When visiting Scotland, you are more than likely to put a number of stately homes on your itinerary. As well as being fine examples of Scottish architecture and housing wonderful artefacts, most have picturesque gardens and grounds offering opportunities for walks. Among those featured here, five have adventure playgrounds, so a visit would make an ideal day out for a family. Unfortunately most are closed during the winter; one or two require that a tour of the house be pre-booked. Be sure to check opening times when planning your trip.
Just north of the English-Scottish border, one of the finest stately homes is Paxton House in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Located on the banks of the River Tweed, this eighteenth-century Palladian country house was designed by the Adam brothers for Patrick Home. Highlights of the house are the Chippendale furniture in the bedroom and dining room. Art lovers will appreciate the picture gallery which has works on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland. Among the artists whose work is featured are Thomas Lawrence, Patrick Nasmyth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Henry Raeburn and Sir David Wilkie. Eighty acres of parkland and woodland surround the house, with gardens landscaped by Robert Robinson. It would be easy to spend a whole day here, as there is a putting green, an adventure playground, a picnic area and even a croquet lawn. If you prefer, you can simply take a walk by the river. Paxton House is open every day from the beginning of April until the end of October.
Many of Scotland’s best stately homes are in the south-west; another fine one is Bowhill House in Bowhill, Selkirk. The house has a superb collection of art, porcelain, silverware and French furniture as well as items associated with Queen Victoria and Sir Walter Scott. If you are looking for beautiful scenery you will certainly find it here, as there is a loch, a river and woodland, all offering opportunities for picturesque walks. The younger members of the family will find plenty of amusement at the adventure playground. Bowhill House and country estate are open daily in July and August, and the house by appointment at other times. The grounds are also open weekends and bank holidays in April, May and June.
A little further north is Traquair House, Innerleithen, Peebleshire, Scotland’s oldest inhabited house dating from 1107. The house has links with Mary Queen of Scots, as her crucifix is there and a counterpane she made still covers her bed. As well as displays of embroidery and books, there are craft workshops and a working eighteenth-century brewery. Children can have fun in the maze or the adventure playground. Traquair House is open from April until the end of October, then at weekends in November. Should you be looking for accommodation, Traquair House offers bed and breakfast.
Travelling north again, it’s worth paying a visit to Hopetoun House, South Queensferry, West Lothian, just west of the Forth Road Bridge. The house itself is designed in the style of the Palace of Versailles; tapestries and paintings by renowned artists such as Gainsborough and Canaletto grace the wonderful State Apartments. The wood carving on the staircase is beautifully intricate. Hopetoun House is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty with grounds offering easy walks and nature trails. The house is open from Easter until the end of September; holiday cottages are available for rent if you like the idea of staying there.
Also in West Lothian is the House of the Binns, Linlithgow, which for four hundred years has been the home of the Dalyells. As well as furniture from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the house has a worthy collection of portraits and china. If you take a walk through the woodlands you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the Firth of Forth. The house is open on Saturday afternoons through to Wednesday afternoons from the beginning of June until the end of September, for guided tours only. The grounds are open all year round until dusk.
Not far north of Edinburgh is the Hill of Tarvit House and Garden, Tarvit, Cupar, Fife. An Edwardian mansion house rebuilt in 1906, it houses superb collections of Chippendale and French furniture, Dutch paintings, Chinese porcelain and bronzes and Flemish tapestries. If you are looking for something a little more contemporary, it also holds exhibitions of local art. In fine weather you can enjoy the formal gardens or follow the path to the top of the hill from where there is a panoramic view. The house is open from the beginning of April until the end of October, or by appointment at other times; the garden and grounds remain open all year round.
If you happen to be visiting Glasgow, don’t miss Holmwood House, Cathcart. This is the best example of domestic design by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, the greatest Glaswegian architect of the Victorian era. The house is set in picturesque grounds that offer walks beside the river. You can visit the house and grounds on Thursday to Monday afternoons from 1st April to 30th October.
From Glasgow, consider taking a train to Wemyss Bay and then a ferry to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, Argyll. Here you could spend a whole day at Mount Stuart House and Gardens. The magnificent Victorian Gothic house was designed by Robert Rowland and the Marquess of Bute. It is set in three hundred acres of beautiful woodland and wonderful gardens that feature rare plants, a rock garden, a kitchen garden and a Victorian pinetum. To keep children happy there is an adventure playground with an outsize doll’s house. After a walk to work up an appetite, you can visit either the restaurant or the cafe. Mount Stuart House and Gardens are open daily from March until October.
Combine a visit to Stirling Castle with a few hours at Argyll’s Lodging, Stirling. This is a wonderful seventeenth-century mansion built by Sir William Alexander and subsequently owned by the Earl of Argyll. The rooms have been restored and are furnished in the style of the late seventeenth century. Highlights are the painted decoration in the dining room and the tapestries in the drawing room. Argyll’s Lodging is open all year round but for guided tours only that must be pre-booked.
Going north-west to Angus, the House of Dun and Garden is another excellent example of a stately home. This is a Georgian house overlooking the Montrose basin. Dating from 1730, it features superb plasterwork and has collections of family portraits, furniture and porcelain. Also of interest are the embroidery and woolwork of Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine, whose home it once was. If weather permits you can enjoy the Victorian walled garden and take a walk through the woodland or by the water, admiring the wonderful trees in the parkland. Children will not be bored as there is an adventure playground as well. The House of Dun and Garden are open from 1st April until the end of October.
There are two stately homes of particular note in Aberdeenshire, the first of which is Haddo House and Garden, Ellon. The house is an excellent example of Georgian architecture, while its interior is Victorian. It has a wonderful collection of paintings, including eighty-five watercolours of castles by James Giles and portraits of nineteenth-century politicians. Outside there is a terraced garden, and a splendid lime tree avenue leads to Haddo Country Park where you can admire the monuments and lakes or enjoy a walk. The garden and grounds are open all year round, but the house is open from late April to late October only.
The second Aberdeenshire stately home is Leith Hall and Garden, Kennethmont, ten miles south of Huntly. The hall was the home of the Leith family for nearly three hundred years and it houses an impressive collection of the family’s military possessions. The highlights of the garden and grounds are the alpine plants and wonderful primulas. Bird watchers will be interested to know that there is an observation hide here. In fine weather you can take advantage of the picnic area but, like most stately homes, Leith Hall also has a tearoom. What must be stressed is that the hall is closed to the public but it is possible to pre-book tours for groups. The garden and grounds, however, are open all year round.
Stately homes in Scotland are not hard to find unless your visit is confined to the northern highlands. If the weather is unfavourable, a tour of a stately home is a pleasurable way to spend a few hours admiring the furniture, paintings and objets d’art. When the rain holds off, you can spend the best part of a day enjoying the gardens and wonderful grounds that many stately homes are set in. Some of Scotland’s castles may be more famous, but it is certainly worth taking a close look at the country’s stately homes as well.