Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Wednesday, 18 September 2013

17 Sep 2013 - "Dumfries House and Estate"

Around 30 members and guests enjoyed a fascinating and enjoyable talk given by Tom Breckney, the assistant Curator at Dumfries House, covering the history of the house and estate as well as current developments.  

There is a determination by the "Great Steward of Scotland's Dumfries House Trust" who now own the house and estate to involve the surrounding community.  The Trust was set up in 2007 after the 7th Marquess of Bute, wishing to concentrate his efforts at Mount Stuart, offered the House and estate to the National Trust for Scotland. However, it was not possible for them to take it over and it was put on the market.  When the efforts of "SAVE Britain's Heritage" and donations from many charitable trusts failed to raise enough funding for a private sale, it was the Duke of Rothesay and Earl of Carrick (better known to most people as HRH Prince Charles) who stepped in and by borrowing £20m secured the purchase from the Marquess before the auction took place. This was very much a "last minute" rescue as some of the furniture had been labelled by Christies and was on its way to the Auction house in London when the decision was made and the lorries turned round at Penrith. The Trust had succeeded in purchasing not only the House and its historic contents but also 2,000 acres of estate land.

The estate was first purchased in 1635 by William Crichton, 1st Earl of Dumfries, but it was the 5th Earl who returned to the estate, after serving in the Army, and in 1748 decided to build a new house in the Palladian style. John Adam had recently taken over his father William's architectural practice and they provided 4 estimates. The chosen design was finished 5 years later on-budget at £7,979.11s.2d in 1759. It is interesting that this was John Adam's first commission and Culzean Castle, also in Ayrshire was one of his last.

By its completion the Earl had lost his wife and only son, so became anxious about having an heir. In order to impress a future wife he went to London to buy furniture and happened on the workshop of Thomas Chippendale. He had stated that he would buy one chair and one table and then bring them back to Scotland to have copies made, but in the event he bought a total of 57 pieces (maybe like most men, it was suggested, he just wanted to buy everything in the one shop). However, he also bought many pieces in mahogany by Alexander Peter, the Scottish furniture maker.  It is perhaps, for its wonderful collection of Chippendale that the house is most famous, as it houses some 10% of the World's authenticated Chippendale furniture still in existence, with most of it pre-dating Chippendale's book of designs "The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker Director". The bookcase still in the house was originally purchased for £47 is now estimated to be worth £25 million as it is unique. In many cases Chippendale's actual bills and correspondence between the firm and Earl are in the archives.

His plan to find a wife worked and he married Ann Duff. However, the marriage did not produce any children and the Earl named his nephew Patrick as his heir. Patrick's grand-daughter married the 2nd Marquess of Bute and the connection was made with what was, for some time, the richest family in Great Britain, owning not only 6 estates but also Cardiff Docks. The 3rd Marquess of Bute was a great patron of the Arts, a convert to Catholicism and a philanthropist. In fact there seems to have been a tradition of benevolent paternalism towards their house and estate servants. The 3rd Marquess was a man of strong opinions and having built a Roman Catholic chapel in Cumnock, was set to take over saying the mass when he disagreed with the way the Priest was doing it, until it was pointed out to him by the Bishop that this was not appropriate!  He also translated the Breviary into English and became an early animal rights activist - this may not have been the best thing for his estates as no one was then allowed to shoot the rabbits, a consequence of which then overran the place.

Towards 1900 Dumfries House was extended by the leading Scottish Arts and Crafts architect, Robert Weir Schultz. Though he effectively doubled the house in size this is not apparent from the front, which retains its Georgian scale.

During the second World War the house was requisitioned and used by the Free French who are credited with the destruction of the original Adam well in the grounds during target practice. Prisoner-of-war camps were set up for Germans, then Italians and as usual in the area, they were released during the day to work on the farms - the inevitable result being post war marriages and families with German and Italian names in the Cumnock area.

The last full-time occupant of the house - from 1956 to 1993 - was the Dowager, Lady Eileen, widow of the 5th Marquess. The family reputation as good employers remained intact with old servants never being forgotten. Lady Eileen was also responsible for building an orphanage in Tunisia after being horrified by the cruelties of the Spanish Civil War.

After Lady Eileen's death, the House continued to be occupied by caretakers who lived in the East Wing for 14 years.  The house and contents were well looked-after, although rarely seen except for the students from St. Andrew's University who were brought to visit each year as part of their education.

To bring us up to date, Tom explained that the ethos of the Trust is that it should be an example of heritage-led regeneration. The old coach house is now a cafe, the old stables and hay loft a conference centre, the old laundry now houses artists' studios, the newly inaugurated Woodlands Restaurant trains hospitality students and the old sawmill is a home for the teaching of traditional crafts. Future plans are to include both Estate and Collection Management in the training programme. The walled garden is still a work-in-progress but is due to be reopened in 2014. Knockroon, the new eco-village continues to develop, becoming popular with commuters because of its good links to Glasgow and Dumfries. Morrisons farm is now on part of the estate and Aberdeen Angus beef raised there can be purchased in their supermarket in Ayr.

John gave a hearty vote of thanks to Tom for giving us such a vivid picture not only of the past of the house and its occupants, but also of its careful restoration and future plans.

Patricia Weston.

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