A shining jewel in Scotland’s crown of stately homes, Dumfries House and estate was almost lost at one point - consigned to die a slow lingering end. But all that changed in 2007 when a trust was formed and the house and grounds were purchased.
But like all such grand homes, they cannot survive on love alone, and Dumfries was no exception. When HRH Charles, the Duke of Rothesay provided a loan of £20m to fund the balance of the £45m purchase price, he was adamant it was not to become just another tourist attraction.
HRH’s vision, using a number of his charities, including The Prince’s Trust, was for Dumfries House to become a heritage-led regeneration project like no other. The surrounding villages of Cumnock, Ochiltree and Auchinleck, villages closely associated to mining heritages were decimated when the industry collapsed, with many people leaving the area.
Now, the Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust is one of the areas largest employers and continues to work closely with the local villages on projects to enhance and benefit community life.
Since opening its doors to the public in 2008, the 18th-century house has attracted thousands of visitors who can take a tour of its unrivalled collection of historic Thomas Chippendale furniture, as well as collections by William Mathie, Alexander Peter and Francis Brodie - and view the bookcase, upon which Christie’s have placed an estimated value of £25m plus.
And, who’d have thought that the 5th Earl of Dumfries’s Palladian mansion built by the Adam Brothers is a mere one-hour drive from Glasgow and the surrounding areas?
This was my first visit to the estate, but it certainly won’t be my last!
Unusually for estates like this, entry is free to most of the grounds. There are no car parking charges and dogs are welcomed. There is a small charge for the house tours, entry to the newly built maze and the fully refurbished five-acre Queen Elizabeth walled garden, one of the largest in Scotland, but the Chinese bridge, adventure playgrounds, the Rothesay garden, the arboretum, ponds and many miles of scenic woodland walks are yours to enjoy for free.
The estate has come a long way since those early days of 2007/8 when it was almost lost to the nation, now operating a traditional craft and skills centre, used in the training of stonemasons, joiners and other trades for unemployed young people. It also runs a summer school for heritage and building crafts, The Prince’s Drawing School which provides space for four artists, one of whom acts as an artist-in-residence for the estate. In addition, the trust operates a hospitality centre used for the training of those interested in catering, customer service and restaurant operations attached to the onsite Woodlands restaurant.
As the Trust looked to incorporate the Prince’s vision for community integration and training, an outdoor residential centre was built with bunkhouse accommodation, a horticulture education centre which shows children the life cycle of plants from seed planting to making their own food, and an integrated food health programme working with community nurses and local GP’s.
Next up, and due to open this year is the educational farm designed to teach children where their meat, poultry etc comes from, and provide opportunities for those interested in farming.
So, back to the house itself. The guided tours last for 90 minutes and there are some specialised tours available for those who have a specific interest in, say, art or furniture. All tours are booked online or via the visitor centre. These are highly recommended as there is no other way in which to see the interior, which, in the majority of rooms are exactly as they would have been when the 5th Marquis lived in the house. Exceptionally informative, they take you through drawing rooms, the Tapestry room, restored hallways into the main entrance hall which feature the original gilded coat-of-arms, into the Pink room with its Murano glass chandeliers and much more. It’s a tour not to miss out on.
Oh, and did I mention the cafe? No, I urge you to try their cream teas. Just do it!