From the manor reborn

THE room is heady with the musky perfume of hyacinths, surely the most evocative of all spring scents. The verdant bulbs fill a large china bowl on the antique table where we’re sitting, which is littered with images of times past and the sort of faded family photographs that make you want to delve into the deep pockets of memory.

There are sepia wedding pictures, old holiday snapshots, formal groups of Gosford Park-style shooting parties, and enchanting studio portraits by famous photographers, the most exquisite being a glamorous series by Dorothy Wilding. They show a beautiful young debutante exquisitely dressed in a white tulle ball gown.

She is Jane Lyell, daughter of a brigadier-general and the mother of James Coltman-Rogers, who has spent the last few weeks not only rummaging through stacks of old photographs and ancient albums at their home, Pallinsburn House, in the Borders, but packing up the family history of the great house where he spent his boyhood and to which he regularly has returned from "bumming around" the world. It is a house, he says with a sigh, that has seen "a litany of tragedy over the years".

His stepfather, Colonel Charles Mitchell, who inherited Pallinsburn from his father, Major Charles Mitchell, died of cancer only three years after marrying Coltman-Rogers’s mother. James, the youngest of her three sons, was a baby of just two months when his father, her first husband, was killed in a car crash.

After being widowed twice, she married for a third time, in 1970, to Toby Lyell, but that marriage was unhappy. "We didn’t get on with him; not many people did. Before he came, it was wonderful here, just paradise," says Coltman-Rogers. "But that marriage changed everything for us as a family." Ten years after Jane married Lyell, who died in 2003, she had a horrific riding accident that left her totally paralysed; in 1998 her second son, Timothy - James’s elder brother - died of a brain tumour.

When I say to Coltman-Rogers that his family history reads like a novel by Evelyn Waugh, he replies: "It’s worse, much, much worse than any fiction someone might make up; it’s beyond belief. My mother has had an extraordinary life, that’s for sure. She is a remarkable woman, with an indomitable spirit. She has never complained once since her accident. She’s very stalwart and always very cheery and very up.

"The great sadness is that she was such an athlete, the most terrific horsewoman, who absolutely loved to ride. She was a horse nut."

In a bitter twist, she was leading a Riding for the Disabled outing in the Borders when her horse caught its foot and the accident happened. She suffered a traumatic head injury when she fell and now requires around-the-clock care.

This is one of the reasons the family decided to sell Pallinsburn House and the magnificent estate on which it is situated, says Coltman-Rogers. His eldest brother, Jonathan, inherited another family estate in Wales, so he did not want to move into Pallinsburn with his wife and their family.

"This place was a sinking ship for a long time and we need the money to care for my mother," admits Coltman-Rogers, shuffling photographs of his handsome stepfather, Charles Mitchell, who died when he was barely four years old.

As we walk around the house, with Coltman-Rogers apologising for the lack of heating in the vast library-cum-drawing room, the fabulous dining room and the octagonal sitting-room, he points out dozens more silver-framed photographs, each with a story to tell. He recalls that during his childhood the domestic staff included a butler, a kitchen maid, a cook, a nanny and several gardeners - "even a man who just looked after the cars". Now the fine, Grade II-listed, 18th-century house near Cornhill-on-Tweed has been sold, along with the 1,500-acre estate, for 6.5 million, and the contents are to be auctioned by Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh next month.

"I worry that people will think I’m some sort of spoilt brat selling off the family silver, so to speak," says the unmarried 47-year-old Old Etonian, who has returned from his home in New Zealand where, incredibly, he lives in a tin shack.

"But I promise you that is most definitely not the case - I’m not some privileged type at all. In fact, I’ve been a vagrant for a long, long time, backpacking my way around the globe, serving in shops and waiting tables, and generally bumming around."

As we sit drinking mugs of coffee in the fine, oak-panelled study - its walls once the timbers of a 16th-century ship - Coltman-Rogers says he will be sad to leave Pallinsburn. "Of course, I’m going to miss this place very much. It’s such a beautiful house, but I’m philosophical about these things.

"It’s the wonderful people who work on the estate - the gardeners and the farmers and their families - that I will really miss. I love the place, but I don’t aspire to this lifestyle. I’m not into hunting, shooting and fishing. I’m a vegetarian and in New Zealand I’m entirely self-sufficient - I grow my own avocados and macadamia nuts, everything.

"I’m very happy in my corrugated tin hut - which, by the way, has no bathroom. I live alone and I write - I’ve been writing a book on semantics for several years because I’m very interested in epistemology, the theory of knowledge."

He says the estate was a wonderful place to grow up. "The new owners have four young children so, happily, it will become a real family home again. It’s a house that deserves to be filled with laughter. Certainly, my brothers and I had a lot of adventures here and got up to much mischief."

Built between 1763 and 1813, Pallinsburn lies almost on the border between England and Scotland and enjoys a magnificent view across to the Cheviot hills. It has an avenue of chestnut trees nearly a mile long and the estate boasts a couple of farms, a nursery, a pheasant and partridge shoot, some racing stables, nine cottages, a listed farmhouse - Jane Lyell’s new home - two gate lodges and a local village hall. As you approach the great house, you pass extensive woodlands that in early spring are carpeted with milky drifts of snowdrops.

