Edinburgh: Newhailes house

One of my favorite things about Scotland has been the opportunity to live in, and among, old homes. Probably they’re lovely in their own right but I wouldn’t know; I’m too busy fangirling because these places remind me of the flats, manors, and villas of British (mostly English) novels from Austen to Christie to Heyer.

Last week we visited an interesting example of a “stately home” (that they’re called that only adds to my glee). The house is called Newhailes and it’s near the coastal town of Musselburgh, about a half-hour’s train ride outside of Edinburgh. The house’s oldest section was built in the late 1600s by an esteemed architect, for his own use; when a legal bigwig bought it a few decades later, he and his descendants added more wings. The remarkable thing is that this family, the Dalrymples (I know! so fancy-sounding!), continued to make Newhailes their home for the next almost-300 years, until the last Dalrymple’s widow, Lady Antonia, moved out in 1997.*

Newhailes house in the sunshine, with rectangle of lawn in front

{as always, mouse over for description, or click to enlarge}

Entrance to Newhailes is by admission and tour only, and once inside, it’s easy to see why. Unlike many preserved historic homes, Newhailes looks wonderfully lived in, from beaten-up leather ottomans to broken dishes to the cat flaps Lady Antonia had installed in bedroom doors, and the National Trust of Scotland is attempting to keep it that way. There are no velvet ropes and no Plexiglas, just some unobtrusive protective carpet and a polite request not to take photos or touch the furniture.

Our friendly guide going up the stairs to start the tour

Accordingly, I didn’t take any photos of the inside of the house, though you may view a number of good ones — including a fabulous aerial shot — at this website (set up by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland). For smaller photos but lots more background, there’s a good page at Undiscovered Scotland.

The gem of the house is the library, an enormous room that once reputedly housed ten thousand books (I noticed the built-in shelves each had a letter at the top — for alphabetizing?). It’s a bibliophile’s dream, with a door opening out onto a garden, comfy chairs, and floor-to-ceiling shelving and windows making full use of the room’s two-story height. The room was known to, and used by, many of the great minds of the 18th century, including David Hume and Dr Samuel Johnson — who called it “the most learned drawing room in Europe.”

Black and white photo of elegant library

Newhailes library in 1959. Photo from http://www.scotlandsplaces.gov.uk

The rest of the house can’t quite match the grandeur of the library, but it’s still (of course) impressive. There are seashell-shaped door latches, fine family portraits painted directly onto the wall paneling, silk hangings, and a clever hidden door in a guest bedroom, by which a maid could bring in hot water and clean clothes without ever being seen by (or seeing) the occupants. Although the house went mostly unmodernized during the Dalrymples’ centuries-long ownership, during the 1870s the family moved elsewhere, and the house’s renter, Lord Shand, made some changes, including: a dumbwaiter to transport food from the basement kitchen (our guide: “that’s more than a hundred years of cold soup”), bells for the servants (like the ones in Disney’s Cinderella!), a hot-water boiler, and the enlargement of many of the windows to let in more light.

Newhailes with trees in the background and lawn in the front

These old homes seem glamorous to those of us who lust after them in books, but while walking through Newhailes, I had a number of realizations. First was that the house, while imposing from the front, is not actually very big. It’s very wide but not at all deep; you can stand in the dining room and see out the front and back at the same time. Second was that it’s kind of crazy to think that the painted portraits on the walls were the actual inhabitants or their family members; I wouldn’t want the grim, larger-than-life visages of my forebears staring down at me during meals or quiet evenings at home. (Smiling 5″ x 7″ photos are quite another matter!) Third, I had never fully appreciated just how much an inherited stately home would be a burden as well as a privilege. I don’t mean just the servants and the upkeep, but that you wouldn’t have much freedom to change things around. This struck me while I was staring with distaste at a gilded ribbon-and-bow design around the doorways of the “winter” sitting room (the warmest room in the house because it was above the kitchen). What if you married into the Dalrymples and you absolutely hated the green and pink marble in the library fireplace? You could never get rid of it; it’d be “oh we couldn’t, great-uncle David had that imported from Italy and it’s significant.” In a video interview with Lady Antonia, the last Dalrymple (by marriage) to live at Newhailes, she said that her friends would come over and whisper that the house looked so dark and dingy; and toward the end she and her husband basically made themselves a flat out of a couple of rooms on the first floor, and shut up the rest because there was no way to maintain all that space.

The back side of Newhailes with a lawn and path

Of course, if you had enough money, you could always buy one of these old homes and make it over in modern style, as I imagine the Wilsons did with Bonnington House (whose grounds make up Jupiter Artland). Or with a smaller, more centrally-located home like the one in which we’re staying, the house could be chopped up into flats while retaining much of its original detail and character.

I wish we had a longer time in Scotland so we could see more of these stately homes. It would be fun to compare them to one another, and see the differences across the various eras. But I’m sure we’ll have more chances to tour such estates in future (and perhaps we can see similar places in other countries). In the meantime, next time I read a historical novel… I suspect I will be picturing the rooms and grounds of Newhailes!

*By the way, Lady Antonia Dalrymple — despite having a name like a character in a historical romance — seems cool. In her youth she looked like this (scroll to the bottom), and in the video we watched, c.2001 she looked a little like Elizabeth Peters. And she’s the one who had the cat-flaps put in. Return to post