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Issue 90 - Wonderland on the Rhins of Galloway

Scotland Magazine Issue 90
December 2016

 

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Wonderland on the Rhins of Galloway

Charles Douglas visits Dunskey house

To the north of Portpatrick in Wigtownshire stand the romantic ruins of Dunskey Castle, nowadays separated from the main Dunskey Estate, but designated as an A listed scheduled monument of national importance. Strategically built to command the hammerhead of the Rhins of Galloway on the Irish Sea, some of the castle remains date from the late 12th Century, possibly earlier.

Historians can only conjecture as to its original occupants and where they owed their loyalties – Scotland, England or Norway? As noted in this issue's Regional Feature, this corner of Southwest Scotland was, for most of the first millennium, dominated by Vikings. It should also be noted that Wigtown Castle, which is less than 30 miles away, was under the patronage of the King of England at the end of the 13th Century.

That said, Portpatrick was soon to emerge as the harbour for the castle of Dunskey and, by the time of the signing of the Ragman Roll for Wigtownshire in 1296, various families had been associated with the defence of the Rhins. However, one surname in particular stands out: Adair. By the 15th Century this family is very much in evidence, notably in 1489 when Dunskey Castle was plundered and burned by Sir Alexander McCulloch of Myrtoun. It took the Adairs over 20 years to rebuild the core of the castle that can be seen today. In the meantime, they built the Castle of St John at Stranraer.

The Adairs continued to be associated with Dunskey Castle throughout the 16th Century and, in the early part of the 17th Century, married into local landowning families such as the Kennedys, McClellans and Montgomerys. However, in 1620, Hugh Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery, bought Dunskey and added a gallery wing to the north range. Alas, financial problems led to his abandoning the project, the castle and the estate, which eventually passed through marriage into the Blair family. By the end of the 17th Century, the Blairs had built a rather more modern residence at the head of Dunskey Glen.

In 1770, James, the second son of John Hunter (who had accumulated a fortune as a merchant), married Jane, daughter of John Blair of Dunskey and a niece of the 10th Earl of Cassillis. When James' wife inherited the Dunskey estates from her brother in 1777, the family thereafter assumed the additional surname of Blair. From 1780 until 1784, James Hunter Blair served as Member of Parliament for Edinburgh and from 1784 until 1786 was Lord Provost of Edinburgh, residing on his estate at Powderhall (Puddock Hall) on the outskirts of the city. He was created a baronet in 1786 and both Blair Street and Hunter Street in the capital are named after him.

On his death, in 1787, the Dunskey property passed to his younger brother Forbes, and then to his son, Sir David Hunter Blair, 3rd Baronet, who had purchased the Blairquhan estate in Ayrshire in 1798. Around 1830, the existing 17th Century Dunskey House was greatly enlarged and improved by Sir Edward Hunter Blair, 4th Baronet, with his architect William Burn. The grounds were also substantially landscaped including the walled gardens; glasshouses; and what were referred to as the ‘pleasure grounds’ – a series of paths, view points, gazebos and elaborate plantings around the main house and all the way down to the beaches.

Towards the end of the next century, the Dunskey estate passed to the Orr Ewing family and, in the early years of the following century, the current house was built for Charles Lindsay Orr Ewing and his second wife Lady Augusta Boyle, daughter of the 7th Earl of Glasgow and Dorothea Hunter Blair. Charles was the youngest son of Sir Archibald Orr Ewing of Ballikinrain, Member of Parliament for Dunbartonshire, and served as a captain in the 3rd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders before being elected Member of Parliament for Ayr Burghs.

Dunskey House was designed by James Kennedy Hunter and consists of three storeys, with its entrance in the centre of the rather austere southern elevation. The 15-bay facade is decorated with quirky water spouts and crow-step gables. Indoors, there are four impressive main reception rooms with opulent plasterwork ceilings; magnificent fireplaces; and extensive woodwork, including oak panelling. The library is particularly remarkable and boasts built in bookshelves. There are also splendid beamed ceilings in the dining room and the old billiard room, now a very large family kitchen.

Unfortunately, Charles died in 1903 aged 43, shortly before the Orr Ewings’ new house was completed. The house and estate was somewhat neglected as the owners fought in the two world wars, and much of the land was sold off in order to pay burdensome inheritance taxes. Major ES Orr Ewing inherited the estate in 1964, after the death of his father (yet more inheritance tax), and spent the next 50 years managing and upgrading the remains of the estate, while living in Dunskey House – which was maintained very much as a private dwelling.

Including 2000 acres of glen walks; forests; beaches; lochs; a magnificent walled garden; and waterfalls, Dunskey is now the home of Alastair Orr Ewing, his wife Anne Tristine Nguyen, and their young family, who moved here in 2015.

Since then, the couple have poured their hearts and souls into redefining the image and ethos of the estate, in a remarkably short time. It was, therefore, little wonder that the estate’s Beach Glen Cottage was selected by The Guardian as one of the top 50 holiday rentals in the country.

Not only a business to them, Anne and Ali are determined to make Dunskey House a pivotal part of the Wigtownshire community. “The house is so beautiful and it needs to be seen,” says Anne. “Open access is the only way I can justify living in a house of this size.” They certainly have the energy, commitment, and sense of fun to make it work, promoting charity events and musical evenings such as hosting the Trembling Bells, a folk-rock band from Glasgow.

Dunskey Estate, steeped in heritage, is poised for the next chapter in its history, with a passionate family guiding its path. Built as a private residence, it is perhaps one of the best-preserved secrets in Southwest Scotland that can be visited today.

Visitor Information
Dunskey Estate
Portpatrick, Stranraer,
Dumfries & Galloway, DG9 8YJ
+44 (0) 1776 810 211
www.dunskey.com