Country Houses

Stephen A Bunyan

‘The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.’

All Things Bright and Beautiful

This verse of the well-loved Victorian hymn is often quoted by social historians to show how society was stratified before the Great War but it is now omitted from hymnals. Sung without hesitation in at least one church in the 1950s, it was something of an anachronism even then, to some extent, that world still survives. The ‘Rich men’s castles’, though in diminished numbers, remain a visible presence (albeit fulfilling different roles in society) in the East Lothian landscape today. Throughout the text, any property marked * was an Historic Scotland, grade A, listed property in 2000; listing began in the 1930s, and its scope extended in the 1970s.

The start of the country house decline pre-dated the war and, by 1945, the future of the mansion houses in East Lothian, in common with that elsewhere, seemed bleak. The introduction of heavy death duties before the Great War and the 1930s Depression, added more pressures.

In addition, most mansion houses and their related buildings and parts of many estates were requisitioned e.g Gosford*, Archerfield* and Herdmanstoun. Many suffered unsympathetic adaptation, accidental damage as at Beechhill into which a mosquito aeroplane crashed, and, in some cases, wanton vandalism as at Archerfield* and Stevenson. They were returned to their owners with inadequate compensation. The great question was of what to do with them?

The world had changed: incomes had shrunk, not least because of higher band income tax at 19/6 in the £1 and also nationalisation of industries whose revenues had been the lifeblood of the upper classes. In the past, the estates and the great houses had played an important part in local communities, providing employment and contributing to local businesses. The numerous servants formed communities, and connections, of their own.

Post-1945, people were no longer attracted to work in service, and owners could not afford the old number. At the beginning of the period, the estates had to stand on their own. There was little public sympathy for their plight, though after 1950 it was possible to claim income tax rebate for the cost of repairs and after another twenty years or so they received some government help.

The fate of East Lothian’s country houses since 1945 was riddled with complexity. The ‘traditional’ image, of the great house at the heart of an estate, with one or more closely associated villages and its home and tenanted farms providing at least part of the income to sustain it, had gone. No such estate had continued totally unchanged: perhaps Lennoxlove*, Yester*, Biel* and Gosford* were the closest to the old style that remained. Whittingehame estate remained but was run from Whittingehame Tower*.

In some cases, owners had a strong sense of tradition and, initially, sufficient income to continue as before. In other cases, the buildings were so dilapidated, money so short and building restrictions so difficult that demolition seemed the only answer. Some owners struggled on, only eventually submitting to the inevitable: Smeaton-Hepburn, Thurston, Belton, Herdmanstoun and Clerkington were all demolished. Elphinstone Tower was demolished because it was unsafe because of subsidence caused by mining. Some properties were reduced in sized to meet modern needs but remained homes: Biel* 1952, Luffness* 1959, Colstoun 1990, or Gosford* in wartime as a result of fire. The outward appearance of Gosford remained and restoration was underway at the end of the century.

For other houses it seemed essential that some other use had to be found for the buildings. Prestongrange House had been leased to the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club in 1922; Winterfield (as early as 1923), Carlekemp and Whittingehame Houses became schools; Nunraw, Drummore and Leuchie were taken over by religious orders; Saltoun Hall, Newbyth and Tyninghame were all converted for multiple occupation.

Many lairds were determined to hold onto the land, and to maintain links with the buildings that had been their family homes for many generations – cherished, enlarged and embellished in more prosperous times. Many succeeded, and so many houses continued in use as homes, though often with different owners; Fountainhall*, Bourhouse*, Pilmuir*, Biel*, Lennoxlove*, Seton House*, Luffness* and more. It was not a situation that had to be solved just as a post-war problem. It continued to haunt the owners through the years as new circumstances arose. Some families were in difficulties before 1939. Where one family owned more than one great house, they had to make choices, and prioritise: Archerfield* was probably the most important of the East Lothian mansions to suffer in this way. Its future continued to be in doubt into the 21st century.

Only in a few cases did land, great house, family and historic artefacts survive intact as at Colstoun and it too was reduced in size. Survival was ensured only with concessions to public access and economic use. In 1996, Newhailes* with its artefactes was acquired from the Trustees of the late Sir C M Dalrymple Bt. by the National Trust for Scotland. Public access was assured, and the house’s future secured, an option not available when the many demolitions and alterations were taking place across the county in the 1950s and 60s.

Perhaps in another way, this last account of Newhailes is the most significant. In Scottish Georgian Interiors (1987), Newhailes was described as ‘Scotland’s sleeping beauty’. Fortunately she did not die and Scotland woke up to the realisation that she must be saved. Happily there was a growing awareness that, in a sense these great houses were part of the national heritage, and that they could not be left to be just a problem for owners struggling against impossible odds.

The observer considering the situation in 1950 could not be optimistic; the old order was still there but it was increasingly threatened. The Duke of Hamilton, as Marquis of Douglas, aged 14, attended the Queen as page at the post-coronation service in St Giles’ in 1953. In 1999, he carried the crown of Scotland into the new Scottish Assembly. Between those two events great changes had occurred. Social divisions still existed but there was a greater understanding and toleration between people. During that time, life on the estates had become more of a partnership, with owners and staff working together.

In communities, there was much more determination that historic buildings and landscapes would survive, so that they would give pleasure to all. More support was available and agreements were made to ensure this. Co-operation and support was established with the local authorities, tax concessions had been made and grants could be obtained. Some of the remaining country houses and their ancillary buildings still faced an uncertain future, but public opinion was now likely to demand their survival. Some uses had been short-lived and unfortunate but multiple ownership had proved successful.

Few of the county’s great houses were in the front rank of tourist appeal partly because, in general, they lacked colourful historic owners. East Lothian lairds, for the most part, were canny Edinburgh lawyers and agricultural improvers whose success was demonstrated in the Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-1799. The exception was General Sir David Baird of Newbyth, the Hero of Seringapatam. Baird’s house was divided and his trophies scattered; Wilkie’s larger-than-life painting from Newbyth, showing Baird with the body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib after the capture of Seringapatam (1799), had been acquired by the National Gallery of Scotland.

Some properties had great potential; there was much to see at Lennoxlove and Winton. Newhailes was to be re-opened, restored to its original splendour, in summer 2002. These buildings formed an integral part of East Lothian’s planned landscape of farmland, woodland and picturesque villages and in that way made an important contribution to the environment enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. An inscription at Drummore was still true for other houses, if less certain there.

Home is the resort of love, of joy, of peace, of plenty,
Where supporting and supported, polished friends and dear relations mingle into bliss.

It was more than a pious hope in the 18th century and happily, will be true in many cases in the 21st.