Friday, 4 April 2014

Traquair House

Traquair House near Peebles in the Borders is one of the most romantic and atmospheric houses in Scotland. At the end of a long avenue of trees, Traquair with its high walls, steep roof and small turrets is almost French in its appearance. This is of course, no coincidence. Scotland and France were close allies during the 16th century. Mary Queen of Scots who had close connections with Traquair had a French mother and was for a time Queen of France as well as of Scotland. Even in the 18th century the Earls of Traquair sent their daughters to be educated in Paris. This is because they were Catholics and Jacobites, and Catholic schools were illegal in Scotland (and England).

The Catholic Faith and the Jacobite cause are integral to the history of Traquair. For two hundred years the family suffered for their loyalty to a forbidden dynasty and religion, they belonged to a persecuted minority w excluded from public office and were subject to high taxes. As a result there was never much money to carry out 'improvements'. So unlike at many great houses there was no major rebuilding, only incremental alterations and additions of a new room here or there.  Traquair subsided into a peaceful backwater and developed the atmosphere of mystery that is one of its best loved characteristics today.


The oldest parts of the house date back to the 12th century tower that belonged to the kings of Scotland. In the 15th century James III gave the house to his master of music, William Rogers. In 1478 Rogers was 'obliged' to sell  it, for a knock down price, to the king's uncle, the Earl of Buchan who gave it to his son, James Stuart. The present Maxwell Stuarts of Traquair descend from him.

The Stuarts of Traquair were loyal servants to their royal kinsmen, in good times and bad. James Stuart the first laird was killed alongside his king at Flodden Field. The fourth laird, John Stuart was knighted by Mary Queen of Scots who appointed him captain of her guard. In 1565 after the murder of David Rizzio he organised her midnight escape to Dunbar. In 1566 she and her husband Lord Darnley visited him and stayed at Traquair with their infant son during a hunting expedition. In the hall hangs an oak armorial commemorating the visit.

The Queen stayed in the King's Room. The bed was brought from Terregles House, home of the Maxwell family where it was used by Mary. The hand- stitched silk quilt is said to have been worked by her and her 'Four Maries' (ladies-in-waiting).


At the foot of the bed is the cradle used by her baby son, later King James VI, and James I of England.


The best-known and most controversial owner of Traquair was John Stuart, the seventh laird and first Earl of Traquair. Charles I had created him an earl in 1633 and in 1636 Lord High Treasurer of Scotland and virtual ruler of the country. He was however brought down by opposition to the king's religious policy and the Civil War that followed it and was dismissed as  Treasurer in 1641 and kept prisoner in England from 1648 until 1652. He died in poverty in 1659.


The earl had been a Protestant. His son married two Catholic wives in succession and the family have been Catholics ever since. This development was to bring great difficulties to Traquair. To say or hear Mass was illegal. So att Traquair it was celebrated in a small room at the top of the house, until in the more tolerant 19th century a chapel was made in one of the wings. The top room had a view of approach roads, and the house was searched frequently, and if the unexpected visitors were seen coming the priest could escape down a secret staircase concealed behind a cupboard in the corner of the room.


In 1688 when the 'Glorious Revolution' which brought William III to the throne had raised religious intolerance, a Protestant mob came out from Peebles and ran amok through the house destroying religious artifacts. From this time on the family were on the wrong side of another division, as Catholics and Jacobites. Their predicament is demonstrated by an engraved glass at Traquair:

                                                      God bless the Prince of Wales
                                                      The true-born Prince of Wales
                                                      Sent us by thee
                                                      Send him soon over
                                                      And kick out Hanover
                                                      And soon we'll recover
                                                      Our old libertie.


Traquair became one of the main Jacobite strongholds in the south of Scotland. At the time of the 1715 Rising the 4th Earl was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle as a Jacobite sympathizer. The 5th Earl spent two years in the Tower of London for his part in the '45, accompanied by his devoted wife who refused to be parted from him. One of the most famous legends associated with Traquair is that he entertained Bonny Prince Charlie there and closed the gates at the end of the avenue behind him and vowed that they would never be opened again until a Stuart king was crowned again in London. (See post: Traquair, The Bear Gates. Tuesday 20 August 20

Throughout these trials and troubles the earls continued to alter and add to Traquair. At the end of the 17th century the architect James Smith produced plans for rebuilding the entrance front. but a lack of money caused them to be shelved. None the less the fourth earl gave the house much of its present appearance by planting the avenue and adding the two wings and wrought iron railings to create  the forecourt.



 On the other side of the house he built a terrace ending in two small pavilions.Inside the house the 4th Earl panelled the principal rooms, including the 'high drawing-room' with the ant-room and the king's bedchamber beyond it. The high drawing room is so-called because it is on the first floor.

Following his two years in prison the 5th Earl made embellishments to his house. He engaged an unidentified artist to paint panels over the doors and fireplaces. in the high drawing room  ships in harbour are framed by pretty rococo scrolls painted in gold, with gilded trophies of fruit and arms over the doorways.



Some of the best work of this period is in the library on the second floor. The walls are lined from floor to ceiling with books. The cove that runs around the room is painted with the heads of classical writers and philosophers. In addition to being decorative these serve as a reference system and the books remain in their original positions.



The Still room has two shelves of painted books partly concealed by a painted curtain. In the 18th century it was known as the garden parlour. In the 19th century it became the housekeeper's room.



On the top floor of the house is the museum room above the high drawing room. Remains of 16th century wall painting were uncovered here in 1900 under the wallpaper. Here there are hounds chasing deer and wild boar through lushly intertwining foliage. They are reminders that in those days the hills and forests that still encircle Traquair were alive with game, including bears and wolves and wild boar which have long since been extinct in Scotland.



The whole house is rich in history and in the relics and mementoes of history.The Earl of Montrose banged on the front door of Traquair when he sought shelter after his defeat at the battle of Philiphaugh in 1645. The Earl of Traquair pretended he was not at home and was accused by Montrose of treachery. The Earl sought to preserve his own interests and the safety of his house from the vengeance of the Covenanting General Leslie who was in hot pursuit. The same door still hangs on its hinges with the knocker that Montrose hammered.



Traquair House is often said to be the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. Today it is lived in by Catherine Maxwell Stuart, the 21st Lady of Traquair and her family. 


No one interested in Scotland's past and in beautiful things should miss a visit this unique and compelling treasure house. But if more incentive is needed then the shop selling  home brewed Traquair Ale and  jams and preserves should provide it.