Saved for the nation: Dumfries House

One of Prince Charles’ most notable achievements is rescue of Dumfries House, saving the property and its large collection of Chippendale furniture for the nation. It has a long story in its existence, with connections to the Marquesses of Bute.

In 2005, with two sets of death duties to pay, and with the National Trust rejecting the house, the Marquess decided he would have to auction off Dumfries House and its contents. Christie’s spent 18 months at the property, cataloguing items for the sale, and Sotheby’s was brought in to sell the house.

Dumfries House – prior to the installation of the fountain – was saved by a loan from The Prince’s Trust, with Prince Charles securing further funding (David Nicholls/Flickr)

Dumfries House history:

William Dalrymple-Crichton, 5th Earl of Dumfries and 4th Earl of Stair, commissioned John, Robert and James Adam to build a new house on the site after retiring from the army. Work began in 1754, with the original Dumfries House (called Leithnorris) featuring a central three-storey block with a wing either side, Palladian in style. It is one of the earlier architectural pieces by the Adams brothers; Robert oversaw construction until his departure on a Grand Tour of Europe, and the house was completed – amazingly – on time and on budget in 1759.

The Earl furnished the house with a view to attract a wife, and produce that all important heir. He furnished Dumfries largely in the rococo style, both English and Scottish. He contacted Thomas Chippendale to help fill the rooms, and today, Dumfries holds approx 10% of the world’s Chippendale collection, with 50 pieces inside, as well as one of the finest collections of Scottish rococo furniture.

Plans for Dumfries House by the Adams brothers

In June 1762 Lord Dumfries married Anne Duff, a distant cousin; the marriage produced no children in the six years together, and in 1768, William, the 5th Earl, died.

The estates were inherited by the Earl’s nephew, Patrick Macdouall, who reluctantly gave up a career in the army in order to settle at Dumfries House. The new Lord Dumfries married Margaret Crawford, the daughter of Ronald Crauford of Restalrig, and for the next three decades, the couple lived on the Ayrshire estate.


The couple’s daughter, Lady Elisabeth Penelope, was born in 1772, and secured the future of Dumfries for a while longer through her match with John, Lord Mount Stuart, the eldest son of the 1st Marquess of Bute. Their love story, culminating in marriage in 1792, sealed the link between two of Scotland’s leading families – the Crichtons and the Stuarts.

Lady Elisabeth was widowed just two years later, pregnant with a young child, after John fell from his horse. She and her young family lived with her parents at Dumfries House.

However, from around this time, the house was used less, as the family had great success in Cardiff with mining and the dock trade. This meant the fine interiors were hardly touched for 250 years.

The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust:

The family could not afford to keep Dumfries with two lots of death duties to pay, and so the 7th Marquess of Bute – former racing driver Johnny Dumfries – put plans in motion to sell the property and its 2000 acres. The National Trust rejected taking on the house in 1994, partly, it seems, because another Scottish Adams house with Chippendale furniture, Paxton House, had recently opened to the public under their custodianship.

Embed from Getty Images

Being occupied with the full-time opening of the other family home, Mount Stewart, nothing happened for another decade, though the Marquess managed to replace the decrepit roof.

As mentioned, Christie’s and Savills were brought in to catalogue and value the house and its contents.


Due to the rarity of some of the house’s contents, when the auction was announced, Save Britain’s Heritage – an independent charitable trust – became involved, hoping to rescue the property and its contents with a public appeal.

Though funding was secured, it simply wasn’t enough; the sale would go ahead, removing the furniture, including a Chippendale rosewood bookcase valued at £2-4 million, and artwork from the house, sending it to all corners of the globe. The house was expected to be sold on its own and become a hotel or business centre.

May 2007 saw another blow for the rescue mission: Historic Scotland (the Scottish equivalent of English Heritage) declined to support the campaign and declared that Dumfries House could not be saved for the people.

However, Prince Charles was convening a conference at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, for the big players of the Scottish conservation world, and learnt of Dumfries’ plight. James Knox, art historian, consultant and conservation expert – who is now a trustee of Dumfries House – spoke about preserving the house at the conference, noting the lack of support he faced: “They thought it was too big, too expensive, too impossible, too controversial. I sat down to stony silence.”

But The Prince of Wales’ interest was piqued: at the 11th hour, just days before the auctions were due to take place, Prince Charles managed to secure £45 million to purchase Dumfries House and its contents, through finds raised by a consortium, including £20 million loan from The Prince’s Charities Foundation and £5 million from the Scottish Government.

Thanks to his efforts to save the estate, the Great Steward of Scotland Trust was founded, named after one of Charles’ Scottish titles, to run the estate and the renovation projects.


In 2008, when the financial crisis hit, the £20 million loan was recalled, and appeared to put the Prince’s charities in jeopardy. However, this was paid back by 2012, and the house’s £600,000 annual upkeep seems secure, thanks to the self-sufficiency of the estate and Charles’ vision.

The house is not owned by the heir to the throne, he simply had the vision to save it when others did not. He is very much a hands on trustee, though; a keen gardener, he was heavily involved in the design of a new sunken garden, and helps curate new exhibitions for the house, secure funding for another conservation project, and even suggests layout for new landscaping and gardening projects so the public get the most out of the view and visit.

