butthenwhyshouldit?

TheSutherlandfamilydescendsfromFreskin,aFlemishnoblewhoheldlandsinMorayshireover800yearsago.

HisgrandsonwasgiventheSutherlandlandsbyKingWilliamtheLyonin1197,andfromthesepowerfulancestorsoriginateallthesubsequentearlsanddukesofSutherland.

Thefamilyhistoryisnothingifnotcolourful.TheFreskinlineofearlsendedin1514whenthetitlepassedtothe9thEarl’ssister,ElizabethGordon.Thereafter,bothlandsandtitlewereheldbytheGordonsuntilthe18thcentury.AndwhatacollectionofMachiavellianpeopletheyturnedouttobe!

The11thEarlandCountesswerepoisonedbytheirauntwhowantedthetitleandlandsforherownson.Shefailed,however,todisposeoftheirson,whosucceededas12thEarl,andmarriedtheformerwifeofMaryQueenofScots’thirdhusband,theEarlofBothwell.

Butitwasfromthemid-17thCenturyonwardsthatthefamilytookamoreactivepartinaffairsofstate.The14thEarlwasappointedKeeperofthePrivySealofScotland;the15thEarlsupportedWilliamofOrangebyfortifyingInvernessagainsttheJacobites,andintheJacobiteUprisingsof1715and1745,the16thEarlsidedstronglywiththeHanoverians.ThisisthehistorythatresonatesthroughouttheroomsandcorridorsofDunrobin,albeittosomeextentsubmergedinthedazzlingopulencewhichonlygreatwealthcancreate.

WhenQueenVictoriavisitedin1872,lavishtapestrieswerecommissioneddepictingscenesfromthelifeoftheGreekphilosopherDiogenes.Inthediningroom,thewall-topfriezeisofItalianorigin,butthemoststrikingfeatureisthegroupoffamilyportraits.

Theseincludethechildrenofthe1stDukebyThomasPhillips;Granville,1stMarquessofStaffordbyGeorgeRomney,andWilliam,18thEarlbyAllanRamsay.TheEarliswearingaSutherlandtartankiltandscarletjacket.

Thelibrary,whichcontainsover10,000books,islinedwithnaturalsycamorewood,andthefocalpointisPhilipdeLaszlo’sdramaticportraitoftheDuchessEileen,MistressoftheRobestoQueenMary.

ThelastroomontheprincipalflooristheDuke’sstudy,panelledinScottishlarch.Offthisisasmallbalconywhichenabledthe5thDuketowatchhispiperplayingontheterraceinthemornings.InanalcoveisafinecollectionofWemyss-warechinaaccumulatedbythepresentCountess.

Amongthemanymilitaryandceremonialexhibitsondisplayarethecoloursofthe93rdSutherlandHighlanders.

The93rdwasthefamousthinredlineattheBattleofBalaclava,andwasthesuccessorofvariousregimentsraisedbythefamilyduringtheSevenYearsandNapoleonicWars,latertobecomepartoftheArgyllandSutherlandHighlanders.Periodbedrooms,nurseriesandkitchenscompletethetour.Foradherentstothesupernatural,itshouldbenotedthatbackinthe15thcentury,ayounggirlsupposedlyfelltoherdeathatthehandsoftheincumbentEarl.Evennow,itissaidthathersobscanbeheardcomingfromthelittleroomnexttothenightnursery.

AndthentherearethecastlegroundsoverlookingtheNorthSea.InspiredbythoseatVersailles,thegardensaredividedintotwoparterres,bothlaidoutaroundcircularpoolswithfountains.ThedesignismuchasBarryleftit,buttheplantingandornamentationhasbeenrecentlyreplenished.

ThisincludesavenuesofTuscanlaurelandwhitebeam,andtheconstructionofwoodenpyramidfeatures.Theoldmethodoftreeculture,pleaching,hasalsobeenreintroduced,ashasabeegardenwithworkinghives.Avegetablegardenandorchardwasbegunin1999,againwithFrenchinfluencetothefore.

RulesofsuccessioninScotlandareunderstandablyconfusingtothelayman.UndertheCeltictradition,Scottishearldoms,intheabsenceofanimmediatemaleheir,canpassthroughthefemaleline.Thesuccessorisentitled‘Countess’.Non-royaldukedoms,however,areBritish,notScottish,andcan’tbehandeddownthroughthefemaleline.

The5thDukeofSutherlandmarriedtwice,buthadnochildren.Whenhediedin1963,theducaltitlethereforepassedtohisdistantcousin,the5thEarlofEllesmere,whobecame6thDuke.Theearldom,however,wenttothe5thDuke’sniece,whobecameCountessofSutherlandinherownrightandinheritedDunrobinandthefamilylands.Sheisthe24thholderofthetitle,andismarriedtoCharlesJanson.TheireldestsonistitledLordStrathnaver,anditishewhotodayadministerstheestate.

Likesomanyotherstatelyhomesthatareopentothepublic,Dunrobinhashadtodiversifyinordertoattractvisitors,andspecialfunctions,conventions,buffets,lunchesandreceptionscanbearrangedineitherthediningroomorthedrawingroom.Facilitiesarealsoavailableforfashionshows,airdisplays,archery,clay-pigeonshooting,gardenparties,filming,concertsandweddingreceptions.