An expert guide to Dumfries House

04 September 2019
Historian Simon Green explores the history of this fascinating Ayrshire mansion, which was altered by each generation who lived there, using some of the finest craftspeople of the day.

In 2007 amidst much publicity, HRH the Prince of Wales led a consortium of charities and heritage bodies which saved Dumfries House (near Cumnock) at the eleventh hour. The estate was up for sale and the contents were to be sold at Christies Auction House. The house, set within a very private estate, was for many years the home of the Dowager Marchioness of Bute. The main thrust of the campaign was to keep the very important collection of furniture commissioned for the house in the 1750s in the house and to make this treasure trove accessible to the public; aims that have been very successfully achieved by the Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust (the Trust).

The book ‘Dumfries House’ by Simon Green of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) grew out of the buildings survey carried out before the proposed sale. The detailed building survey made him realise that the story of Dumfries House was far more complex and intriguing than simply a rare survival of a little-altered Georgian country house. Not merely an elegant building to house exceptional furniture, but a building designed by a young man who was to become one of Scotland’s most famous architects: Robert Adam.

The research has also shown that the house – far from being pickled in aspic – has been altered and adapted by each and every succeeding generation with incredible tact and deference to the original design.

The book traces the story from the decision to build a new house in the late 1740s to the death of Lady Eileen Dowager Marchioness of Bute in 1993. This detailed analysis has been made possible by the access given by Lord Bute to extensive archives held at Mount Stuart which contain a wealth of information including plans, drawings, bills and letters relating to Dumfries House from before its creation until the 21st century.

This wealth of information, combined with access to every nook and cranny of the building by the Trust, has enabled the author to produce a comprehensive analysis of this fascinating building.


On 18 July 1754 William Crichton Dalrymple, 5th Earl of Dumfries, laid the foundation stone of his new home in Ayrshire which he named Dumfries House. The Earl had commissioned the three young sons of William Adam – John, Robert and James – to design and build his new house. Robert, who was to become the most famous of the brothers, drew the final design but he left it up to his brothers to build the house whilst he embarked on the Grand Tour.


Not content with building a very smart new house, the 5th Earl went to London to acquire the most fashionable of furniture from Thomas Chippendale and then to Edinburgh where he employed three further furniture makers: Brodie, Peter and Mathie.

He created a magnificent home which survives complete with its original furniture. In the early 19th century, the house, titles and estates passed by marriage to the Stuart of Bute family who added Crichton to their surname. Dumfries House went from being the centre of a single estate to being one of the homes of the spectacularly rich Marquesses of Bute. The 2nd Marquess had spent his childhood at Dumfries House and nurtured the estate. His son, the 3rd Marquess, amongst his many passions was a great builder. He transformed Cardiff Castle into a fantastical medieval castle; his home on Bute, Mount Stuart, into a great gothic palace; and chose at Dumfries House, his third seat, to subtly enhance the Georgian character of the original building whilst adding a considerable amount of accommodation.

He employed Robert Weir Schultz, a Scottish Arts and Crafts architect, to undertake the sophisticated transformation which included a new Tapestry Gallery and an enormous chapel that was left incomplete. The 4th Marquess, also working with Weir Schultz, continued to alter the house, creating for example, a stylish billiard room. In the 1930s he passed Dumfries House to his eldest son, the Earl of Dumfries and his young family. An elegant new dining room was created in the east wing in part of what was originally intended to be the chapel. The 5th Marquess sadly died young and his widow, Eileen Dowager Marchioness of Bute, returned to Dumfries House in the 1950s and lived there until her death in 1993.

This book traces the story of a country house designed by young architects and furnished with ‘great elegance and expense’ by the owner, the Earl of Dumfries who wanted to leave his mark. Under the ownership of the Marquesses of Bute the house could have been radically altered and transformed but instead they chose to nurture and adapt the original design.

Each generation altered it to suit their needs whilst retaining the integrity of the original design. This sophisticated approach shows how the original Adam design remains the central focus of the house. This means that Dumfries House is still the perfect place to display the magnificent original furniture in the rooms for which it was bought in the 1750s, surrounded by superlative original plasterwork and paintings. This book explains how Dumfries House can be described as both little altered and as a much loved and adapted family home.

Dumfries House is published by RCAHMS at £30. 

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