A couple of weeks ago I visited Newhailes, a Georgian country house near Edinburgh. I was looking for a house to use as a model for the one owned by my heroine, Lady Mary MacLeod, in my current manuscript. Lady Mairi is a very rich widow with a town house in fashionable Charlotte Square in Edinburgh New Town and it was essential that she also has a country mansion. Newhailes was the perfect model and I had a wonderful visit.
Newhailes was originally built as a “villa,” a small country house built for Edinburgh’s wealthy lawyers and merchants whose business interests meant that they spent most of their time in the city but who also wanted a country retreat and the kudos that went with landowning. The architect was James Smith, who also found the time to father an astonishing thirty two children from two marriages. In 1709 he sold the estate to the wealthy and influential Dalrymple family, a dynasty of lawyers, for the modern day equivalent of two and a half million pounds. The Dalrymples extended the house and created an astonishing “designed landscape” around it.
Stepping into Newhailes feels like stepping back into the Georgian era as the house retains so many of its 18th century features and has a very strong atmosphere. Not only do the majority of the rooms reflect their Georgian and Regency style and purpose but they also feel very “lived in” because the house has not been polished and repainted, it isn’t spick and span but shabby – in a rather “faded splendour” sort of a way. As a result it feels less like a stately home on show and more the sort of place you might meet one of the servants scurrying along the tunnel, an extraordinary passage buried under earth banks designed to make the busy servants invisible to the eyes of family and guests so that they didn’t spoil the view!
During the Regency period the house belonged to Miss Christian Dalrymple, daughter of the previous owner, Lord Hailes. On the death of Lord Hailes the title had passed to a cousin and Christian was in the act of packing up to leave Newhailes – on the assumption that the cousin had inherited the house as well – when her father’s will was found behind a window shutter. The estate was not entailed and it had been left to her.
Miss Dalrymple’s journals give a fascinating insight into life in the house in the Regency era. She used Newhailes’ enormous library, once the jewel of the Scottish enlightenment, as a drawing and dining room and held glittering parties there. In April 1829 she records: “The day of our great ball… We dressed and prepared the room… The whole was thought to go off well… The company I thought was rather too numerous, over 170. Dancing continued till near four, not in bed till five.”
In the Georgian period the Library at Newhailes was considered to be “the most learned drawing room in Scotland” according to Samuel Johnson. It was huge – almost the size of a house in itself at a time when very few people possessed sufficient books to justify a special room for keeping them in. The shelves occupy the total height of each wall and are adjustable, a very unusual feature of 18th century libraries. However it was my least favourite room in the house, simply because the books are gone now and the shelves are bare, which looked wrong and felt as though the heart had gone from the room and the house. Many of the books were sold in 1937. The remaining 7000 were passed into the care of the National Library of Scotland in 1971 in lieu of death duties.
By the time of Miss Christian Dalrymple the library was already suffering. In June 1815 she wrote in her journals: “It rained heavily: the water poured through the unfinished roof and we were forced to take down one side of the books in the library.” Later in December 1816 she wrote: “A man from the bookbinders examined my books and found them not in a good state and vigorous measures necessary to prevent the worm from spreading.”
Miss Dalrymple also kept a note in her journals of various domestic issues she had to deal with. She had a variety of problems with the servants, from secret marriages to over-zealous pruning of her favourite fruit trees. Drunkenness was a particular problem. In 1802 she records: “Hired a girl for my maid and afterwards I found by her behaviour I would have no comfort in her; was in great dismay and lost my night’s rest.” In 1812 she wrote: “Caused the stable boy to be dismissed for various misdemeanours.” In 1820 she “went through the painful task of dismissing the coachman for drunkenness.” There were also tragedies such as a drunken servant drowning in the well in the garden after a heavy night out in Edinburgh, and in 1834 the ploughman’s wife dying after setting her clothes on fire.
Guests could also prove a problem. In 1825 Miss Christian records the visit of a very clumsy guest: “Mr Inglis here. He broke cups and saucers in the China closet.”