Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

From Family Seat to Seat of Learning – The Scottish Banner

May 31st, 2012

Burn House-Feb 12 030MONEY, INFLUENCE and patronage were almost essential for promotion in the eighteenth century British army and, as 4th son of the 2nd Duke of Gordon, General Lord Adam Gordon had all three.

In 1780 Lord Adam bought from the noble house of Southesk, a barony extending to some 2000 acres which lay at the foot of Glenesk on the east bank of the River North Esk, on the boundary of Angus (or Forfarshire as it was known then) and Kincardineshire. He called his estate The Burn after the Kirkton Burn which runs through it. At much the same time Alexander Brodie, younger brother of the 21st Brodie of that Ilk purchased the neighbouring lands of Arnhall – of which more later.

The Burn was empty moorland, described as “in the wildest state of barrenness”. Lord Adam was one of the progressive eighteenth century agricultural improvers who brought about the Scottish agricultural revolution and changes in the rural social system. He began an extensive programme of improvements, cultivating some of the land and planting over 550 acres of trees, including about 80 acres on the west bank of the River North Esk, opposite his own property, on land belonging to the Hon. William Maule, at no cost to his neighbour, “in order to hide deformities and create agreeable prospects”.

In 1791 work started on building a house also to be named The Burn under the supervision, it is thought, of architect James Playfair. It was completed in 1796 and was considered to be the most elegant mansion in the district.

His appointment as General Officer commanding the British Army in Scotland, and Governor of Edinburgh Castle, brought Lord Adam more rewards than the fulfilment of reaching the pinnacle of his professional life as a soldier. His position enabled him to bring French POWs from the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) from the prisoner-of-war camps at Perth and Penicuik, near Edinburgh, to work on improvements to his estate.

The prisoners laid out gardens and some six miles of walks throughout the home policies. Only one walk remains – the “Walk through the Blue Door” from the Gannochy Bridge to the Rocks of Solitude, a mile or so up the bank of the River North Esk – cut out of the solid jasper-veined rocks. “…. hewn with immense labour out of the living rock.” was the contemporary description.

They helped build the Doulie Tower, which stands on a prominence a mile up Glenesk overlooking the river. The suggestion that it was built as a retreat for an aristocratic lady in mourning seems fanciful as there is no evidence of who the grieving lady was. Far more likely it was a folly – an architectural extravagance built to show off Lord Adam’s wealth and individuality – or eccentricity!

They also formalised the course of the Kirkton Burn, straightening its banks where it ran past the walled garden and the “Big Hoose”. In the early days it was referred to as the Canal and its waters supplied a later laundry.

An unusual feature, unique so far as is known, is a cattle tunnel connecting the byre in the farm steading behind the house with the grass parks below. For fear of offending the sensitivities of the ladies, the cattle were kept out of sight when they were being moved.

The clock tower at the west end of the courtyard houses a clock made by the north-east’s leading clockmaker of the day and dates from the completion of the house. Marking the hours as well today as the day it was first wound, the maker’s plate narrates –

Made for the Honourable Lord Adam Gordon
Commander in Chief in Scotland
by John Gartly, Aberdeen 1797

Sadly, Lord Adam enjoyed his home for only five years for he died in 1801 from “violent inflammation, produced by drinking lemonade when overheated”. He had married Jean, Dowager Duchess of Atholl in 1767 and there were no children of the marriage. His tireless enthusiasm and perseverance had transformed The Burn from a “dreary desert without shelter or ornament” and “made an Arcadian grove.”

Alexander Brodie of neighbouring Arnhall, mentioned earlier, bought The Burn estate, and his coat of arms is on a plaque above the lintel of the Professor A.L. Brown Room in the Burn House. He was succeeded by his only child who, having married into the nobility was the Duchess of Gordon, and she sold the property in 1814 to Mr John Shand, a West India merchant, from whose trustees Major (later Lt. Col.) William McInroy purchased the estate.

Programmes of improvements and additions to the house were undertaken in 1805 and 1814. Ha-has, sunken fences allowing unobstructed views from the house, were built and the handsome porte-cochere, or carriage canopy, was added to the front door. A suspension bridge was built, allowing walkers to enjoy the wooded plantations on each side of the river. The central support pier built on the rocky outcrop of The Loups, a narrowing of the gorge through which the river tumbles, is all that exists now.

It would have warmed old Lord Adam’s heart to have thought that royalty graced his house and gardens. It is known that Queen Victoria visited The Burn, probably in 1866.

Two generations of McInroys owned The Burn. On the death of Col. Charles McInroy C.B. (Companion of the Order of the Bath, awarded by the Sovereign to senior military officers) in 1921, the estate was bought by Mr and Mrs Herbert Russell – Mr Russell had made his money in coal mining – and it became their family home.

Between 1933 and 1935 the Russells carried out the last, and probably the most extensive, alterations to the house. The pediment and roundel on the east front were removed and two bow windows inserted. From the left of the porte-cochere much of the interior of the northern half of the house – up to curtain wall – was gutted and rebuilt.

The entrance door, the main hall (with a portrait of Lord Adam), and its plastered ceiling which is described as a “fine ceiling of late Adam type” are all original, as is the main stair which is similar to one built by Playfair in Melville House in Midlothian. The classic stable yard and clock tower at the west end are also original. Of considerable interest below ground level, in the basement, is the layout of the original house showing how the staff “below stairs” lived and worked.

Tragedy struck the Russell family in 1944 when their son Lt. James Russell was killed in action in Italy, aged 21. After World War II, in 1947, the family felt they could no longer live at The Burn and, in James’s memory, they gave the house, 200 acres of amenity woodland and a suitable endowment to the Goodenough College, an educational charitable trust based in London.

Still the elegant country house it always was The Burn is now in its sixth decade as a residential retreat and study centre for university, college and school groups, postgraduates and faculty administrators. While predominantly serving the education sector during the academic terms it welcomes concerts, painting schools, music schools, holiday parties, weddings and other gatherings year round.

And history has repeated itself. In the sanctuary garden, created to provide a place for peace and contemplation, a labyrinth was built with help from prisoners from the Open Prison at Noranside.

See: www.goodenough.ac.uk and follow the link to The Burn

Written on Thursday, May 31st, 2012 at 11:17 am for Claivers.