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Drumfries House

Back From The Brink

It was one of the most imposing mansions in Scotland, filled with priceless antiques,
but still Dumfries House appeared to be doomed until an 11th-hour rescue took shape.


Acquiring Dumfries House and its fabulous contents for the nation, and saving it from being sold at public auction, its contents divided and dissipated, was, "a damn close-run thing," as the Duke of Wellington said about the Battle of Waterloo nearly 200 years previously. The auctioneer's hammer was about to be raised.

When John, the 6th Marquess of Bute died in 1993, his heir, the racing driver Johnny Dumfries, now the 7th Marquess, understandably decided that there was a limit to the number of stately homes he could own and maintain, and that he would concentrate on his favourite, Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. He offered to sell Dumfries House to the National Trust for Scotland in 1994 but they declined. He offered it to them again ten years later, for a price jointly determined by the auction houses of Christie's and Sotheby's, but by then the National Trust was trying to acquire Walter Scott's house, Abbotsford, and was unable to find enough money for both. So, reluctantly, he decided he must put the 2,000-acre estate and the house with its entire contents on the market. A number of influential members of the conservation, preservation and restoration fraternity jumped in, and a great deal of hard work, string pulling, dogged determination and frenzied fund-raising ensued. But, despite many generous offers, there was still an insufficient sum to cover the price, and the house seemed destined to go to the highest bidder. Shock, horror! Could Dumfries House become a motel (not likely, in fact, because it is tucked away off the main trunk roads)...or a country house hotel furnished in pine and chrome...or a luxury holiday home...or a health farm with sauna baths and massage parlours?

But then at the 11th hour, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, renowned for his interest in the conservation of historic buildings, offered to underwrite £20 million of the purchase price (about $30 million). As The Great Steward of Scotland -- one of his titles -- he was, of course, the perfect figurehead for what was to become the latest of his many charities, and his last-minute intervention saved the house, intact with its contents, from who-knows-what fate. It is now run by "The Great Steward of Scotland's Dumfries House Trust," comprising, apart from Prince Charles himself, an impressive list of contributors, including the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Scottish Government acting through Historic Scotland and many others. The Prince takes a keen interest, visiting several times a year, and the Board of Trustees is chaired by his Private Secretary, but decisions are, of course, made by consultation with all the stakeholders.

The embodiment of that cliché-ed term, an architectural gem, Dumfries House is 40 miles southwest of Glasgow in Ayrshire, not Dumfriesshire, which people find confusing. I arrived there on a sunny autumn morning, having gotten horribly lost on the muddy farm tracks around the house, in danger of becoming completely bogged down but rescued by an elderly jogger. My first sight of the house, after these petty adventures, was delightfully satisfying. I am ignorant of architecture; I just know what I like and I found Dumfries House to be a perfect example of a gracious country house. Here is a very beautiful, well-proportioned house, with a wide sweep of steps leading up to the front door and everything perfectly symmetrical around them. Once inside you are drawn by an alluring rococo flamboyance, enhanced by the fashionable furniture from the workshops of Chippendale and various Edinburgh luxury cabinetmakers.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2010 issue of Scottish Life.

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Click here to preview our Notes From The Isles column by Kate Francis.

Click here to preview Bens & Glens & Heroes, News of Interest to Scots.

Photos: © Audrey Kingsnorth; © Christie's Images Limited 2007