Monday, 1 August 2011

Arniston House, Midlothian

UPDATE: 2/1/2012

In Christmas 2011, I was given a copy of Map of a Nation by Rachel Hewitt.  The Dundas family and Arniston feature prominently in this book and there are many references to both the house and to Robert Dundas.  Included in the book is a plate of a portrait of Robert Dundas that hangs in the Oak Room of the house. 

I am having to rely on people reading the book to me, but it is clearly a comprehensive reference book featuring many eminent Scots such as Colin Maclaurin, the mathematician.  His theorem was taught to us as part of our calculus studies in school. 

Other Scottish/English border issues discussed by Rachel Hewitt recently include a presentation on BBC Radio 3’s Freethinking Essay which can be heard here:

More information on the Debatable Lands issue can be found on:

** end of  update

Arniston House, Midlothian, Scotland
copyright Profwhitestick (2011)

Growing up in Edinburgh, Arniston was the final stop on some of the country buses (the green ones as opposed to the city buses in Edinburgh, which were and still are maroon).  I was never quite sure where Arniston was and in going through an A to Z of destinations from the Old St Andrew Square bus station, there were quite a few places which had some mystique, though there were only a few miles away.  Another place was Birkenside and it turns out that Birkenside is the last stop for public transport in order to get to Arniston House.  As it’s about 2 miles from the nearest bus stop, we went by car.

As with many country houses, there is a tremendous drive into the estate with a line of trees and then a sharp left turn before the north side of the house designed by William Adam (father of Robert and John Adam) comes into view.  There are two pavilions on the east and west side which are linked.  The building is of pink sandstone.  The grounds are extensive and from the north there are views of Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh and the hills of Fife across the River Forth.  However, it was overcast and I couldn’t make anything out so you will have to believe me that they are there!  A circuit round the house gives an approach to the south side, which has a staircase and a view towards the Moorfoot hills and gardens.  There is a painting of this view by Naysmith which can be seen in the house itself. 

We were greeted by the owner of Arniston (Althea Dundas Bekker) and her daughter Henrietta.  The tour lasts around 90 minutes and there is a lot to see, with many objects which I could make out: the plaster work, pilasters and spandrels. 

The hall has a fascinating clock which has weights which descend into the pilasters almost at the level of a bust of William Pitt.  There are also ‘chimney pieces’ and an amazing system of flues.  The chimney piece is non-traditional as the flue is in fact vented through an internal system, though nowadays the fires are no longer lit (due to a build up of birds’ nests over 60 years!).  The house has a woodchip boiler system and you can smell this on the west side when doing a circuit of the grounds.

The dining room has several portraits of the Dundas family, who could be said to have married well and often.  The land for the house was bought by William Dundas in c1571 on the behest of his second wife Katherine Oliphant for their son James.  This was shortly after the Scottish Reformation of 1560 and the Dundas family took a leading role in the Covenanter struggles over the next 100 or so years.  The family feature a lot in Scottish legal and government history with many of them being part of the Scottish legal system, in particular Robert Dundas who in the 1720s rose up the ranks and commissioned William Adam to redevelop the buildings at Arniston in a new style. 

There is thus some similarity with the Dalrymples who lived in Newhailes.  On visiting the great library at Arniston, I asked about the books – there aren’t any in the library - just in case they had been sold.  When the great library had been designed it was at the top of the house but later members of the family wanted a new library, so the newer library is visited last and contains a huge selection of books which have been collected over the generations. 

On entering the drawing room there was a bit of “Wow!” factor for me as it appears that you are walking into – for me at any rate – a large cage with very fine silver filigree bars and wiring.  This is, in fact, a silver foil type of wallpaper chosen by Althea during the redecoration following rebuilding of the drawing room which suffered badly from dry rot.  Much of the plasterwork was affected, though luckily some remoulding was possible, but a choice had to be made of new wallpaper.  Althea chose a design by de Guerneys in London.  I was amazed at how much detail I could make out of the silver foil pattern, though I couldn’t make out much of the plasterwork on the ceiling of this room, unlike the great library in Osterley. 

The Oak Room faces south and I could make out the line of trees and the grounds towards the Moorfoot hills.  There is some original glass in this room in the door panes leading to the Main Hall.  This room is said to have been visited by Sir Walter Scott and others and was the occasion of much drinking and merriment.  There was a water feature in the grounds facing south and which could apparently be turned on for the guests’ entertainment. (Perhaps this is an imitation of Versailles, or even Petrodvorets near St Petersburg in Russia, which I visited in 1975.) 

On climbing the stairs there is access to the gallery overlooking the hall and the great library at the top.  The library now has no books with the cases displaying the family collection of porcelain as Althea’s great grandfather felt the climb to the library was too much and had the books relocated downstairs.  It had been the tradition when William Adam designed the house to have the library at the top of the house, far away from the bustle of the domestic scene.  With the Dundas family having such a leading role in the Scottish judicial system there must have been many important cases discussed in these surroundings (hints of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston).  It’s also possible to get a glimpse of connecting passages within the house and the ‘secret’ door in part of a bookcase appears to feature in many libraries- even the library of Miss Mapp (EF Benson).  There is a model of the house on the top floor which can be touched and there are plans to have an orangery built on buildings which are currently shells. 

The estate is a working estate, with tenant farmers and though the Dundas family have statues and streets named after them in Edinburgh, the legal family tradition stopped several generations ago.  (There is no shade of the stately home image as portrayed in The Archers.)  At no time does the visitor feel that this is a tourist business.  There were only 4 of us taking the tour and there are absolutely no gimmicks.  Althea and Henrietta take an obvious delight in their home and encourage questions.  There are a few postcards and a guide book written by Althea on the history of the house and of her family. 

It is interesting to compare the outcomes of Newhailes and Arniston.  Arniston managed to attract money over the generations with a judicious selection of heiresses and legal power, whereas Newhailes seemed to struggle to develop and had to be rescued by the National Trust for Scotland.  Newhailes has declined, though in a managed way though and of course, the house is no longer occupied by the family.  Arniston, on the other hand, has managed to develop, modernise and keep an essential family connection vibrant and welcoming to a stranger.   

Related web links:

Arniston House: (opening times vary, so please check the website for current schedules) Tours cost £6 for an adult.

Lothian buses: