Edinburgh stands amid a majestic landscape forged from volcanic rock, forming a dramatic and intimate affinity with its formidable setting. The story of Edinburgh is a tale of two cities, vastly opposed in architecture and lifestyle. Constricted by Arthur’s Seat on one side and Calton Hill on the other, the mediaeval Old Town, with its cramped and unsanitary conditions, became increasingly unpalatable to a growing and prosperous middle class in the 18th century. A Georgian New Town, with its broad avenues and leafy squares, lined with stylish Palladian façades, was, and still is, considered to be a masterpiece of urban planning.
The spectacular scenery of the Scottish Borders masks its bloody and turbulent history, its lands ravaged by merciless English armies and rife with violent family feuds. Pacified with the Union of Scotland and England in 1707, Edinburgh’s increasingly wealthy businessmen, lawyers and aristocrats saw in its scenic countryside an idyllic setting for their country houses and it was an Edinburgh firm of architects, William Adam and his sons John, James and, most famously, Robert, who came to dominate the building of Georgian Scotland. Among their architectural triumphs is the grand palace that is Hopetoun, a splendid setting for George IV’s visit in 1822. Arniston is still very much a family home and its estate has been in the Dundas family for 400 years.
Among its treasures, Paxton houses the most important collection of Chippendale furniture on display in Scotland while the stark battlemented face of Mellerstain belies its refined and elegant interiors. A supremely handsome Adam creation, the polished rooms of Dumfries House hold the fruits of Chippendale’s first major commission but perhaps Robert’s finest achievement is Culzean Castle, romantically perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the Firth of Clyde.
While the emphasis is on houses of the Georgian period, others serve to set 18th-century architecture and culture in context. Of these, the most ancient is Traquair, once a hunting lodge for Scottish kings. Holmwood, a 19th-century suburban villa, delights with its flamboyant, architecturally eclectic façade. Evoking the era of lavish weekend parties, Edwardian Manderston epitomises the last hurrah of country house entertaining on a grand scale.
Edinburgh. Assemble at the hotel and leave on foot at 3.00pm for a walk up Calton Hill to see an assembly of monuments including the National Monument, a reproduction of the Parthenon (Edinburgh: ‘the Athens of the North’). First of three nights in Edinburgh.
Hopetoun House, Dalmeny. In the morning visit Hopetoun House, a few miles outside Edinburgh. Property of the Earl of Hopetoun, the house was begun by Sir William Bruce in 1699 and added to by William Adam in 1721. It has a large collection of James Cullen furniture and an excellent art collection including works by Rubens, Raeburn and Canaletto. Dalmeny House overlooks the Firth of Forth. Property of the Earl of Rosebery, there are superb collections of fine and decorative art, in particular British paintings and 18th-century French furniture of the highest quality.
Edinburgh. The day is spent on foot in Edinburgh. Begun in 1766, the New Town is a magnificent expanse of wide streets, squares, circuses, crescents and parks and terraces, and is one of the finest areas of Georgian architecture in Britain. Robert Adam’s dome in Register House is his largest room. Finish the day with a private visit to the Georgian House, furnished as a typical New Town home belonging to a wealthy family might have been in 1790–1810, the time of the first owner, John Lamont of Lamont.
Arniston, Mellerstain. Palladian Arniston is an important William Adam house with family portraits by Ramsay and Raeburn. The house remains in the Dundas family today. Unique in being built by both William Adam and his son Robert, Mellerstain House has some of the finest Adam interiors, with a classic enfilade of rooms, exquisite plasterwork and a magnificent Great Gallery. First of two nights in Roxburghe.
Manderston, Paxton. Built in the late 18th century, Manderston was completely rebuilt in the early 1900s with breathtaking ‘Adam Revival’ interiors. Paxton House, designed by John Adam in grand 18th-century Palladian style and almost untouched, houses paintings from the National Galleries of Scotland and a remarkable collection of Chippendale furniture original to the house.
Traquair, Pollok House. One of the most romantic houses in the Borders, Traquair is an almost untouched 16th- and 17th-century Scottish castle house, a high Catholic stronghold still lived in by a royal Stuart descendant. 18th-century Pollok House was designed by William Adam for the Maxwell family. It is home to works by El Greco, Murillo and Goya. First of three nights in Ardgowan.
Ardgowan. All day is spent at Ardgowan, a superb mansion of the 1790s designed by a follower of Robert Adam. There is time at leisure as well as the opportunity to tour the house.
Culzean, Dumfries. Drive to the clifftop Culzean Castle, Robert Adam’s boldest creation, with oval stair hall and round drawing room with views out to sea. Also by Adam, Dumfries House, famously saved for the nation with the help of the Prince of Wales in 2007, is a perfect Palladian composition which retains unspoilt interiors and a unique set of Chippendale furniture.
Holmwood House, Glasgow. Holmwood House was designed by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and was built in 1857–8 for James Couper, a local businessman. From here the coach takes you to Glasgow Central Station by 12.30pm and to Glasgow Airport by 1.30pm.
Gail BentExpert on British architectural history and historic interiors and an interior designer and artist. She studied at Toronto and Leeds Universities and Edinburgh College of Art and has taught at the University of Leeds, Christ Church, Oxford, York and Nottingham. She lectures for The Art Fund, The National Trust and NADFAS, and has made appearances on BBC television as an expert in both country houses and architectural history.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,260.
Single occupancy: £3,770.
Hotel accommodation; breakfasts, two lunches and seven dinners with wine, water and coffee; transport by private coach; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
The Principal, Edinburgh: recently renovated, this well-situated 4-star hotel occupies 5 Georgian town houses and the former offices of the Caledonian Insurance Company. Period and modern touches nod to the literary associations of the buildings’ former occupants. The Roxburghe Country House Hotel: a 4-star hotel in an 18th-century manor house set in the grounds of the 50,000 acre Roxburghe Estate. Ardgowan: it cannot be emphasised enough that Ardgowan is a private house, not a hotel – keys to bedrooms are not provided. While each room has its own bathroom, in some cases this is a few yards along a corridor. Single rooms have single beds in them.
A fair amount of walking is unavoidable. Coaches can rarely park near the entrance to houses and grounds are often extensive. Most of the houses visited do not have lifts.
10 to 18 participants.