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Issue 95 - Blissful Blairquhan

Scotland Magazine Issue 95
October 2017


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Blissful Blairquhan

Charles Douglas pays a nostalgic visit to an iconic Ayrshire castle

For those of my generation, the names of Blairquhan and its late, charismatic owner James Hunter Blair — a generous, kindly bachelor with a big personality who threw so many memorable parties — are inextricably intertwined. However, time inevitably moves on, as did the ‘Loyal’ Hunter Blair (‘Loyal’ being his favourite catchword), and Blairquhan now has a new ownership. Happily, since it is available for lease for wedding receptions and private bookings, the welcoming traditions of a great Scottish country house carry on.

Visitors have been made welcome at Blairquhan since the 13th Century when it consisted of a tower house built by the McWhirter or MacChruiter family of musicians, who were granted lands in Carrick by David II in 1346. In the 16th Century, the estate was inherited through marriage by the powerful Kennedy family who dominated the region. Already large landowners in the South West of Scotland (notably at Cassilis and Culzean Castle), they made additions to the old castle around 1573, but in the early 18th Century the Whitefoord family took over this impressive estate.

Banking and financial troubles are not exclusive to the 21st Century. In 1772, Sir John Whitefoord Bt and his family were ruined by the collapse of the Ayr Bank (Douglas, Heron & Co). American investors had speculated heavily on the cost of land and had, as a result, created a huge credit bubble that simply could not be sustained. The collapse of the Ayr Bank coincided with a run on the banks in England where savers, anticipating trouble from a Napoleonic France, attempted to exchange their currency for gold — forcing the bank of England to prevent further exchanges. Faced with bankruptcy, Sir John was obliged to sell his Ballochmyle estate.

Whitefoord had been an early patron of the poet Robert Burns, but ended up almost destitute and living in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. Next, the Whitefoords sold Blairquhan to Sir David Hunter Blair Bt, second son of Sir James Hunter Blair Bt, who had served as Edinburgh’s Member of Parliament from 1780 to 1784 and Lord Provost of Edinburgh from 1784 to 1786, and was based on the Powderhall (Puddock Hall) Estate. It was he who rebuilt Edinburgh University and authorized the building of South Bridge over Edinburgh’s Cowgate.

The Hunter Blair wealth had begun with John Hunter, who had accumulated a large fortune through financial dealing and as a merchant in Edinburgh. Following the marriage in 1770 of John Hunter’s eldest son James, the 1st Baronet, to Jean Blair, heiress to the Dunskey Estate in Wigtownshire (See:
Scotland Magazine #90), and niece of the 10th Earl of Cassilis, the family’s name became Hunter Blair. The baronetcy then passed to the eldest son of James and Jean, then to David.

To emphasize his prominence in Scottish society, Sir David commissioned the Scottish architect William Burn to design a splendid new house at Blairquhan for him. The old castle of Blairquhan, which had suffered from fire and neglect, was replaced by a fine Tudor-style mansion that nevertheless incorporated some of the decorative mouldings and sculpted stones from its predecessor.

Blairquhan is considered to be one of William Burn’s most successful commissions. The building cost Sir David £16,371. 14s, with a further £3,866 for furnishing. The masonry work was undertaken by Alexander Ramsay and Archibald Johnston and the carpentry by James Patton and Hugh Govan, all under the strict supervision of Burn. Every detail was masterminded from Edinburgh and Burn’s drawings, which can be seen in the national Monuments Record for Scotland, confirm that all of his specifications were carried out.

The result is that one enters a neo-Greek masterpiece, stepping into the saloon to be confronted by a series of apartments, all in the Gothic style. The large drawing room and small drawing room situated on the west side have bright bay windows that look over the garden and the park, and down to where the Water of Girvan snakes off towards the town of Maybole. Above the saloon, bedrooms open off the gallery in the tower. On the outside walls of the former kitchen court can be seen the only remaining details of the original castle. Notably, the interiors and surroundings were used as a substitute location for Balmoral Castle in the 2006 film
The Queen, starring Helen Mirren.

James Hunter Blair, who died in 2004, was the younger brother of the 8th Baronet, Sir Edward Hunter Blair, and an enthusiastic horticulturalist and forester who made significant repairs and improvements to the 2000-acre estate. For a time he was chairman of Scotland’s Historic Houses Association and president of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, the influences from which can be seen in the grounds. There is an old sycamore close to the castle that is thought to be a Dule tree (a tree used as gallows), which is thought to have been planted in the early 16th century during the reign of King James V of Scotland.

James Hunter Blair started the current hospitality initiative at the estate in 1970. On several occasions I remember there being television cameras at work and high-profile events taking place at Blairquhan. In 2012, Blairquhan Estate was sold to its current owners, Ganten Scotland, for transformation into a luxury exclusive-use venue and awarded five-star accreditation by VisitScotland. After recent renovations, Blairquhan Castle (which is Category A Listed) now incorporates four superb function suites, 15 luxuriously designed bedrooms and two beautifully landscaped gardens. It is ideal for exclusive use for weddings, corporate events, house parties and golf holidays .

I can think of no more blissful place to relax while enjoying the myriad delights of Ayrshire.

Visitor Information

Blairquhan Castle
Straiton, Ayrshire, KA19 7LY
+44 (0) 1655 770 239