“..... those beauties all,
So lovely in our eye....”
Robert Burns (“On Being Shewn a Beautiful Country Seat”)
The English writer H.V. Morton describes the border lands of England and Scotland in his book, “In Search of Scotland”, as “This queer compromise between fairyland and battleground which is the border”. It is, as well, an apt statement to describe the homes that dot the now peaceful green hills.
Six centuries ago Scotland’s border country was awash with conflict as both the English and Scots sought to gain dominance over the land. In order to survive, families built their houses as fortified towers and castles. But, today, scattered amid the rolling hills, elegant country homes take their place alongside former strongholds turned into places for gracious living. And there are tales to tell of another kind of beauty, the women who figure in the history of many of these homes.
First on our list is Bowhill House, outside Selkirk. Sir Walter Scott referred to Bowhill as “Sweet Bowhill” in his poem “Lay of the Last Minstrel” (the manuscript of the poem is found in the Scott room, full of mementos). Bowhill, set on high ground amidst forests and farms, was part of a larger estate amassed over the centuries by the Scott family. This home, seat of the Scots of Buccleuch, remained in the family due to the foresight of Anna, the Duchess of Buccleuch, who was heiress to the Scott’s family holdings. In 1663, she married James, Duke of Monmouth, who was the eldest natural son of Charles II. James participated in the unsuccessful uprising against James VII, which led to his arrest and execution.
The Duchess foresaw that the King might plan to confiscate the estates from her husband. She applied for, and was granted, the title in her own right, thus thwarting the Crown’s plans to seize the house and land. This auspicious decision kept the estates for the Scott family.
Bowhill has one of the best art collections of any house in Britain. Included are paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raeburn and Van Dyck. Look for Duchess Anne’s portrait above the fireplace in the library. The house also contains French furniture, tapestries and continental porcelain. For those with a taste for the gory, Monmouth’s shirt in which he was executed is on view. Miniature enthusiasts will enjoy Bowhill’s impressive collection.
Floors Castle, located just outside Kelso, is home of the Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe. Its history includes tales of two women.
“So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.”
Robert Burns’ poem might have been written for the 3rd Duke of Roxburghe, whose story is a sad tale of forbidden love. He fell in love with Queen Charlotte’s (wife of King George III) elder sister, but was not allowed to marry her because his status was less than royal and because court etiquette disapproved of an elder sister who would be subject to a younger one. On parting, the two pledged themselves to celibacy. Denied his love, he turned his energy to amassing the famous Roxburghe library. (Unfortunately the 5th Duke was forced to sell it off in 1812 to pay debts.)
The Duke died, unmarried and true to his love, in 1804.
The exterior of majestic Floors Castle, beautifully sited overlooking the River Tweed, sports turrets, cupolas and castellations. It was built in the 18th century to William Adam’s designs for John, the 5th Earl and 1st Duke of Roxburghe. William Playfair embellished the house and roof in the 19th century, adding wings that he linked to the main building at ground level.
Floors’ many treasures can be attributed to another lady, albeit an American one. Mary Goelet, an heiress, became Duchess May, the wife of the 8th Duke. She remodelled much of the interior of Floors to display her collections, spending the next 33 years of her life enriching Floors. Among the treasures are six rare 16th century Brussels tapestries in the anteroom. The collection is augmented with 17th century Gobelins tapestries. The 15th century Brussels tapestry depicting the Day of Pentecost is considered to be the most valuable object at Floors. Art works by Matisse, oriental porcelain, an outstanding collection of French furniture and Fabergé ornaments complete the picture. Look for Duchess May’s portrait above the staircase. Film buffs will be interested to note that the house was used in the film, Greystoke.
A few miles from Floors, lies another Border beauty, Mellerstain. Sir Patrick Hume, a well-known Scottish Covenanter and his daughter Lady Grizel, the eldest of his 17 children, figure prominently in its story. The Covenanters were a group of men attempting to free the Scottish Presbyterian Church from English control by the Anglican Church of England. England began persecuting the Covenanters, and Sir Hume’s life was in danger.
