Sale of a century

As you step through the front door of Jordanstone House, the passage of time seems to slow. The grandfather clock ticks, ponderously, as it always has. Motes of dust dance in a shaft of sunlight. The portraits look down from their heavy gilt frames on a grand house little changed since the 1920s. Outside, on the terraced garden, the roses are starting to flower.

Jordanstone offers a snapshot of a bygone time when a great house contained two communities, one upstairs, the other downstairs. A short walk past the grand staircase and through a door to the left takes you into the other Jordanstone: plain stone stairs, rows of pantries, a set of electronic bells that could summon a servant at a moment’s notice to any room in the house. Out of sight and out of mind, an army of staff kept a great house running.

Jordanstone, near Alyth, on the border of Perthshire and Angus, is one of only a few houses of its kind to have survived intact in private hands. Now it is on the market - with 12.5 acres, a lodge house and three cottages - for offers over 1,125,000. Its contents, valued conservatively at 800,000, will be sold in a special sale at the house on 21 July by Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull. The items on offer range from highly collectable paintings and antiques to tea caddies and coal scuttles.

"It’s wonderful to come across a house with such exciting things in it that we are able to hold a house sale on the premises," says Gavin Strang of Lyon & Turnbull. "House sales are becoming a thing of the past, but there is an excitement generated by being in the house that you don’t always get in the auction room. One of the joys of this house is that almost nothing has changed since the 1930s."

In its heyday, Jordanstone played host to glittering soirees and tennis parties on long summer afternoons. A flock of peacocks wandered through its landscaped gardens. Like most big houses, it has stories to tell about the people who lived in it: the agnostic sea captain who insisted on being buried in the grounds, the breeder of clumber spaniels whose dog’s foot paperweight was left behind. Most of all, it bears the stamp of its last owners, the politician Sir James Duncan, and his second wife, Lady Beatrice Duncan, a former actress once heard across the nation as the voice of Larry the Lamb. She lived in the house until she died, last December, at the age of 92.

Carol Spragge, Lady Duncan’s daughter from her first marriage, and her brother, Laurence Blair Oliphant, are selling the house. "I have mixed feelings about selling it," says Spragge. "It was a happy house, a very friendly house. I think it would make a lovely family home. It is big, but manageable. I envy the person who buys it."

The present house, which forms the core of the building today, was built in the 18th century for Admiral Sir John Knight, a sea captain who took his place in history when he escorted Caroline of Brunswick to Britain for her short and tempestuous marriage to the future George IV. Sir John caused a bit of outrage himself in Perthshire when he insisted that, as an agnostic, he would be buried not on hallowed ground but on his own estate. His elaborate tomb now lies just outside the Jordanstone policies.

In 1892, his great-grandson, Sir John Keppel Knight, sold the house to James Duncan of Drumfork. Duncan, the son of a merchant from Alyth, had returned from South America where he and his brother David made their fortune with their trading company, Duncan, Fox & Co. Keen to secure a home that befitted his wealth near his home town, Duncan instructed his lawyer to buy Jordanstone whatever the cost.

"The story goes that the Dundee solicitor selling the property didn’t believe he had the money, so he took the money out of his pockets, threw it down on the floor and left them to pick it up," says Gavin Strang. "I have my doubts about that. He owned a big estate up the road and it was probably known that he had enormous wealth. But I can believe that he was terribly keen to buy Jordanstone, whatever the cost."

Delighted with his new home, Duncan immediately set about using some of his fortune to make it suitably grand. He added the large east wing, which includes the billiard room, with a full-size billiard table, and the stylish dining room. "I have a vivid memory of coming and having dinner here when my mother first married," Spragge says. "The food was brought in in a very stately manner and served to one person at a time. You had to wait until everyone was served. The food was stone cold by the time you ate it - I never once had a hot meal here."

The first Duncan of Jordanstone was a noted patron of the arts and left 60,000 in his will for the founding of an independent college of art in Dundee. The house, meanwhile, passed to his nephews, James Archibald Duncan and Alexander Lawson Duncan, the breeder of spaniels, then to Alexander Lawson’s son James in 1924. He and his wife Adrienne made their home in London where he became an MP and Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Conservative governments of the 1930s. They spent a small fortune developing Jordanstone as their country retreat and their decoration scheme remains largely unchanged today.

The couple employed Sir Robert Lorimer, one of the most eminent Scottish architects of the time, to design a west wing, with a grand drawing room, complete with classic Lorimer ceiling, an entrance hall and a cosy wood-panelled library. They furnished Jordanstone with antiques, paintings and books from some of the best dealers in London.

James was a careful and prudent collector. His library contains many rare volumes in mint condition, now worth thousands of pounds, including rare natural history books and beautiful Cosway bindings of Burns, Dickens, Tennyson and TE Lawrence, inlaid with hand-painted miniatures. The paintings in the house include portraits by Henry Raeburn and Thomas Lawrence, a George Morland originally owned by Lord Leverhulme, and a charming and unusual Joseph Farquharson, Fisherwoman on a Deserted Sandy Beach. There are several original watercolours by Henry Alken, best known for his sporting prints.

