A Tour around Traquair

In the grounds of the big house: grey-green lichens on a tree by a pond.

Yesterday my parents drove D and I down to Traquair (pronounced trackwayer), a large country house, claiming to be the oldest continuously inhabited residence in Scotland – there is evidence that it was the site of a hunting lodge in the 11th century, though the existing buildings can’t be dated to earlier than around the 15th.   So today, I’m going to take you on a wee tour, if you’d like to come along. Mind your feet, it is rather muddy.

The house from the front garden; that yurt was set up as part of the Christmas fair. Inside it you could learn to make lanterns out of paper and wicker.

While I’ve never been keen on the idea of the nobility or of the overblown magnificence of old country estates, I have a special fondness for Traquair. It is a charming place, built on a human scale despite the number of rooms – there are narrow, uneven corridors, little wooden doors installed for the height of people of the sixteen hundreds, even the dinner hall feels intimate with a fire going in the grate (warm yourself a moment) and while we were there, hot mulled wine being sold to jollify visitors still further. Oh, and did I mention there’s a brewery in one wing?

Part of the brewery that was re-established by the current Laird's Father

The family who live there, the Stewarts, now the Maxwell-Stewarts, were and are rather unusual for nobility – they remained Catholic after the reformation. This was at the risk of the lives (for hiding their priest in a secret room that could be escaped at a moment’s notice down a set of hidden spiral stairs), and later, to the detriment of their ability to do business – as Catholics they were forbidden from going to University, had to be home educated and in fact were mostly confined to their estate. Thus in Victorian times they were rather too poor (for landowners any way) to make any of the large scale changes (mock gothic crimpings, electricity, indoor plumbing) that were de rigueur for country houses, although after the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 they did build themselves a wee chapel out in the open at last. Priorities were a bit different – the building didn’t get electricity until the fifties, though for some time it was used as mostly a summer home, so perhaps that was seen as rather a luxury. Now the family live there full time — we saw the children of the current Laird (a woman) playing a kickabout with a football in the back of the house while the visitors streamed into the hedge maze. They live in an area of the house visitors don’t get to see, though in my mind it is far from opulent – just an updated version of the cosiness of the public-access area.

Visitors (like me) were also keen on the mini-farm round the back. There you can see one bemused goat, but can't see the friendly, hungry hairy pig who I fed on handfuls of grass, avoiding his tusks

Another draw are the eclectic objects stored in the museum in the upper floors — the smallest religious books I’ve ever seen (missals I think), the size of matchboxes, with delicate stitching on the bindings. Mary Queen of Scots ornate rosary. Wooden carvings of the stations of the cross from the sixteen hundreds. The original wall murals from when the house was first converted into a home — featuring my favourite rendition of a Batrian Camel running. There is also a slightly baffling mathematical device for calculating additions, known as ‘Napier’s Bones‘, neolithic arrowheads collected in the area – including one of Jadeite, which was discovered so long ago that no one knows how long it has been in the family collection. At one point in the 18th century a little case was made to contain it, and the arrowhead (about the length and size of my hand) was polished up to show off the green colour and the sharpness it might have had on the day it was made. None of these I got a picture of as they were stored in the room with the mural, and flash photography was forbidden. I am sure your imaginations are up to the task, although I did get a chance to take some shots in the chapel:

This was a modern rendition of the camel of the mural, stitched into a kneeler. Very comfortable.


And this kneeler shows a version of what looks like a fertility goddess - from a wall carving I think

Also found at the far end of the estate are the Bear Gates, last opened to let the Bonnie Prince Charlie through them on horseback, closed until a Catholic monarch ascends the throne. Yep, as Catholics, they were Jacobites, wanting to get rid of the Protestant line. Now they sell an ale named the Jacobite, which is warmly spiced and Christmassy, according to D, who had a bottle with lunch. We didn’t get a picture of the gates as it was cold, and there was a hog roasting outside, and a tearoom to get the shivers out.

Visual Aide: a bear(?) on another gate (leading to cupid's garden and the children's adventure playground)

Thus ends the rather haphazard tour.