The nine-bedroom house - it also has six reception rooms, five bathrooms, a huge, somewhat dilapidated gilded ballroom, a squash court and a billiard room whose walls are lined with the stuffed and mounted heads of water buffalo, gazelles and oryx (the spoils of a 1909 safari visit to Kenya) - has had a long and fascinating history.

It was built by the Askews, a family of wealthy Northumbrian landowners, who sold it and the estate in 1911 to Major Charles Mitchell. He was the grandson of the Aberdonian philanthropist and industrialist, Charles Mitchell, founder of the Low Walker shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne and partner of the fabulously wealthy business tycoon Lord Armstrong. Armstrong is the man who refurbished Bamburgh Castle and went on to build the great Gothic pile that is Cragside House, near Rothbury, using the fortune he had accrued from his shipbuilding and armaments interests.

Major Mitchell was an art lover, keenly interested in the Arts and Crafts movement. Thus he went on a vast spending spree at Pallinsburn, transforming the house into a "Jacobethan" mansion by adding elaborate plaster ceilings, including a barrel vault in the dining room. Major Mitchell was responsible for lining the study with its ship’s timbers. He replaced most of the windows with stone mullions, then, in 1933, he whipped off the top storey and, using shipbuilding technology, put on an immensely strong concrete and steel roof.

"You walk into Pallinsburn expecting an Edwardian industrialist’s house - which is what you get - but it’s much more interesting than that," says Sebastian Pryke, the Lyon & Turnbull specialist who is cataloguing the sale, which is expected to raise around 500,000. Of particular note, he says, is the fabulous library, amassed by the Askew family and bought by the Mitchells with the house. Some books are being auctioned, although the new owner has bought many of the bindings.

There is also some very fine Georgian country house furniture, including 18th-century dressing tables and cheval mirrors, a gorgeous Gillows’ wardrobe, a bookcase and a stupendous dining table, as well as 12 Brander-back Scottish dining chairs and a pair of superb Regency bergere chairs. A vibrant Ziegler carpet has been given an upper estimate of 50,000.

Most interestingly, though, there are many important items from Sundrum Castle in Ayrshire, the home of the Hamilton family, who made their money shipping goods to and from China and their sugar plantation in Jamaica - they were slave-owners, in other words. A set of archives traces the redesign of their castle by John Patterson in 1798. Family portraits of the Hamiltons, and even one of their neighbour, James Boswell, graced the walls of Pallinsburn for almost a century.

The youngest of the four Hamilton daughters, Hope, married Major Charles Mitchell and was the mother of Coltman-Rogers’ step-father, Charles. She brought many choice pieces to Pallinsburn, including memorabilia from her ancestors’ seafaring days, such as the complete log books belonging to her great grandfather, Captain John Hamilton, who captured four cannon from the French frigate Medee on 5 August, 1800. The cannon are included in the sale, along with Captain Hamilton’s sea chest, which still contains a pair of his naval trousers and his kettle, wrapped in papers dated 1805.

There are Edwardian Christmas decorations, trunks full of fancy dress costumes, Victorian children’s toys, ranging from a twin-seated rocking horse to boxes full to bursting with tin soldiers, none of which Coltman-Rogers recalls ever playing with. They were discovered stashed away in the dusty granaries, alongside archives and estate records from Sundrum, plus papers relating to Pallinsburn, folded inside Major Mitchell’s ambitious architectural plans for reconstructing the house.

As Jane Lyell was having her own most cherished pieces sorted and packed for her move from the house, more finds were made, such as a Mauchline Ware longbow, with quivers of unused arrows. It was made for the Eglinton Tournament, when Sir Walter Scott and the Earl of Eglinton set out to recreate a courtly medieval joust in Ayrshire.

Pryke, who has spent some weeks cataloguing the contents of the house, was thrilled when an Edwardian photograph of one of Hope Hamilton’s aunts holding the longbow turned up. A trained historian, Pryke talks of Pallinsburn as a time capsule. It has been a fascinating task, he says, to unravel the tangled web of the histories of two great houses and the two families whose fortunes became so inextricably linked.

"With Sundrum, it’s almost like the ghost of itself has moved to Pallinsburn where you find all this information - photographs, letters, documents, and endless archives - as well as some very fine furniture," says Pryke.

James Coltman-Rogers, however, is not into such possessions. "The backpack’s upstairs, so I’ll be off again soon," he says. There are far too many things already in his semi-converted garage in New Zealand, although he’ll probably take home to his shack a pair of silver candlesticks as a memento of palatial Pallinsburn. "They might just come in handy one dark and stormy night." sm

• Selected contents of Pallinsburn House, Northumberland, including items removed from Sundrum Castle, Ayrshire, in 1916, will be available for sale at Lyon & Turnbull, Broughton Place, Edinburgh on May 4. Call 0131-557 8844 for details.