He fled to the Netherlands, taking Lady Grizel and the rest of his family with him. In exile with them was George Baillie, the son of Robert Baillie, another well-known Covenanter. When the Protestant William and Mary were invited to rule Britain, they returned from Holland in the future king’s retinue. The Baillie estates, confiscated by the Crown, were restored, and Lady Grizel and George Baillie married in 1691.
In 1725, William Adam designed the wings of the present Mellerstain (an older house stood near the site of the present main block) for George Baillie and Lady Grizel. Forty years late, their grandson, George, employed Robert Adam, William’s son, to complete the building with the addition of a huge honey-coloured central block.
Much of the fabric of the house is original. The castellated stone exterior belies the delicate and detailed Robert Adam interiors finished in the classical style. The plasterwork ceilings are superb. In addition to the ceilings, marble busts, portraits and French furnishings make this home a feast for the eye. The library is considered to be one of the finest of all rooms designed by Adam. Bookcases, friezes, fireplace and carved doors all combine to give the room a grand and beautiful design. Soft colours in pale shades of green, blue, cinnamon, pink, ivory, gray and apricot dominate in the home’s designs.
Lady Grizel Baille, a heroine of the times, went on to become an accomplished poet and author of a household book, a classic of social history. She is best known for her song, “Werena my heart licht I wad die”, published in The Tea-Table Miscellany, but written while she was in the Netherlands. Look for her portrait in the Front Hall of Mellerstain. History talks of her happy marriage and part of the epitaph above her tomb reads
“................love of her country,
Zeal for her friends, compassion for her enemies,
Cheerfulness of spirit, pleasantness of conversation,
Dignity of mind,
Good breeding, good humour, good sense,
Were the daily ornaments of an useful life.”
Unlike Floors Castle, it is due to a marriage that did happen, that we enjoy the beauties of Thirlestane Castle in its rose-pink sandstone splendor. John Maitland, Secretary of State under Charles II, was created Duke of Lauderdale upon marrying his second wife, Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart. She was described by a contemporary as one who “carried all things with a haughtiness that could not have been easily borne from a Queen.” She was a widow, age 45, and had borne 11 children when she married the Duke.
His friends tried unsuccessfully to dissuade him from the marriage. It was rumoured that she had murdered her first husband in order to marry the Duke. A ghost story related to her former residence, Ham House, seems to bear this out. Apparently one night the ghost of an old woman clawing at a fireplace was seen. On checking the fireplace the next day, workers found hollow space, inside of which were papers stating the Countess was the murderer of her first husband. Contemporaries thought the Countess influenced her husband, the Duke of Lauderdale, described by Pepys as “a cunning fellow”, to throw over his loyalties to the church and Scotland.
The Duke felt the need for a home that would reflect his new status, so he employed Sir William Bruce to remodel Thirlestane—the ruins of the original tower house lie nearby—into the perfect example of a fairy tale castle with its turreted towers, corbels and balustrades. Bruce added two front towers and a grand balustraded staircase in addition to melding the interior Scottish Baronial style with a Renaissance influence. Its 19th century refurbished interior reflects continual additions over the years.
Magnificent 17th century plasterwork ceilings, which took five years to complete, showcase the State Rooms. French Empire-style furniture and gilded mirrors add to the home’s beauty. Paintings by Gainsborough, Bellotto and Reynolds decorate the walls. Look for the Countess of Dysart’s portrait in the Duke’s Room.
Manderston, the swan song of Edwardian wealth, tells another story of an interesting woman who inspired the building of a beautiful home. Sir James Miller inherited the home when his elder brother, the heir, choked to death on a cherry stone in 1874. Sir James married Eveline Curzon, daughter of Lord Scarsdale, whose ancestral home was Kedleston Hall.
