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Arniston House: Rooted in Scottish History

Arniston House: Rooted in Scottish History

Arniston House and Estate has been home to the Dundas family since 1571, the family still own and live in the house today. The present owners, the Dundas-Bekker family have been involved in a long programme of restoration work and continue to lovingly reinstate the home that had been ravaged by dry rot in the 1950’s.

Early history

The land located to the south of Edinburgh was formerly the hunting ground of King David and then owned by The Knights Templar whose Scottish headquarters were located in the nearby village of Temple. After their suppression, The Knights of St John occupied the land before it reverted to the Crown after the Scottish Reformation. In 1571 George Dundas, Laird of Dundas Castle at South Queensferry, bought the land for his younger son, James, from his second marriage to Catherine Oliphant.

James was brought up at Dundas Castle and deemed mature enough at the age of 19 to take over as first Laird of Arniston. He began the legal dynasty of the Dundases of Arniston by studying his law at St. Andrews. He was also Governor of Berwick. The estate was extended considerably in his time and at the core was a tower house. It is unknown if this was built by the Knights of Saint John or the Dundas family but is recorded from the early 1600s. It was U-shaped with the arms enclosing a courtyard, and a kitchen garden surrounded the building. Around the circumference of the garden was a very high wall.

Arniston House in the 1600s

Three generations of Dundases lived in the tower house. James’ son was named after his father and also had legal aspirations however these were thwarted. He had signed the Covenant at the end of the 1630s against Charles 1st forcing Anglican ways of worship on the Scots. This very much went against him years later after the Restoration and Charles 2nd coming to the throne in the 1660s. It was decreed that the Covenant should be renounced. James, being a man of principle refused to do this and thus was not able to serve as a Judge on the reconstituted Court of Session. He sent his son Robert to the Low Countries to grow up in virtual exile.

Arniston House in the 1700s

Robert did not return to Scotland until William and Mary came to the throne in 1689. His son, also named Robert, would continue the legal legacy and become President of the Court of Session. This was a very powerful post particularly following the union of the Crowns. It was Robert, referred to by the family as the First President, that commissioned William Adam to draw up plans for a new building and work began in 1726. William Adam incorporated the exterior courtyard and created the main hall working with Joseph Enzer who was a Dutch stuccoist. It would take seven years to create their masterpiece. His Palladian style building was to include linking colonnades to the East and West pavilions. 

However, work came to an abrupt halt in 1732 as funds ran out. Most of William’s design had been completed except for the west third of the main block. He had planned for State Rooms to accommodate a Royal visit on the upper floor with bedrooms on the ground floor. The building stood with this toothless gap even without exterior walls for over 20 years. The First President was married to Elizabeth Watson who tragically died after a smallpox outbreak in the local area along with some of her children. His second wife was Anne Gordon, 30 years his junior, who bore him nine children. Third youngest was Henry Dundas who later became Viscount Melville. He is the most notable Dundas in the family who was Secretary of State for Scotland among many of his posts, and his statue stands in St. Andrew’s Square in Edinburgh today.

Funds finally came to hand in the 1750s. The next generation, the next Robert referred to as the Second President, married Henrietta Baillie of Lamington. She decided to sell her inherited lands in Lanarkshire to raise funds and enable the building of Adam’s Arniston to be completed. William Adam had however passed away by this time and his son John Adam, brother of famous Robert Adam, took over the commission. Fashions had changed since the 1720s. Royalty were not coming to Scotland, let alone Arniston, therefore, the original plan of Staterooms was scrapped. Instead of bedrooms downstairs, it was decided to put in a Dining Room. Being a public room it needed a more theatrical ceiling, so coving was introduced. This creates a slight anomaly in elevations on the west side with windows now covered behind coving which can be intriguing for architectural enthusiasts examining the building from the exterior. Finally, Arniston was complete and included magnificent formal gardens surrounding the house. In 1813 the next generation and next Robert Dundas referred to as The Chief Baron, added the pediment and south porch onto the house.

Arniston House in the 1800s

His son Robert Dundas in 1832 decided to give up law most likely due to the Reform Bill at the time and ended the great legal dynasty of the Dundases of Arniston. His marriage to Lillias Calderwood Durham brought many impressive portraits to Arniston by the likes of Sir Henry Raeburn, Allan Ramsay, and Romney. These are still part of the collection and viewed by visitors to Arniston today.

Sir Robert Dundas, the first Baronet, was the great grandfather to the current owner of Arniston, Althea Dundas-Bekker. He was the first not to be involved with law and to live at Arniston full time. Previous generations had lived in Edinburgh townhouses as well as Arniston due to their busy legal careers. Sir Robert made practical improvements such as replacing stone slabbing in the main hall with parquet flooring and adding the North Porch in 1887 using Edinburgh architects Wardrop & Reid. 

Arniston House in the 1900s

His son Robert who was in the Scots Guards was only Laird for a year in 1909 before passing away leaving Arniston to his daughter, May Dundas. May had learning difficulties therefore after her mother passed on the estate was run by Trustees while she lived in the house with a paid companion.

It was in 1970 on her death the current owner, Althea Dundas-Bekker and May’s first cousin once removed inherited. The house was in bad repair by this time having been ravaged by dry rot in the 1950s which left much of the west side a shell and the roof in need of a full replacement. Restoration of the John Adam rooms were completed in the 1990s. It has been Althea’s life work to restore the house to its former glory which is a quest that continues today with the help of her daughter, Henrietta.

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