Charles Douglas considers how Lennoxlove survived turbulent times to become one of Scotland’s greatest idylls.
The very name resounds with romance, but it was not always so. Historians know Lennoxlove as Lethington, the tower house allegedly built as long ago as the 12th century and acquired in 1345 by the Maitland family of Thirlestane Castle, near Lauder.
But before John Maitland, 1st Earl of Lauderdale, enlarged the windows and embellished the building in 1626, it was just another defensive rectangular keep, typical in Scotland, erected to protect the interests of its master.
Everything changed with the Union of the Crowns (Scotland and England) in 1603. By then the Maitlands had achieved powerful status. The Earl of Lauderdale and his son, the 1st and only Duke of Lauderdale, were enigmatic figures, the latter becoming Charles II’s Secretary of State for Scotland.
Although for the most part the Duke lived in great style in both London and at Thirlestane Castle, Lethington was his base when attending sessions in Edinburgh. And it was he who extended the tower, added kitchens and enclosed the park.
However, on his death in 1682, Lethington passed to his stepson, Lord Huntingtower, who sold it, and it was then that the romantic associations began.
Frances Theresa Stewart, granddaughter of Lord Blantyre, was appointed maid of honour to Queen Catherine in the Court of Charles II. Described by Samuel Pepys as the ‘greatest beauty he had ever seen in his life,’ she posed as Britannia for the image on Charles’ coinage, and was known as ‘La Belle Stewart.’ Despite rumours to the contrary, however, she resisted the King’s advances and eloped with his 4th cousin Charles, 3rd Duke of Richmond and Lennox.
The King was furious and banished her husband to Denmark as British ambassador. When Frances died, she bequeathed £50,000 to her nephew Alexander Stewart, Lord Blantyre, for the purchase of a house, and stipulated that wherever it was, it must be called ‚’Lennox’s Love to Blantyre.’ In time the name was shortened to Lennoxlove. When the 12th Lord Blantyre died he left no male heir, and the property passed to his daughter, Ellen Stewart and her husband.
It was their son Major William Baird who commissioned the Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer to refurbish the house in 1912, including the restoration of the Entrance Hall, the Great Hall, and the Oak Room.
In 1946, Lennoxlove was sold to the 14th Duke of Hamilton. The Hamiltons brought many of their treasures with them to Lennoxlove and, once again, an extensive programme of redecoration was undertaken, this time by John Fowler, a fashionable interior decorator of the period.
Today Lennoxlove, set among East Lothian woodlands, near Haddington, is one of Scotland’s almost hidden gems.
With a fine outlook to the Lammermuir Hills, it is not a grand stately home, but a place of enormous character, much enhanced by the ducal Hamilton family. The 15th Duke and his Duchess no longer live there, but they have a home nearby, and with his office within the building, they take an active interest in its daily management.
Starting with the Entrance Hall, the decoration in apricot and yellow is one of John Fowler’s most imaginative triumphs. Among the pictures are two full length portraits of Elizabeth Gunning Duchess of Hamilton (1734-790) and her husband James, 6th Duke of Hamilton (1724-1758) both by Gavin Hamilton.
Elizabeth Gunning is particularly fascinating. When her first husband died, she married the Duke of Argyll. She had two sons by both, and all four sons became dukes. The walls of the main staircase are also hung with a number of fine family portraits.
During the 1980s, The Stewart Room was recreated, and contains furniture and portraits showing the family’s Stewart connections. The outstanding feature is the writing cabinet, inlaid with tortoiseshell, brass and repousse silver, decorated with a crown and hearts.
The Ante Room
The Ante Room to the Great Hall forms part of the what was the ancient keep of Lethington. It contains the original fireplace arch and access to the well.
Here can be seen the death mask of Mary, Queen of Scots, the 15th century French silver casket given to her by her first husband King Francis II, and the sapphire ring sent by Mary to John 1st Marquess of Hamilton, who was one of the suitors for her hand. The casket, it is said, contained letters which were passed between Mary and her third husband, James Earl of Bothwell, and it was these that incriminated her in the murder of her second husband Lord Darnley.