Determined to impress his bride by surpassing the elegance of Kedleston, Sir James transformed Manderston, built in the 18th century, into the sumptuous mansion we see today with its beautiful plasterwork ceilings and wall panels, inlaid marble floors and silk and velvet wall hangings. The ballroom and drawing room are decorated in Sir James’s racing colours of primrose and white. In the dining room is the largest collection of Blue John—a semi-precious stone mined in Derbyshire—in Scotland. Sadly, Sir James died three months after the completion of the mansion.
Lady Miller’s passion for fancy dress soirees was well known. She especially liked to dress up as a Russian Tzarina. It must have been a site to see her descending the beautiful silver and brass staircase, only one of the highlights of the home.
Paxton House, near Manderston, holds, like Floors, another tale of love thwarted. The 13th Laird of Wedderburn, Patrick Home, inherited his father’s large fortune. While in Berlin at the Prussian Court, he was smitten with the clever and talented illegitimate daughter of Frederick the Great, Miss de Brandt. The Prussian King demanded Patrick become a member of the Prussian Guards and bring his large fortune to Prussia if he wanted to wed Miss de Brandt. He refused to do so, but still had hopes that the marriage would proceed.
Arriving home, he commissioned an elegant mansion, Paxton House, to welcome his bride-to-be to Scotland. Built in the Adams style, this pink sandstone mansion is considered one of the best examples of Palladian architecture in Britain. It sports a traditional central block connected to two wings by curving, balustraded walls.
Sadly, the marriage never took place. Shakespeare’s line from his 109th sonnet, “O, never say that I was false of heart”, aptly applies to Patrick Home who was true to his love until learning of her death 20 years later—around 1770. The very next year he married. The only reminder of his love—besides the splendid house itself—are the kid gloves Miss de Brandt gave him. These are now on display in the house, along with Chippendale furniture and paintings on loan from the National Gallery of Scotland.
While not in the political designation of Borders, Lennoxlove, by Haddington in nearby Lothian, deserves to be included in this group because it owes its name to a famous beauty, Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox. Charles II was passionately in love with the beautiful Frances. Celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys, a keen observer of women, wrote “. . . .Miss Stuart . . . . . .is now the greatest beauty I ever saw, I think, in my life”.
Unfortunately, for the King, Frances married another Charles Stuart, the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, a distant relative and 4th cousin of the King. Before she died in 1702, Frances arranged to purchase the estate of Lethington. In memory of her title as Duchess of Lennox and wishing her name to have some kind of immortality, she requested the estate’s name to be changed to Lennoxlove.
A massive 14th century tower, a border fortification in the warfare between England and Scotland, dominates the home. The walls of the tower, with its well-preserved barrel vaulted ceiling, are ten feet thick. Carved above its main entrance are the Latin words, “who of the race of Maitland laid the foundations, who raised the Tower, envious antiquity has concealed.” The house, as it stands today, includes warm pink sand-coloured stone additions of the 19th and early 20th century.
Lennoxlove is filled with fine furniture and portraits by Van Dyck, Raeburn, Lely and Canletto among others. It contains one of the most interesting collections of china and porcelain in Scotland. A famous silver casket belonging to Mary, Queen of Scots, and her death mask are on show. A portrait of “La Belle Stuart” holds a place of honour in the manor house. The blue eyes still flash in her beautiful face, capturing the hearts of all who pass by, just as these homes—border beauties in their own right—will capture yours.
3 miles (5km) west of Selkirk off the A708 Moffat Rd
Tel. 01750 22204
A68/A698, follow signs in Kelso
Tel. 01573 223333
Six miles northwest of Kelso, off A6089
Tel 01537 410 225
Historic Houses Association
1˝ miles east of Duns on the A6105
Tel. 01361 883450
3 miles off the A1 Berwick-upon-Tweed, on the B6461
Tel. 01289 386291
On the southern edge of Haddington
Tel. 01620 823720
At Lauder, off the A68
Tel. 01578 722430
This article first appeared in Heritage Magazine. The article and all text and photos on this website are protected under international copyright laws.
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