“He could be sitting on his backside at Highgrove having a drink and doing nothing,” said one executive of Dumfries. “Instead he is up at 6am trying to save this house and provide jobs. He works his socks off.”

Charles knew that the success of Dumfries House would see prosperity in the local area, which had been run-down and low on employment. Positions on the estate are filled by locals, as far as possible, and the Prince has ensured that schemes run continuously to train people in a variety of positions: stonemasons, chefs, waiters, kitchen staff and foresters. In addition to this, when possible, local firms are contracted for work on the house and land.

The Prince of Wales occasionally stays at Dumfries when he is in the area, but the house is very much open to the public, with 60 weddings a year held there, as well as numerous meetings, and some 24,000 tourists (a number which grows) flock to the corner of Scotland to see the gem of a house.

The House Tour: 

Members of the public may visit Dumfries House all year round, and the visit begins with an introduction video from Prince Charles himself.

The tour starts in the School Room, which was once part of the ‘gentleman’s quarter’ in the west pavilion, where you learn about the Stuart family and how the house ended up as it is today.

The Tapestry Room features grand wall hangings telling classical tales. (Dumfries House)

Visitors then process upstairs to one of the finest rooms in the house: the Tapestry Room. It is here that nuptials are conducted, with its fine Flemish tapestries recently restored since the Trust took over. Charles also uses it for entertaining when at Dumfries.

The scenes depicted include Minerva and the Arts, Bacchus with Apollo and his Muses, and Diana goddess of the hunt.

The 3rd Marquess had architect Schulz create this room in the late 1800s, and it was completed in 1908, after his death. The cedar wood panelling acts as a natural moth deterrent, helping to keep the tapestries free from damage.

Eighteen domed skylights and a Palladian window ensure the room is light and welcoming, while the marble fireplace comes from Luton Hoo, another Adams house, having survived TWO fires.

Next comes the Pewter Corridor, which runs down the side of the Tapestry Room, amazingly decorated with fresh colours and friezes on the walls and ceiling.

Inspired by Byzantine architecture, the corridor consists of eight square ‘compartments’ with domed ceilings and rounded arches. When the Trust took over, the corridor was simply grey, but this 1960s paint hid ornate painting in an ‘Adam revival’ design paintwork, revealed only through old photos.

The Pewter Corridor is ornately painted, but was covered by grey paint in the 1960s (Dumfries House)

One section keeps its decorative painting, unrestored for visitors to imagine the original.

The corridor links the West stairs and the Blue Drawing Room, where the tour takes you next.

This is quite a room, featuring vibrant blue damask silk Elbow Chairs (Chippendale, of course), portraits of the family, and one of the first ever Axminster Carpets, designed to mimic the ceiling. It overlooks the fountain to the front of the property and would have been one of the principal rooms used by the family.

The Yellow Drawing room features more Chippendale: mahogany card tables and more elbow chairs, and was the main family room of the house. “The great rarity of these table designs is underlined by the fact that none actually appear in any of the three editions of Chippendale’s Director,” explains the house’s website, meaning the pieces are unique to Dumfries House.

Dumfries House’s Yellow Drawing Room features unique Chippendale card tables (Dumfries House)

One of the last rooms seen on the standard tour is the entrance hall; one can get disoriented until remembering the ‘ground floor’ is in fact a storey off the ground!

This impressive hall features an impressive cog-powered version of our solar system, as it was known in the late 18th century; it dates itself by showing what is not present.

Prince Charles is known to be a lover of clocks, and Dumfries possessed none when the Trust took over; he managed to acquire 23 to sit in the house, with a good number lining the walls of this hall.

The hall has a lovely gilded ceiling, decorated with motifs relating to the family, such as Mount Stewart, and the family coat of arms.

The Pink Dining Room features an ornate ceiling, which verges into the neoclassical, takes inspiration directly from the ruins of Palmyra in Syria. The carved door cornices and stucco frieze are also noteworthy, and are more intricate than the Adams’ original design.

Charles’ favourite room: the Pink Dining Room (Dumfries House)

Hanging from this ceiling is a Murano Glass chandelier, dating to roughly 1760. It wasn’t hanging when the Trust took over, and was found in pieces in the basement. Remarkably, only one piece needing replacement during the restoration. The chandelier consists of 18 arms of hand-blown glass complete with delicate floral ornaments and it weighs a total of 35kg.

Screenshot from Dumfries’ website

This is the best preserved room at Dumfries, with finely detailed plans found in the archives. Sadly, the designer is not known.

One of the last rooms to see is the bedroom, with its fabulous blue silk Chippendale bed. The carved wood at the top features stretched blue silk damask, which was restored after being painted over! The mattress now resembles a contemporary one: feathers, wool and horse hair stacked on top of one another.

The bedroom at Dumfries House

The rosewood bookcase was intended for this room, but now sits elsewhere, allowing the four-poster to take centre stage atop another Axminster carpet in pink and gold. It was a true statement, showing the Earl’s desire to attract a wife.

In the study, one of the last rooms, you see the intricacy is much toned down – perhaps due to a lack of funds. The Chippendale desk cost £22 and features drawers which slide out of the side, not out towards the sitter.

This was originally furnished with a single bed for the Earl, and would have been used for dressing, too.


You can buy tickets to visit Dumfries House here.

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William Sowles Sun 01 October, 2017 - 7:45 pm



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