Hurrying across the dormant fields I almost broke into a run, conscious that I was in a race against the imminent setting of the winter sun and anxious to reach my destination while its weakening rays still fell across the landscape. Advancing upon the brow of a hill I could see the tips of slim turrets and rows of ornate chimneys appearing a short distance away, illuminated gold by the westerly glow of the late afternoon light. As I reached the summit, the building from which those turrets soared was revealed in its entirety, partially masked by a thin line of trees marking the perimeter of the terrace that enclosed it. Here, in all its Tudor Gothic pageantry, was Dunmore Park.
My visit was made one year during those somnolent days following Christmas, when time seems to evade as the dawning of a new year is awaited. The morning had been occupied by the exploration of another ruin and the afternoon was already progressing as I arrived at Dunmore, the chill in the air intensifying with every passing minute. Having parked near the famous folly known as The Pineapple, a whimsical summerhouse now regarded as the centrepiece to this domain, I had headed north searching instead for the building which had previously dominated the Dunmore estate but now formed one of a number of crumbling structures within its environs.
My breath rose in vapour before me as I stood for a moment regarding the symmetrical façade of the south front, broken only by the block of the central tower rising a full storey above its flanking walls. The very name of Dunmore Park had conjured ideas of grandeur in my mind since I had first read about it months before, and the elegant composition of the Georgian mansion before me seemed to embody such splendour.
Excited by the prospect of reaching the house I paced onwards until my attention was distracted by the broken shard of a wall emerging from among the trees to my right. Diverting from my path I followed a trail trodden through the long grass towards this edifice and found myself at the ruin of Elphinstone Tower. Dating from around 1510, the tower was built for Sir John Elphinstone and was the principal dwelling of the family who had occupied these lands since the 14th Century.
This square keep comprised four storeys each of a single room, and remains one of few buildings on the estate to pre-date the Georgian remodelling. It was not left entirely untouched however, and did see some 19th Century embellishments, some of which were subsequently removed. In 1845 St Andrews Episcopal Chapel was completed on an adjacent site in memory of the 6th Earl of Dunmore, and at around the same time the ground floor of the tower was converted to the family mausoleum.
The chapel has now gone, being demolished in 1963 and a substantial portion of the tower was blown down around five years later, leaving the fragment before which I now stood. The tumbled-down tombstones half hidden in the surrounding undergrowth reminded me that I was on hallowed ground as I proceeded through the doorway at the base of the tower, its studded wooden door and heavy gate hanging ajar. The further reaches of this ground floor space were pitch black, but the light streaming in through the entrance illuminated something which alluded even more explicitly to this place’s former role as a final resting place.
Two open coffins lay discarded, their occupants thankfully absent but still providing an unnerving memorial to the generations to have been interred there. I exited before climbing the cascade of rubble resulting from the collapse of the tower’s north-west angle, ascending to first floor level and surveying the few remnants of panelling which still lined the walls. I caught site of my own elongated shadow cast against a neighbouring evergreen and decided to press onwards, being reminded of the need to chase the sunset and reach the mansion quickly.
I resumed my route and strode out across the frozen ground, my eyes fixed on the house now in reach. Climbing over the wall at the top of a shallow bank I arrived on the elevated plateau the house occupied, casting views to the south across rolling parkland now turned over to agriculture. The carved banner over a hoodmoulded doorway before me proclaimed ‘Fidelis in Adversis’, a sombre exhibition of the occupants’ piety, while the shield beneath divulged the date of Dunmore’s creation.
The house was completed in 1822 for George Murray, 5th Earl of Dunmore by William Wilkins, one of the most fashionable architects of the day. George’s forebears had borne that title since 1686 and his father, John Murray, had purchased these lands for £16,000 in 1754 as Viscount Fincastle. John had aided in the campaign of Bonnie Prince Charlie when only a teenager and became Earl upon the death of his father in 1756. Two years later, he changed the name of his newly purchased estate from Elphinstone to Dunmore, in respect of his inherited title and family ties with the place of Dunmore in Perthshire.
Walking along the terrace I was impressed by the building’s sprawling manorial form. The south front was punctuated by twin projecting double height bows, a pointed gable
surmounted by a neat finial remaining above one of these. The detail of the dressed ashlar was as crisp as the winter air and the numerous armorial panels set in quatrefoils which enlivened the windows were thrown into sharp relief by the low sun.
Skirting the west corner I was greeted by the robust form of a porte cochere dominating the entrance front, strategically placed at a right angle to the principal apartments in order to protect their privacy. Passing under its arches I arrived in the octagonal entrance hall which gave way to the main corridor running the length of the house.
The floors that once dissected this vast space had long since rotted and disappeared, leaving it open to both sky and basement below. I stood for a moment at this precipice before continuing into the neighbouring suite of rooms. The house had been arranged as a quadrangle around a courtyard, and this southern range housed a dining room, drawing room and library forming an unbroken enfilade.
Dunmore remains somewhat unique among my explorations for the ease with which I navigated its chambers that day. Normally I am climbing over piles of stone, avoiding buckled walls and assessing the unsteady remains of upper floors to determine the likelihood of their collapse as I pass underneath. But the stripping of Dunmore in preparation for a conversion which never commenced has rendered the structure a shell in the starkest sense of the word.
Almost all that remains is stone, braced by iron beams spanning the walls at first floor height. While this means that hints of its former interiors have been mostly lost, it allowed me to negotiate the ground floor apartments unhindered, passing through doorways without difficulty and walking across the earthen floor as though it were still carpeted.
The relative lack of risk caused me to experience a pleasant sense of calm as I moved through the elegantly appointed rooms. It was easy to imagine how these spaces were used through decades of occupancy, first by the Murrays and their guests strolling leisurely from one room to the next, the natural flow of people accommodated by considered planning.
The Earls of Dunmore presided over the estate until its sale in 1911, the house remaining a private dwelling for a further fifty years before being sold once more and used briefly as a school. I envisaged the girls boarding here filing into their classrooms until the house was vacated and abandoned, the estate being divided up a few years later. I paused a while in each of these fine spaces, their bare state enabling me to appreciate fully their generous dimensions.
I caught site of the relatively modest main staircase across the other side of the hallway, its upper flights cantilevered from the walls and its floating appearance emphasised further by the absence of lower steps. Passing behind this through the East range which housed the private family apartments I suddenly emerged into open air.
Here corridors terminate abruptly and walls slump to piles of rubble, indicating where the service accommodation was illegally torn down in 1972 when the house was simultaneously shorn of much of its castellated detail. From this vantage point the main block appears much starker, the need to impress less important at the rear of the mansion.
Weaving through the debris of the walls that originally enclosed the central courtyard I found myself beneath the grand hallway. I was struck by how much more extraordinary the space seemed from basement level; the soaring Tudor arches creating an almost cathedral-like space overhead drawing the eye skyward. From here I explored the extensive cellars lined with brick compartments still numbered and labelled for drinks, growing disorientated in the near total darkness.
As I emerged from the subterranean gloom my eyes took a moment to adjust, the sun glaring with a final intensity before its descent behind the horizon. I returned to the entrance hall, passing beneath another fragmented crest declaring the motto of Clan Murray; “Furth, fortune and fill the fetters”. Looking out through the main doorway I could discern the outline of the castellated stable block beyond, another of the estate’s derelict buildings I would return to explore the next year.
In the octagon the failing light filtered through the scene, lengthening shadows tracing the shapes of the gothic window lights on the opposite wall. Having survived various applications for demolition, I wondered for how many more years the sun would set on the magnificent Dunmore Park.