Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Newhailes - A Georgian Gem

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.”

In Miss Dalrymple’s day the “designed landscape” around the house was seen as an integral part of the house and estate. Visitors would walk along the raised promenade through the parkland to take in the views out to sea and then take refreshment in the tea house. In 1815 Miss Dalrymple wrote: “Mrs Lindsay came to call; took her to the Summer house where there was luncheon and a fire.” In the afternoons and evenings the shell grotto provided a place for reading and contemplation, with candlelight reflecting off the glass, precious stones and iridescent shells in the interior and the setting sun reflecting off the exterior. Not a bad way of life – unless you were one of the servants scurrying along the tunnel out of view of the owners! Newhailes really was a place full of inspiration and story ideas!


Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Newhailes sounds a fascinating place, Nicola, thanks for describing it to us. And the will being found just before Miss Christian's departure sounds like something from a novel! Good luck with your latest work, although I am sure Newhailes will inspire you for many books to come.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks, Melinda! Yes, you can just picture Miss Christian with all her bags packed when the servant comes running, will in hand. Newhailes was an extraordinary place with such a strong atmosphere. I'm not surprised some people have seen ghosts there.

gigi said...

Such a shame that the owners were not able to keep the house up to a certain standard. But it does cost a good amount of money to keep up a property and finding quality tradesmen when you needed repairs might have been a hard task.
Keep the information coming on all these lovely homes. I just devour the information.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks, Gigi! I'm so glad you enjoy the postings here.

I think so many owners found it simply too difficult to keep huge country houses going in the 20th century, particularly when hit hard with death duties. Fortunately organisations like the National Trust and National Trust for Scotland saved these places because otherwise such gems of house would all be lost.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

I am a great supporter of the NT and love looking around the properties, they are a great resource and source of inspiration to writers

Christina said...

That definitely looks like my kind of house - apart from the empty library of course! Great post Nicola, really enjoyed it.

Nicola Cornick said...

Isn't it great to have such wonderful houses for inspiration, Melinda. I think we are very fortunate so many are open to the public.

Christina, the house is fascinating but the empty library just felt wrong!

Jimmy Smith said...

They are a great resource and source of inspiration to writers.
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