Now I am left to wonder at how it must be to grow up in such a lovely sprawling house so visibly surrounded by the possessions, writings, follies and hopes of your deceased relatives, not to mention seeing the public coming and going out of your front door.  A different scale to the family narratives. When I write this, I see that what I am saying is rooted in class.  My family name, McClory, has little baggage with it. Supposedly Anglicised Irish, but from where, we don’t know. They have been in the borders, not that far from Traquair, for a long time. Before that the highlands. There are no objects we possess that date back older than the 4th (a pocket watch from my Great-grandfather, a watchmaker and jeweler). On my mother’s side, just as lightly a treading of the boards of history: Factory workers, miners, labourers. The unrecorded class.

The landed are, in once sense the grounded – in the historical, the traceable.  See Orlando for the flights of imagination that can come from this.

But despite the romantic notions I have of the country house and hard-to-do nobles, the intrigue of Political and Religious strife, the lure of well made objects passed down along the generations, I am interested in the narratives of families who have no definite ways of confirming their stories as true. Who have a forgetfulness which might hide some great loss, or secret, that can be intimated at, but mostly lingers ever unsaid. How what is lost leaves for some time the ghost of its loss, like the print of a leaf in snow. How we are fashioned out of elements that can never fully be identified. A great deal of the obsession with loss has come through in Kilea.

I wonder what your family stories are? Your accounts of possession or loss. And whether you think as I do, that the wee brew house pictured above would really be quite the best writing shed ever?


Filed under Scotland, The Now

10 responses to “A Tour around Traquair

  1. You had me at brewery. Turning it into a writing room, best idea ever (especially if the brewery stays…).
    I love these small travelogues of yours, FYI. I kept thinking how odd it would be playing out back with your kids while visitors traipse through the grounds. Although, if they’ve grown up that way, perhaps not so strange. Still, I wouldn’t trade a small private cottage for a public castle ever.

    • I didn’t plan on writing so much – it sort of turned into an essay. But really it’s fascinating to see how other people live, and easy to get carried away. I love walking by lit windows at dusk and peering in at the objects people surround themselves with. I try not to linger though.

      The boys at Traquair seemed happy to play, and weren’t really under scrutiny – I think I was the only one who noticed they had crept out from the private area with their ball. But it will probably something they reflect back on when they’ve grown.

  2. The brewery makes me swoon. That off-kilter blue door! Imagine wrestling that open every day, knowing you’d have the place to yourself and all the words in the world, right there with you.

    I’ve got no real connection to place in my life. I’ve always felt that I was born on someone else’s journey, landed here in the desert, and haven’t yet figured out how to escape.

    • How long have you been there? All your life?

      Sounds strange, but I recently saw the remake of Fright Night, which is set in a Las Vegas suburb, and that gave me a sense of some of the alienation people might feel, living out there. And although David Tennant’s fantastical pad had a different kind of feeling – opulence, excess, gothic magician pizazz, he also lived in a tower above the strip, far removed from anything real. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons you write? To make the world, many worlds for yourself and others, to make connections.

      • Yes it is. I’d say connection is the biggest, practically the only, reason I write.

        Vegas is a strange place to live. Outside the strip, it’s very plain. The architecture is strictly utilitarian, beige tract homes with rock yards and stumpy trees–even the sky is barren. I grew up here, lived in Georgia, then Germany, but only for three years while my ex-husband was in the military. When we divorced, he refused to let me move the kids out of state without an an ugly fight, so we’ve stuck it out to let them be near him. But next summer, my daughter will be 18, so Drew and I have been saving all year for the big move. June, 2012. Woot!

  3. I look forward to reading about your move! And to find out where you are going.

  4. CJ

    “obsession with loss,” is there any other theme? Not for me, so far. Not for me.

    • There is something to be gained from examining loss, I think. Not sure I can articulate what, precisely that is, only that it feels important to search, or to place the smallest marker in a footnote, on a sign on the ground, declaring that once there was, now there is not.

  5. I love Traquair House – used to go every August for the Fair, such a great setting. I love the little path from where – I think – your picture of the goat was taken, which comes out at one side of the maze.

    • It’s beautiful. I’m hoping to get a look around there a bit more in future, as I only really know the Borders around Galashiels and Melrose.

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