Book review: The Scottish Country House by James Knox

The Laigh Hall in The House of the Binns, near Linlithgow
The Laigh Hall in The House of the Binns, near Linlithgow
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ARMED with James Knox’s book, you may find yourself reaching for a map, and planning a visit, perhaps to Dumfries House in Ayrshire, or the House of the Binns near Linlithgow.

The Scottish Country House by James Knox

Thames & Hudson, 208pp, £28

Or more likely, particularly at this time of year, sitting back in your armchair, and imagining yourself invited to tea (not all of the ten houses within its covers are open to the public).

There’s nothing like ferreting about a good country house, with some quality plastering, carpets, curious artefacts and the odd masterpiece on which the eye can linger; but they’re so much better value for a memorable encounter with their eccentric denizens. This is the pleasure of Knox’s book; not just for its whimsical, but eminently erudite eye on the architecture and furnishings, but for a knack of matching the character of houses to the families that inhabit them.

He begins, with relish, with the House of the Binns, the first country house handed over to the National Trust for Scotland, in 1944, and home of the Dalyell family. We meet former MP and present laird Tam Dalyell, the seasoned opponent of devolution, and a collection that includes the Griffin cartoon of him, as a dog, chewing on Margaret Thatcher’s heel. But we also encounter his 17th century namesake, General Tam Dalyell, “who as an ardent royalist refused to shave or cut his hair until the Stuart monarchy had been restored to the throne”.

James Fennell’s photographs, like Knox’s text, range from sumptuous settings captured panoramically in natural light, to witty details. Tam Dalyell’s bust by modern Scottish artist Gerald Laing looks, with an arrow through it, like an extra from a western movie, a cheeky addition by the grandchildren. The King’s Room features the decoration of thistles and roses in plasterwork celebrating the union of the crowns, prepared for a (cancelled) visit by Charles I, but a photograph also picks out a row of fancy leather riding boots.

“The Scots engaged with their sublime landscape long before the cult of the picturesque awoke the rest of Britain to the pleasures of a good view,” says Knox, managing director of The Art Newspaper and author of books on Robert Byron and the cartoonist and satirist Osbert Lancaster. He tells a story of how a high wall was demolished at Arniston, Midlothian, and men ran to the dying laird to tell him the sea could now be seen from the windows.

The book celebrates Scotland’s classical architects, William Adam and his sons John, Robert, and James, and reminds us how Sir Walter Scott “turned the revival of castle building into a craze”, built for display rather than defence, with the Scottish Baronial style that “took the country by storm”. It produced buildings like the new castle at Lochinch, built by the Earl of Stair, “bristling with bartizans, turrets” and the high step roofs and narrow gables Scott evoked in his novel Waverley.

Fennell’s photographs are shot only in natural light. Each house is introduced with a stunning flourish, like the sensational entrance hall by William Adams at Arniston; we’re then shown the oak room, where “the lord president liked to carouse with his cronies”, “getting slockened” on claret. Knox likes his language; in the same chapter we hear the lady laird describe her parents as being “very squashing”, and he notes the “limpid hang” of the paintings in the hall. Another hall displays hunting trophies, including a pair of walrus tusks.

Some families lived large; others managed the family property quietly. There’s Dumfries House, for where orders from Chippendale (over 50 items) were shipped to Leith and then by cart to Ayrshire. The house was saved by a deal brokered by Prince Charles in 2007; previously the widowed lady Eileen Bute, a horse racing enthusiast and leader of the so-called Ayrshire Widows Association, lived there nearly 40 years, staining the walls with nicotine.

There’s Ballindalloch, Banffshire, where the current lady laird’s “dear papa” advised her to show “ghastly paintings” to the auction houses before she burned them – they turned out to be rare 17th century Spanish works – and “naughty Uncle George” nearly scuppered the family’s inheritance by leaving most of his estate to his boyfriend in the 1950s. The family have “succeeded in hanging on to it” since 1546, now helped by the oldest Aberdeen Angus herd in existence, from a breed developed at the estate.

The book’s £28 price is merited by the magnificent photographs alone; wisely Knox has avoided picturing the houses’ current owners in Hello! magazine style.