The ten-bedroomed house was built between 1791 and 1797 to designs by architect James Playfair, father of William Henry Playfair, who was responsible for much of Edinburgh’s New Town. Another giant of British architecture, Sir John Soane, adapted the design after Playfair's death in 1794.
The house’s parkland was laid out by Thomas White, a pupil of Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
It has had some interesting owners too. The second laird, Major-General Thomas Gordon, was a good friend of Lord Byron, and a hero in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s and 1830s. The Gordon family sold the estate in 1937 to the Countess of Southesk, but afterwards Cairness House fell into serious decline.
A major long-term restoration programme of the house and grounds was awarded the Georgian Society prize in 2009 for the best restoration of a Georgian country house in the UK. Cairness is now a category A-listed building, described in the the Pevsner Architectural Guide as “of international importance as the only house in Britain, the design and construction of which reflected and evolved with the rapid advances in French Neoclassicism”.
“Its survival is the more precious as so many of Playfair’s other designs were not built or have been lost or altered.”
There are many classical references in the interior design too, most of which are still intact and redolent of the era of Grand Tours.
The Egyptian Room is the earliest surviving of its type in the world, and contains a number of hieroglyphic symbols. The library is Etruscan, its colours copied from ancient painted terracotta vases. A circular ice house in the central courtyard is another original feature.
There are four storeys to the main house and, while the principal accommodation has already been restored, there is still room for further development, according to selling agent Tom Stewart-Moore of Knight Frank.
He says: “The main part of the house is finished – the impressive public rooms and the grand bedrooms above. But there is further scope for the bedrooms on the second floor and the extra space in the semi-circle of buildings at the back.”
These are currently used as offices and ancillary storage, but Tom says that they could be upgraded to add accommodation or as separate units as holiday lets, studios or work spaces. He adds that the house has been used for events in the current owners’ time, but mostly it has been a private residence.
The 16-acre grounds include a four-acre walled garden with fruit trees and large lawns. An arboretum of approximately 150 young specimen trees was planted to mark the Queen’s golden jubilee in 2002, including rare varieties of oak and beech, as well as many exotic specimens.
Tom acknowledges that the house will appeal to a niche market, but he has already fielded calls from enthusiasts of Soane’s designs as well as Playfair’s. He says: “The buyer could be someone who loves the architecture and has the budget to develop it further for their own use. Others will want to make the most of the asset to develop as a venue – you have the whisky trail not far away, so it is an interesting hospitality package.
“But whoever buys it will have to understand the history and its importance – it is an architectural gem and deserves an understanding owner.”
Cairness House, St Combs, near Fraserburgh is priced at offers over £1.25m.
For more information, contact Tom at Knight Frank on 0131-222 9600.