Author: Suse Coon

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Friday, June 16th, 2006 at 2:12 pm
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Arniston’s Treasures

Being heir to a stately home can be a dream or a nightmare or a combination of both. When Althea Dundas Bekker inherited Arniston in 1970, it was indeed a bit of both.
The beautiful Adam house lying in its own grounds to the east of Gorebridge is a charming historical home, full of memories of previous generations of Dundas family, but dry rot in the John Adam public rooms and bedrooms meant that this area had been ripped apart in 1959 and never restored.
Succeeding generations of Dundases have left their marks in various ways and it was Althea’s task to restore the west third of the main block using a combination of sensitivity to the original Adam proportions with her own modern flair.
Fortunately, moulds had been taken of the original plasterwork by Fisher and Son, who had dismantled it in 1957, so it was possible to replace these exactly. The walls were different. The original wallpaper from the time of John Adam had been replaced in the 1830s by Indian paper brought back from the Far East by Philip, one of the naval Dundases. This in turn was replaced in 1899, when it became soiled by the new fangled gas lighting. Althea decided to go for something similar; a beautiful Chinese styled paper with flowers, birds and bamboos on a silver background.
“It was expensive but I knew as soon as I saw it that it would be perfect for this room,” she says.
So this is the room for which this twentieth century Dundas will be remembered.
The Dundas family has been associated with Arniston since 1571 when George Dundas and his second wife Katherine Oliphant bought the lands for their son James. George was the 17th laird of Dundas from Dundas Castle at South Queensferry. When his first wife died and George remarried, Katherine wanted to ensure that her son would also have an inheritance and so the story goes that she bought Arniston from the proceeds of her pin money. The lands were bought from the Knights of St. John, who acquired them after the suppression of the Templars in the 1300s. The land reverted to the Crown and was broken up into lots, and George and Katherine acquired the largest one, with a U-shaped Tower House.
The baby James was brought up at Dundas, where he learnt how to run an estate. When he took over at Arniston he was only nineteen but he seems to have been well equipped for the task. He trained at St.. Andrews University for a legal career but also extended the estate and understood enough of good farming practice to bring lime from the Moorfoots to improve the soil. Sadly, James lost two of his sons and he himself died when his surviving son, James, was only eight years old.
The Dundases were men of principles and politics and the young James signed the Great Covenant of 1638, supporting Presbyterianism in Scotland. He was eventually reconciled with Charles II and allowed to become a judge on the reconstituted Court of Session. However, Charles II then demanded that all his subjects in public office sign a declaration renouncing the covenant. James refused and renounced his seat on the bench.
Although he was left in peace at Arniston, he feared for his son Robert and sent him to the Low Countries. Robert did not return to Scotland until he was forty three, when he became an MP for Midlothian and took a place as a Lord of Session on the bench. His contribution to Arniston was to lay out gardens on the east side of the house and a bowling green and to plant an avenue of beech trees.
It was his son Robert who made the dramatic improvements to Arniston that we see today. Following the family tradition, he went in to the law, rising to become Solicitor General and Lord Advocate, positions which he felt required a somewhat grander residence. He therefore commissioned the fashionable architect William Adam to replace Arniston with a Palladian Mansion House.
Work progressed from 1726 until 1732 with the removal of the Tower House and the high wall surrounding the grounds, which had previously blocked the views north to the Forth and to Fife across the water. Entering the house, Adam planned the laird’s sleeping apartments on the west and his wife’s on the east. Linking these were two rooms which were retained from the old Tower House, which he knocked into one, the Oak Room. From the Oak Room, a glass door led to an open verandah which led to the lawns and the view of a cascade of water similar to that at Chatsworth.
The Oak Room is Althea’s favourite room. It was also much loved by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote, “I always love to be in the old Oak Room at Arniston, where I have drank many a merry bottle.”
On the west of the first floor were to be grand staterooms, reached by a magnificent central staircase under a cupola with egg and dart moulding, which were to be built, as was the custom, in anticipation of a royal visit. At the top of the house, were the children’s bedrooms and a peaceful and extensive library.
Adam employed the stuccoist Josef Enzer who had worked for him at Yester House and at the House of Dun, to create the magnificent triumphal arches and ornate columns and fireplaces with broken arches above, which can be seen in the entrance hall. Enzer’s work can be seen again in the top floor library, where each spandrel features a different design. Young Robert, while a student at Utrecht, travelled to Rome, where he found the terra cotta busts, fell in love with them and had them shipped back to Scotland as his contribution to the project.
