Interiors: Dundas Castle

Wedding bells heralded a new lease of life for an ailing stately pile. Now Dundas Castle is a majestic home again, and a thriving business

The process of restoring Dundas Castle is a bit like what we used to say about painting the Forth Bridge – no sooner is it finished, than it’s time to start again. For Sir Jack Stewart-Clark and his wife Lady Lydia, this was a project they nearly didn’t take on. However, despite it being a monumental job, they are delighted they accepted the challenge.

Dundas has been owned by the Clark family since 1899 when Sir Jack’s great grandfather, Stewart Clark, a tycoon of the textile industry, bought it. A philanthropist who ran the estate with care and concern, even building a school for employees’ children, his son so wished to emulate and honour him, he changed the family name to Stewart-Clark.

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The story of the castle prior to 1899 is that the Dundas clan had owned Dundas Castle and extensive lands leading as far as Linlithgow from the 11th century onwards. “The Chief of the Dundas clan obtained permission from King James I of Scotland to build the keep in 1416 and the building was both a dwelling and a fortress,” explains Sir Jack. “In 1818 Robert Dundas commissioned William Burn to build the present ‘modern’ castle. The estate was sold in 1840 to Mr William Russell and then to the Clark family.”

When Sir Jack inherited the castle in 1996, the keep and castle had seen better days. “My parents moved into Dundas in 1938 but then war was declared in 1939. As Dundas has such spectacular views of the Forth Bridge, which was to be protected at all costs, the castle was commandeered for the rest of the war as the headquarters of the Balloon Barrage. After the war my parents returned, but life had changed. They lived in a small section of the castle and sadly my father died relatively young at 68. My mother lived here until she was nearly 90, but I’m afraid the castle was allowed to get very run down.”

He adds: “We had dry rot, wet rot, holes in the floors and gutters leaking everywhere. The cellars could only be visited wearing wellies! Although I had been lucky to inherit the castle, initially I didn’t think we could justify spending large sums of money on it and the best thing to do was to sell. After long deliberations with my wife, who is an interior decorator, we decided that we should try and restore it. We thought if we could restore the main part of the house then we could sell the castle complex, the policies and the golf course to become a country club. With the money obtained we could build a new house and live on the remaining part of the estate. Then friends intervened and reminded me that I had 27 years of experience in business, so why didn’t I run a business at Dundas myself?”

With an office in what is now his private dining room and an assistant to help, Sir Jack started a business marketing weddings, corporate events and golfing holidays, but the wedding market quickly offered the biggest potential. However, to launch Dundas Castle as a wedding venue, restoration had to start right away.

“We decided to restore the keep first, the idea being that the ceremony would be held there and then we could use some of the public rooms in the castle for the reception, and a marquee on the lawn for dancing and entertainment. The keep had no heating, electricity and many of the windows were smashed – it was also inhabited by pigeons. So we set about making it wind and watertight, put in electricity, heating, a kitchen and toilets. We also unblocked a secret staircase and reinstated the original fireplaces to working order. The old coalhole was turned into the toilets but we had to be very careful as to how we created these. Historic Scotland won’t allow you to build directly onto original stone walls so these rooms have been constructed within a wooden framework.”

With the keep now habitable enough to host romantic wedding ceremonies, Sir Jack and Lady Lydia turned their attention to the main castle. The drawing room, library and dining room had their dry rot removed and were all redecorated and upgraded. New colour schemes were agreed upon “eventually,” says Sir Jack, laughing. “My wife is very clever with colour and she manages to create a traditional feel without a room appearing old-fashioned, however I wanted to retain the sky blue and silver in our drawing room whereas my wife wanted another colour. We compromised with duck-egg blue and silver. In the library the silk was peeling off the walls but we managed to find a company that would supply new silk in the original pattern and colour.”

Phase two of the renovation was to create rooms where the bride and groom and their families could stay. So the couple tackled the first-floor bedrooms. “We did the four largest bedrooms initially,” says Sir Jack, “followed by six bedrooms in our North wing.”

One huge problem was that there were only two bathrooms in the whole castle. “Since we had an abundance of bedrooms, we were able to use some of these to create bathrooms. Now we have 14 bedrooms, with only one that isn’t en suite,” he adds.

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Fortunately the majority of the furniture was already in the castle and thanks to some careful restoration combined with Lady Lydia’s eye for colour, the first phase of bedroom renovation was a success. Sir Jack also started a collection of beautiful Scottish and Dutch paintings and early standing and bracket clocks. He says: “It’s hard work and there is a lot of competition, but we now do about 85 weddings a year which I think is rather good considering we started the business from scratch. Every year the weddings produce an income and a substantial amount of that goes straight into the restoration. In fact we have tradesmen arriving tomorrow to restore the billiard room floor; it’s a constant process.”

Sir Jack isn’t exaggerating about the ongoing financial input into the castle’s restoration. After the first ten bedrooms were done, others were created to bring the sleeping accommodation to 29. Phase three included restoring the basement area – creating a boardroom, building comfortable living quarters for the caretakers and extensive new office space. Phase four included the renovation of the courtyard cottage and the stables. The current phase five consists of renovating further stables and garages which last year had no roof to speak of. The restoration will create further bedrooms and an artist’s studio.

The latest part of the restoration has just been unveiled – a newly created minstrel’s gallery in the keep which leads to a room which was uninhabited for more than 300 years. “We now have access to the room across the gallery. I’m a great romantic and I’ve been very excited about this part of the project.”

However, does this ongoing restoration process and constant invasion of guests and tradesmen ever have its downside? “Not really,” says Sir Jack. “Firstly, if we weren’t sharing our home we couldn’t afford to live here, and secondly, it keeps the place alive.

“Weddings are wonderfully happy events and we hosted our 1,000th marriage last December. All in all it has been worthwhile and we feel we are contributing to Scotland’s tourism and its economy as well as protecting Dundas for future generations.”

• For information on holding an event at Dundas Castle visit