Fairytale splendour: Dunrobin Castle

Charles Douglas explores the history of Dunrobin Castle, and its flawed relationship with wealth and power

Since the 18th century, the Sutherlands of Dunrobin Castle, near Golspie, have had a bad press. But that does not mean to say that they have largely deserved it. Unfortunately, memories in the Highlands are long, and the spectre of the Land Clearances of the 19th century, when tenant crofters were forcibly removed from their ancestral plots, still casts a long shadow.

It was the marriage of the only daughter of the 18th Earl of Sutherland to George Granville Leveson-Gower, an Englishman, which created the problem. An enormously wealthy man, Leveson-Gower, a prominent Liberal politician, became Marquess of Stafford in 1803 and, with the best possible intentions, announced his wish to improve the lot of his wife’s tenantry, who were spread across the vast, often inaccessible territories of the far north-east of Scotland. Alas, Lord Stafford’s well-meaning initiatives were to backfire horribly.

Although living in primitive black houses in abject poverty, the majority of the 5,000 inhabitants of the Caithness and Sutherland region were happy with their lot. Their ancestors had lived in this way for centuries. Such settled communities had no desire to move to the alternative modern housing which their landlord was providing for them, along with employment, on the coast.

When they refused to budge, it was the beginning of one of the saddest episodes in Highland folklore. The speed and brutality employed by Lord Stafford’s agents following the orders of their employer was to create a bitterness that has stained the Sutherland name ever since, despite many of those evicted moving on to an infinitely better way of life on the far side of the Atlantic.

But that is another story. Six months before he died, Lord Stafford was created 1st Duke of Sutherland, and his massive statue by Sir Francis Chantrey stands on a mountain-top overlooking Golspie. Also dominating the landscape is the Sutherland’s French chateau-style castle of Dunrobin, built on the site of a 13th century keep and much added-to through the centuries.

Dunrobin is a memorial of a time when wealth clashed with poverty

Both are memorials to an era where enormous wealth sat side-by-side and clashed with wretched poverty. The Emigrants Statue, created by the sculptor Gerald Laing, was erected in 2007 at nearby Helmsdale, went some way towards creating a better understanding of what actually did take place 200 years ago.

At Dunrobin, a section of the medieval tower still stands, but most of the structure seen today was rebuilt in the middle of the 19th century on the orders of the 2nd Duke, who commissioned Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, to create a Franco-Scots palace.

However, a great deal of Barry’s work was destroyed in a fire in 1915, and the distinguished Scots architect Sir Robert Lorimer was brought in to oversee repair work.

Although not in his brief, he grasped the opportunity to remodel much of the interior.And the result is this magnificent, towering edifice which seems so surprisingly out of place so far north. But then why should it?

The Sutherland family descends from Freskin, a Flemish noble who held lands in Morayshire over 800 years ago. His grandson was given the Sutherland lands by King William the Lyon in 1197, and from these powerful ancestors originate all the subsequent earls and dukes of Sutherland.

The family history is nothing if not colourful. The Freskin line of earls ended in 1514 when the title passed to the 9th Earl’s sister, Elizabeth Gordon. Thereafter, both lands and title were held by the Gordons until the 18th century. And what a collection of Machiavellian people they turned out to be!

The 11th Earl and Countess were poisoned by their aunt who wanted the title and lands for her own son. She failed, however, to dispose of their son, who succeeded as 12th Earl, and married the former wife of Mary Queen of Scots’ third husband, the Earl of Bothwell.

But it was from the mid-17th Century onwards that the family took a more active part in affairs of state. The 14th Earl was appointed Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland; the 15th Earl supported William of Orange by fortifying Inverness against the Jacobites, and in the Jacobite Uprisings of 1715 and 1745, the 16th Earl sided strongly with the Hanoverians. This is the history that resonates throughout the rooms and corridors of Dunrobin, albeit to some extent submerged in the dazzling opulence which only great wealth can create.

When Queen Victoria visited in 1872, lavish tapestries were commissioned depicting scenes from the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. In the dining room, the wall-top frieze is of Italian origin, but the most striking feature is the group of family portraits.

These include the children of the 1st Duke by Thomas Phillips; Granville, 1st Marquess of Stafford by George Romney, and William, 18th Earl by Allan Ramsay. The Earl is wearing a Sutherland tartan kilt and scarlet jacket.

The library, which contains over 10,000 books, is lined with natural sycamore wood, and the focal point is Philip de Laszlo’s dramatic portrait of the Duchess Eileen, Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary.

The last room on the principal floor is the Duke’s study, panelled in Scottish larch. Off this is a small balcony which enabled the 5th Duke to watch his piper playing on the terrace in the mornings. In an alcove is a fine collection of Wemyss-ware china accumulated by the present Countess.

Among the many military and ceremonial exhibits on display are the colours of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders.

The 93rd was the famous thin red line at the Battle of Balaclava, and was the successor of various regiments raised by the family during the Seven Years and Napoleonic Wars, later to become part of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Period bedrooms, nurseries and kitchens complete the tour. For adherents to the supernatural, it should be noted that back in the 15th century, a young girl supposedly fell to her death at the hands of the incumbent Earl. Even now, it is said that her sobs can be heard coming from the little room next to the night nursery.

And then there are the castle grounds overlooking the North Sea. Inspired by those at Versailles, the gardens are divided into two parterres, both laid out around circular pools with fountains. The design is much as Barry left it, but the planting and ornamentation has been recently replenished.

This includes avenues of Tuscan laurel and whitebeam, and the construction of wooden pyramid features. The old method of tree culture, pleaching, has also been reintroduced, as has a bee garden with working hives. A vegetable garden and orchard was begun in 1999, again with French influence to the fore.

Rules of succession in Scotland are understandably confusing to the layman. Under the Celtic tradition, Scottish earldoms, in the absence of an immediate male heir, can pass through the female line. The successor is entitled ‘Countess’. Non-royal dukedoms, however, are British, not Scottish, and can’t be handed down through the female line.

The 5th Duke of Sutherland married twice, but had no children. When he died in 1963, the ducal title therefore passed to his distant cousin, the 5th Earl of Ellesmere, who became 6th Duke. The earldom, however, went to the 5th Duke’s niece, who became Countess of Sutherland in her own right and inherited Dunrobin and the family lands. She is the 24th holder of the title, and is married to Charles Janson. Their eldest son is titled Lord Strathnaver, and it is he who today administers the estate.

Like so many other stately homes that are open to the public, Dunrobin has had to diversify in order to attract visitors, and special functions, conventions, buffets, lunches and receptions can be arranged in either the dining room or the drawing room. Facilities are also available for fashion shows, air displays, archery, clay-pigeon shooting, garden parties, filming, concerts and wedding receptions.

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close