There is something important you need to remember when you visit Traquair House. It is this:
You can reset your nose by sniffing your skin.
I only learned this fact yesterday. Had I known it before stepping over the threshold of Britain’s oldest continuously occupied house, it would have saved me from wandering in and out of the rooms like an addict looking for another hit.
The house is also recognized as a valuable piece of Scottish history, for its collections of artefacts and in the way the Traquair Brewery has sought to revive the traditional ale making techniques that were used there in the 1600s.
What is not widely known is that Traquair House smells amazing. Indeed, it is the best smelling house I have ever visited.
Every room seems to tell the nose a different story, from the cool stone scent that wraps around you when you enter the long hall to the vaulted cellars, to the stewed incense-like aroma of oil paint, wooden beams, and the ghosts of fires that once burned in the grate, which hovers in the high drawing room in the same way dust appears to be trapped in sunbeams.
Also, whoever among the staff thought to put the enormous vase of lilies in the lower drawing room that is attached to the dining room, ought to be given a raise.
The entrance for these rooms is off the courtyard at ground level. Imagine the transference of fragrance stepping from outside, where the sun is warming the stones and the spring flowers and grass are pushing sweetness into the air, and into these slightly cooler rooms, which are blooming with the collective smell of oil paint, wood polish, and the syrupy whiff of aging fabrics. Overtop of all of this, float the siren song of lilies. It was, in a word, divine.
I had to walk out, take a turn around the courtyard and go back in again, just so I could feel my body go slightly limp with the pleasure of it.
If I had known about resetting my nose I would have simply sniffed my arm occasionally and stayed in the room for half an hour, despite the fact that the poor girl acting as the room’s guide would have thought I was a loony. Even loonies must have their pleasures, thank you.
I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside house but the folks at Traquair have forwarded me some images. There is just one I want to share, of the main library.
From this photo I think all book lovers can imagine what it smells like. Sweet old leather and the dust that has still managed to creep between the tightly pressed pages. I can’t be the only one with a desire to open a few of them up and let their aromatic secrets fill the room.
Several of the rooms include recordings made by the current owner. In a gentle voice perfect for storytelling, the 21st Lady of Traquair, Catherine Maxwell Stuart, takes visitors through the history of the items and interesting anecdotes from her family’s past.
My favourite stories include a visit from Mary Queen of Scots with her infant son, who would become King James IV. The cradle where he slept is at the foot of the bed in what is known as The King’s Room.
The other story that grips me is about the secret stairway used by Catholic priests and Jacobite refugees, prior to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. The false backing of the cupboard has been opened to reveal the steep stairs behind, making it easy to imagine someone trying to silently sneak away while his room was being searched.
The one room that I expected to hold a heavy scent of history was the Catholic chapel, however it was as if those aromas had been scrubbed away. I later learned that this is because the chapel is above the brewery. The incredible beer that they brew here will be getting its own post.
It was too late in the day to get a decent photo of the huge maze at the back of the house, so I will introduce you to the resident goat instead. Everyone, this is George. George - everyone.
One last thing about the house. These are the Bear Gates, which have been shut since 1744, when the fifth earl of Traquair closed them following a visit by Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The Earl swore they would not be reopened until a Stuart king took the British throne. The grass has grown over the gate near the bottom, and everyone visiting the house continues to use the “temporary” access.
This house is magnificent. It is only open during the summer season, starting from Easter. During the off season it is still lived in by Lady Catherine and her family.
We will be sampling Traquair Ale in a forthcoming post. And if you don’t fancy a visit to this house already, I promise it will make you change your mind.