The furniture reflects a similarly careful eye, including gems such as a Regency Carlton House desk, valued at between 12,000 and 18,000, and George III mahogany serpentine chests. Some items have come down through the Duncan family, such as the large tapestry in the drawing room, The Feast of the Continents, which belonged to David Duncan, the brother of the first James Duncan of Jordanstone. Woven in Brussels in the early 18th century by Jasper van der Borght it is one of fewer than 50 in existence and is valued at between 60,000 and 90,000.

After the Second World War, James and Adrienne came to live in Jordanstone, and James became MP for Angus and Kincardineshire. Spragge, living at nearby Ardblair, remembers being invited to the house for a tennis party with her father, Major Philip Blair Oliphant. "I do remember that my dear papa - who didn’t worry what people thought of him - was more or less wearing a pair of trousers kept up with his tie. Sir James was immaculate in white flannels, very neat and splendid, as usual."

By the time Adrienne died, Spragge’s mother, Beatrice Blair Oliphant, was also a widow. She and Sir James were married quietly in 1966. "My mum was a delightful and lovely person, and a true Irishwoman, she never let the truth get in the way of a good story. She would talk about how she would sit lonely in her house and see the lights of Jordanstone and think of Sir James sitting lonely in his and wonder if they should get together. But wonderful though her eyesight was, she couldn’t have seen the lights of Jordanstone from Ardblair however hard she tried."

Dodo, as she liked to be called - "she had a set of perfectly good Christian names but she didn’t like any of them" - turned out to be the perfect partner for Sir James. They were busy and well-loved members of Perthshire society and worked tirelessly for a range of charities. "She always used to say, ‘I’m always opening and shutting things,’" recounts Spragge. "Sir James was there as the big person, and mum was there in her perky hat, breaking the ice, making a little speech, she was always splendid at that."

Little wonder, for Dodo, born Beatrice Mary Moore Carroll, in 1910 in County Cork, was an actress at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin at the time of Sean O’Casey. She left the stage when she married Philip Blair Oliphant, a soldier from Perthshire, in 1934, but continued to work in radio. "My father was sent over there to quell the natives," laughs Spragge, "except that he was caught by a native and she quelled him instead."

During the Second World War the Blair Oliphants settled in Manchester and Dodo began to record the voice of the Larry the Lamb on BBC’s Toytown. Spragge, a child of four or five had been evacuated to live with her grandmother at Ardblair in Perthshire. "The story is that I sat down in front of the radio to listen to mum being Larry the Lamb and was most distressed when I looked round the back and couldn’t find her."

Even after she moved to Scotland, Dodo continued to perform, giving recitations of Irish poetry at local women’s groups. She and Sir James were regulars at prize-givings at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art, which was finally opened in the 1950s. The school conferred its last honorary fellowship on Lady Duncan in 1994, "in honour of outstanding support and patronage", before it became a faculty of the University of Dundee.

Photographs show a small, fine-featured woman rarely seen without a hat. A collection of her hats - bright greens, reds, pinks, remain in an upstairs bedroom. "She was very fond of hats," says Spragge. "She had a little face and loved to have something framing her face, pulled to one side a little cheekily. She sewed them herself, adding little features. She always looked very glamorous. With her training in the theatre, she had poise."

However, she was not without her eccentricities. "Let me introduce you to Lesley," says Spragge, indicating the top half of a shop mannequin, seated in one of the chairs. "She lived in my mother’s car. Mum had an irrational fear of hitch-hikers. She had Lesley because she felt that if she always had someone in the car she wouldn’t have to stop for anyone. She could be dressed as a man or a woman, hence the name. But I’m sure anybody seeing this thing peering out wouldn’t have wanted a lift anyway."

Even in her eighties, Dodo was keen to help those much younger than herself. When she heard that a local rock band, Long Fin Killie, had nowhere to practice, she offered to help. "Poor Luke Sutherland and his band found it more and more difficult to find anywhere to practise because of the noise they made. She told them to come and practise in the laundry, which is underneath the drawing room. I remember visiting mum once and we went into the drawing room, which is a very posh room - the carpet was practically jumping up and down because of the noise below." Sutherland, who is now a successful musician and author, thanks Lady Duncan on all his CDs.

The laundry - a vast room which still smells of soap powder - is just one indication of the hive of activity that once took place below stairs at Jordanstone. A spacious kitchen with its range, store cupboards and cold rooms, wine cellar, silver safe and sewing room, was once the preserve of cooks, maids and footmen. Living quarters for male and female staff were strictly separate - the maids in one attic, the footmen in another, accessed by separate staircases from the basement. These met at only one point: outside the housekeeper’s bedroom. Any footman with a suit to press would have to brave her keen hearing.

After the death of Sir James in 1974, Dodo lived simply with a handful of dedicated helpers who enabled her to continue to live at Jordanstone until she died, despite suffering a stroke. Spragge remembers her mother in her last years sitting on the veranda enjoying the view to the Sidlaws and the twittering of the small birds in the wisteria. "One of her great delights was to sit out on the veranda - in June it is heavenly here."

Today, Jordanstone itself is something of a bright old lady. It shows some signs of age: the tennis court has lost its surface, the walled garden is being reclaimed by nature. But the house still sparkles with memories. With the right degree of tender loving care, it could be rejuvenated into a beautiful home.

The contents sale of Jordanstone by Lyon & Turnbull will take place at the premises on Wednesday 21 July. Entry for viewing is by catalogue only. Contact Lyon & Turnbull on 0131-557 8844.