25 Apr 2010

A rare glimpse inside Kinneil House

Easter is the turning point on the Scottish tourism calendar. Around this time the clocks move forward and most of the historical properties that have been closed since October fling open their doors for another season. The days are longer, the air is warmer, and I am struck with a desire to see everything possible before the months roll quickly by into winter again.

Being on Historic Scotland’s mailing list helps me keep up with unique opportunities to see properties that are not often open to the public.

This weekend I couldn’t pass up a chance to go to Bo’ness and see Kinneil House, which is only open to the public on a handful of weekends each year.

This was the seat of the powerful Hamilton family, stretching back to 1314 when Robert the Bruce gave them the estate in thanks for their support at Bannockburn. In the late 1500s it was the home of Anne, Duchess of Hamilton, who lived there with her husband, William Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk.

Centuries later in the 1930s, with the house in desperate disrepair, the local council decided to knock it down.

They had already gutted the tower house and were poised to start smashing through the palace when they uncovered intricate paintings on the walls, which turned out to be some of the best examples of renaissance wall painting in Scotland. The house went from the chopping block to being  a prized historical gem.

The paintings are so fragile that Historic Scotland is strict about not allowing photography inside (they trust no one to leave the flash off), so the photos I have I had to scan from the brochure.

My favourite room is the Arbour room, the bedchamber of the James, the second Earl of Arran, who was responsible for the palace being added to the main tower in the 1550s.

The original paintings are lush and extravagant. I can imagine what the room would have looked like when it was still new, bedecked in the finest furniture and linens and dripping with opulence at every turn.

It is hard to believe that subsequent owners (including the Duchess) covered up these paintings to suit more “modern” styles.
It was the parable room that saved the house. Chipping through the panelling that had been applied during Duchess Anne’s time, workers discovered the story of the Good Samaritan sweeping around the walls.

Looking at the image of a man being attacked, I marvelled at the violence of it and wondered how much more startling it would have been before the colours were faded by time.
To round out the visit to the house the “Duchess” herself was on hand to tell the story of her life, from being thrust into a position of vast responsibility at the tender age of 19, to bearing 13 children and going on to live to the ripe old age of 85.
It was a gorgeous day and as the actress told the story of the Duchess, the air around us swelled with the sound of birdsong. Afterwards there was the massive estate still left to explore, from the green glen of Gil Burn where James Watt once lived in a cottage while he worked on his steam engine experiments, to wide green fields that no longer bear any trace of the original village of Kinneil.
Only part of the Kinneil Church remains, while the original bell is housed in the Kinneil Museum.

I never get used to the site of graveyards like this, so long forgotten. The heavy stones were once laid down as a sign of the eternal, but now they look fragile, grass and flowers breaking through the cracks as the earth slowly swallows the last remnants of memory.
Not far away is the excavated site of a Roman fortlet and the fading remains of the famous Antonine Wall, built in 140 AD. That date seems such a simple thing to say, but when I was planning my visit I had only thought about the house and had no idea of the vast layers of history that drape over this landscape.
Despite spending the better part of an afternoon at Kinneil, I left feeling overwhelmed due to being unprepared for the sheer amount of information available about the area. I wanted to know everything, but I didn’t know where to start.

The only negative sensual influence of the day was the inconsiderate way some of the Historic Scotland staff parked their cars right in front of the house they were supposed to be showcasing, essentially ruining wide angle shots for eager tourists who had travelled to see the Estate. If you are a tourism provider, this is common sense. Think of what the customer wants to see and don’t get in the way!
That said, I would highly recommend a visit to Kinneil Estate, which unlike the house is always open and also features great walking trails and countryside views. Add it to the long list of places I want to visit again.

**wee update** I have received some great correspondence from Historic Scotland who understood my photo-geek disppointment regarding the cars. I appreciate the gracious nature in which they took feedback and their desire to always be improving the visitor experience. Many thanks to Historic Scotland and the volunteers of Kinneil House for a great day. :)

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