During my stay at Auchinleck House earlier this year, a trek through the grounds brought me to the crumbling ivy strewn remains of the Old Place of Auchinleck.
This tower house was built in 1612 and served as the seat of the Lairds of Auchinleck before being superseded by the newer 18th Century mansion. It had itself replaced the yet more ancient Auchinleck Castle which had already fallen into disrepair by the 17th Century, its site now marked by only a few remaining stones.
I was interested to see this line of succession still visibly traceable upon the ground, bearing witness to the different sites where generations of the Boswell family had built their homes over the centuries. It put me in mind of what older structures may have stood before the ruined mansions I’m familiar with, and what became of these outmoded predecessors.
When I first came to the subject of ruins it was with no real prior knowledge of architecture. Despite having visited many an historic site through childhood I had little concept of building styles and periods. To me ‘old’ was just ‘old’. This made it easy for me to fancy the ruined mansions I began exploring as age old structures crumbling after centuries of inhabitation, particularly those whose architectural style harked back to more ancient forms of building. It wasn’t until I began researching their histories that I came to realise how relatively recent many of these declining structures were, and consequently, how short-lived.
Generally speaking, most of the ruins I have explored date from the very late 1700s through to the 19th Century. Of these, many were built as replacements to earlier dwellings, their construction born either from necessity or fashion. In particular, those associated with longstanding noble families were often the latest in a line of historic towers and castles; the fashionable contemporary interpretations of older seats established by previous generations.
But what then became of the predecessors to these modern mansions?
In compiling the following case studies, I explore the fate of three replaced residences, their successors now too redundant.
Buchanan Place before Buchanan Castle
Buchanan Place was built c.1724 as the seat of the Dukes of Montrose. It was altered in 1751 by John Adam and considerably enlarged in 1789 by William Playfair, giving it an extensively grand principal front near 300 feet in length. The house is illustrated by J. P. Neale in Jones’ Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen… of 1829, being described as a ‘venerable mansion’ in which ‘many of the apartments are noble’.
In December 1852, while the family were away for Christmas, Auld Maggie the housekeeper was reputed to have fallen into a drunken stupor, before waking to find the entire house in flames. Many valuable items were lost in the blaze, and the 4th Duke commissioned William Burn to build Buchanan Castle as the replacement to his burned home.
Fire was often a primary factor in the need to replace destroyed country houses. Cambusnethan Priory was built on the site of an earlier manor house burnt in 1810, while the ill-fated Abington House suffered two fires in ten years, being reconstructed after the first and replaced with a different house after the second.
Mount Alexander before Dunalastair
Mount Alexander was built at the beginning of the 19th Century for Colonel Alexander Robertson of Strowan, when he was rightfully restored to the inheritance of his ancestors. Again described and depicted in Jones’ Views…, the castle is said to have taken the form of ‘a massive square tower, from which extensive wings stretch out.’
By 1852 the estates were in the possession of General Sir John Macdonald, for whom the new mansion of Dunalastair was built by Andrew Heiton and Son. Little seems to be recorded about the fate of the old house, like Buchanan it too may have suffered fire, but whatever the reason it was demolished to make way for the latest incarnation of the estate seat. Some accounts say that Dunalastair incorporated parts of an older building, so perhaps Mount Alexander’s stones went towards the construction of its successor.
Demolition must have wiped away the traces of many an older house. It was usually preceded by some disaster like fire, but occasionally a house was pulled down purely to make way for a newer model. At Duncrub Park in Perthshire, the mansion was effectively replaced twice in the same century. The original house was vastly remodelled by William Burn in 1836, before his vision was torn down in 1870 to allow the construction of a brand new mansion, itself demolished in 1950.
Dolynharran Castle before Dalquharran Castle
The old tower house of Dolynharran occupies a site on the banks of the Water of Girvan in Ayrshire. Built in the 15th Century, this stronghold was the seat of Clan Kennedy who held the lands for many centuries. The house was extended in 1679, with a large new wing to the north increasing its accommodation considerably.
By the 1780s however the castle was once again deemed too small. Plans were drawn up for further additions to the existing house, but these were discarded in favour of a new home designed by Robert Adam. In 1792 the Kennedys moved up the hill to the new improved Dalquharran castle, a large mansion casting fine views over the countryside and the old family home which remains as a ruin to this day.
Dolynharran’s fate is shared by a number of older houses. Caldwell Tower in Renfrewshire and Knock Castle in North Ayrshire were both vacated when superseded by new counterparts located nearby. The potential of an old castle to become a picturesque feature in the park was sometimes actively pursued, as at Lennox Castle in Dunbartonshire, whose predecessor Woodhead was hastily decorated with ivy upon the completion of the new house.
Though many older residences were burned, demolished or left to ruin, a great number did survive. Some were given alternative use within the estate; demoted to the secondary role of dower house or made into the family mausoleum as with Elphinstone Tower in the grounds of Dunmore Park.
Perhaps the most common occurrence was the retention of the old house as part of the new. So often an older house would be drastically enlarged with the addition of an oversized ‘extension’ which consisted of an entire mansion in itself. By this practice the former was often rendered a mere diminutive wing in comparison to its contemporary counterpart, or entirely obscured from view upon being swallowed whole by a giant modern encasement.
For the people who built them, it must have been unthinkable that these brand new pleasure palaces could themselves be cast off so soon. But often little more than a century after construction many were condemned as oversized and too costly to maintain. The widespread demise of newer houses did however sometimes herald the revival of the old.
It was possible for older houses preserved as part of the estate to once again find favour with cash-strapped families who retreated to their more modest residences for ease of upkeep, while others had the older core of a composite mansion restored upon the demolition of later additions. Such was the case at Logan House in Dumfries and Galloway, where the original Georgian house was to re-emerge from behind its Baronial curtain in 1952, reinstated as though its turreted alter ego had never existed.
When considering how easy it is to erase a structure in this way, it is quite fascinating to think of the vast number of buildings which must have come and gone over the centuries. Interesting too is the thought of what fate awaits many of today’s structures, and whether one day in the future they too will have disappeared without a trace.