The Great Hall is the main apartment of the ancient keep, a magnificent, barrel vaulted chamber that has changed little since the Middle Ages. Originally the fire would have been in the middle of the floor, the smoke escaping through the three holes in the ceiling, and the windows were much narrower.
As a part of the restoration, Lorimer removed plaster from the walls and ceiling to expose the handsome stonework beneath. He inserted a fine hardwood floor, and a splendid over mantel which tells in heraldic symbols the history of the house. Over the fireplace hangs a large coat of arms of James 5th Duke of Hamilton (1702-1742).
On the first floor, amongst the drawing rooms is the Yellow Room, which contains a number of important family portraits, notably one dated 1649, of William 2nd Duke of Hamilton (1616-1651), who died of wounds after the Battle of Worcester.
There are companion portraits from the studio of Van Dyck, of James, 1st Duke of Hamilton (1606-1649), executed by Cromwell, and his wife, Lady Mary Feilding (1612-1638). Among the fine items of furniture is a late 17th century Dutch marquetry cupboard, the doors inlaid with elaborate scroll work of birds and butterflies, and a handsome George III, D-shaped, satinwood and marquetry side table.
Next is the Blue Room, decorated with one of Fowler’s favourite Mauny papers. Windows overlook the formal gardens at the side of the house, and the room contains furniture from Hamilton Palace. The gilt chairs, upholstered in blue silk, are of the period of Louis XVI.
The mahogany and ormolu-mounted cylinder bureau is of the same period and stamped F. Schey, who was called as a master craftsman in 1770. Over the fireplace is a romanticised portrayal by Garrard of Douglas, 8th Duke of Hamilton (1756-1799) setting out on a ride from Edinburgh. Other portraits in the room are by Sir Henry Raeburn and Winterhalter.
Tacked on to the Blue Room is a small sitting room known as the Petit Point Room, which takes its name from the 17th century damask panels featuring applied petit point embroidery of figures, birds and flowers.
Here there is also a fine Regency cut-glass ‘waterfall’ chandelier and, among other items of furniture, an ebony and pewter inlaid serpentine worktable given by Charles II to Frances Stewart, Duchess of Lennox.
The Main Bedroom on this floor was extensively redecorated in 1998, the main feature being the great carved ebony four poster bed which belonged to Princess Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon. Set with ivory and panels of tortoiseshell, the tester (canopy) is elaborately panelled on the inside and applied with carved ivory flowers. The headboard consists of three panels of mother-of-pearl birds and flowers, and the end board of carved mermaids.
Adjacent to the main bedroom is the China Hall featuring pieces from several sets of 18th Century armorial porcelain, including an octagonal Chinese famille-rose plate.
Back downstairs again, the Oak Room was until recently the family sitting room. Lorimer panelled the room in oak and introduced a handsome decorative plaster ceiling copying the design of the 300-year-old ceiling in a little sitting room above the original kitchen, imitating the graceful cherubs, coronets and crests in 20th Century plaster. Above the panelling, he covered the wall with stamped leather, reviving a practice employed in the 17th century.
The Museum Rooms
Towards the rear of the house, the Museum Rooms reflect the interests of the most recent generations of the family. The present Duke’s father was chief pilot for the first flight over Everest, and there are photographs of the expedition which took place in 1933.
Other items include the map and compass carried by Reichsfuhrer Rudolf Hess on his trip to Scotland in 1941 when he apparently hoped to persuade the 14th Duke of Hamilton to use his influence to stop the Second World War.
The current Duke has made a collection of British motorcycles, with one for each decade from 1900 up to 1980. The oldest is a G.A.C.S. (Glasgow Auto Cycle Service) of about 1907 and the youngest being a Norton 850 Commando dated 1977.
A recent addition to the castle’s attractions is a room commemorating the life of the historical author Nigel Tranter (1909-2000). His novels have a worldwide following, and the exhibition features a video film, and details of his work.