It was the extensive formal gardens which were the undoing of the project. Robert rather embarrassingly ran out of money; embarrassingly and inconveniently, because the west third of the main block was incomplete and open to the elements.
Twenty years passed before the money was found to resume the project. It came from the marriage of his son Robert to Henrietta Baillie of Lammington, who sold her lands of Bonnington and Carmichael in Lanarkshire to provide the necessary funds. By this time, of course, William Adam had died and it was his elder son John who took over.
Plans for the extravagant staterooms were abandoned. On the ground floor, in the gap, John Adam created a dining room and a drawing room. The walls were off white with a little gilding in the cornice and frieze. The marble chimney piece was brought from the Dundas’s townhouse in Adam Square, which was demolished to make way for Chambers Street. John commissioned his brother Robert, at that time in Italy, to find suitable pictures for the room and Robert sent back Florentine pictures, including one of Jerome in meditation and one of Ishmael and Hagar in the wilderness.
Sadly, Henrietta, whose wealth and generosity had been responsible for the completion of the mansion, died in 1755 leaving four daughters, before she could see the results of Adam’s work. Robert remarried and had six children, amongst them another Robert, who followed in his father’s footsteps, reaching the office of Lord President of the Court of Session and becoming the Chief Baron.
The Chief Baron made several changes to the house, amongst them he built a porch onto the Oak Room, on account of the cold in winter. He also added a school room at the very top of the house, which now houses a number of Raeburn and Romney portraits. In 1989, the tercentenary of William Adam’s birth, a number of models were made of prominent Adam buildings, including one of Arniston, made by Simon Montgomery of Historic Scotland. He gifted the model to the family and it can be seen in this room, showing the original façade.
The Chief Baron was plagued by ill health. He was, however, a great antiquarian and when, in the early 19th century, the old Parliament House in the Royal Mile was replaced, he rescued some of the stonework and incorporated it into Arniston in bridges, doorways, walls and the pediment on the new portico on the south side of the house. The family were delighted to donate one of the lintels back
to the new Scottish Parliament when it opened in 2004.
Further changes were to come. Robert, the first baronet and Althea’s great grandfather, was the first of the family not to take up the legal profession. Consequently, he spent less time in Edinburgh and more at Arniston, where he made a number of improvements. He used to tell how, as a small boy, he had to run upstairs to bed with only one candle to light the main hall. When he grew up, he made sure that Arniston was one of the first places to have its own gas works lighting the whole house.
The first baronet also pulled down the grand flight of stairs and balustrade which formed the entrance to the house. He said, “I was sorry to do so, for I fully appreciated its grandeur as a piece of architecture, but it was quite unsuited for a Scotch country house in winter. When the house was built, country houses were rarely inhabited in winter…”
He also improved the water supply and drainage as well as carrying out many philanthropic improvements in the village of Gorebridge.
Robert and his wife Emily had six children, of whom one, Hester, died of diphtheria while the family were visiting the continent in 1878. Emily commissioned a beautiful clock to be carved by Luigi Frulini in Florence in her memory. She commissioned more work from Frulini, replacing some of Adam’s heavier pieces from the Oak Room.
Robert worked mainly from home and created for himself a Business Room, or office, on the ground floor, as the climb to the library became too much for him. He filled all but two of the former library shelves with beautiful porcelain and the two empty ones he covered with tapestries from Brussels. He also converted the principal bedroom into a lady’s boudoir but this has subsequently been converted into a sitting room and is now dedicated to Althea’s predecessor May, her father’s first cousin, who decorated it to her taste. The library was rehoused on the ground floor by knocking together a closet and dressing room adjacent to the boudoir. Part of this library disguises a door through to the colonnade.
Today, the family lives in a small area in the house but the rest is open to the public at certain times and Althea herself and her daughter Henrietta (Henny) are the guides. Henny, the second daughter, will inherit Arniston and she is already well versed in the history of her home and has plans to make her own mark. If her great grandfather is remembered for the porch and gas lighting, and her mother will be remembered for the John Adam reinstatement, Henny will take on the orangery. This challenging structure has been unused for most of this century and has exciting possibilities. In order to support a home like Arniston, it is necessary these days to think commercially and the restoration of this part of the building, which is housed next to the western colonnade, will allow corporate functions to take place. Although, Henny muses wistfully, it would make a fantastic swimming pool – would any of the Adamses approve, do you think?

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