Barnbougle Castle: A book-filled haven in Edinburgh where the water laps up to the garden’s edge

The waterside retreat of the Earl of Rosebery & Midlothian — a celebrated Victorian politician, sportsman, antiquarian and bibliophile — has been restored and brought back to life. John Martin Robinson reports on this remarkable survival; photographs by Paul Highnam.

Barnbougle Castle enjoys a sublime site on the shore of the Firth of Forth near South Queensferry. It was rebuilt in its present form by the 5th Earl of Rosebery in 1879–81, a celebrated politician who served in successive Liberal governments and followed Gladstone as Prime Minister in 1894–95. He was also a brilliant orator, an outstanding sportsman, a writer and a historian, as well as a connoisseur and collector.

The castle is very much the expression of his literary, historical and antiquarian enthusiasms. It was also a retreat from his Regency seat at Dalmeny House, half a mile away, a place where he could read and write and practise his speeches. Therefore, it has six libraries, where he would go when suffering from insomnia, but only one bedroom and none of the usual Victorian servants’ quarters or conventional reception rooms.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The principal library. A noted bibliophile, the 5th Earl ensured most of the interiors were fitted with bookcases; the castle contains 10,000 books, many related to Scotland. Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The 5th Earl’s work to the castle consciously celebrated his family’s Scottish roots and a tablet on the east front is pointedly inscribed: ‘Remove Not The Ancient Landmark Which Thy Fathers Have Set. Proverbs XXII 28.’

The founder of the family fortunes, Sir Archibald Primrose, 1st Baronet of Carrington, or Clerkington, Midlothian, was a successful lawyer, Clerk Register of Scotland. He bought the estate, comprising the baronies of Barnbougle and Dalmeny, from the Hamiltons after the Restoration in 1662 and the old castle — reworked to create the present building — was the family home for 150 years.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

Detail of the exterior of the castle designed and built by Wardrop & Reid. Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

Founded by the Moubrays in the 13th century, Barnbougle Castle had been rebuilt as a tower house by the Hamiltons in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Roseberys extended it in the 18th century, adding wings and creating Georgian interiors. Designs in the family archives show the Gold Drawing Room upstairs in the tower and the new east wing containing the large dining and drawing rooms that was added by the architect Robert Burn (1752–1815), father of the better known William Burn.

Despite this neo-Classical augmentation, the house was increasingly seen as a cramped anachronism with, legend suggests, high waves crashing in through the dining room windows. Inspired by the seashore site, Robert Adam had produced more ambitious plans to extend the castle into a large, triangular castellated Spalatro palace.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

Barnbougle Castle situated on the shore of the Firth of Forth, with the tide out. Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

In the end, the 4th Earl built a completely new house in 1814–17 on a different site in an English East Barsham Tudor manner, with prefabricated Coadestone detail, to the design of his Cambridge contemporary William Wilkins. The old house was then blown up and the ruin left as a landscape feature in the park and a shipping landmark.

Sixty years later, the 5th Earl embarked on its full reconstruction. He had been considering such a project from the time of his marriage to Hannah de Rothschild (sole heiress of Baron Mayer de Rothschild and Mentmore) in 1878 and commissioned preliminary designs for a seaside ‘cottage’ for the use of his young family away from the serious political house-parties at Dalmeny.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The Banqueting Hall, with its impressive timber barrel roof. It is hung with portraits of successive Earls and their wives. Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

New designs were later commissioned with an emphasis on a multi-room library for his very large collection of Scottish books and reference material and literature. One of the Earl’s true passions was book-collecting and he was a member of the Roxburghe Club of bibliophiles.

On his death in 1929, he bequeathed 3,000 Scottish charters and 600 early printed volumes to the new National Library of Scotland, but the lion’s share of his Scottish books remains at Barnbougle — as you’ll see from several of the images on this page — and attests to his serious interest in Scottish literature, history and culture.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The staircase, with a blackened wood Italian Baroque figure of Pan. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life

Rosebery chose as his architects the Edinburgh firm of Wardrop & Reid, the leading Scottish countryhouse practice of the day. The senior partner was James Maitland Wardrop (1824–82), the London-born son of James Maitland Wardrop, surgeon to George IV. Wardrop had landed connections through his mother, a Dalrymple of East Lothian, and his wife, a Dundas of Dundas.

Charles Reid was the chief draughtsman of the firm, promoted to partner. The company had succeeded David Bryce as the foremost purveyor of baronial piles, notably Lochinch Castle, Wigtownshire, for the Earl of Stair; Callendar Park, Stirlingshire, for the Forbes family; Stichill, Roxburghshire; Udny Castle, Aberdeenshire; Beaufort Castle, Inverness-shire, for the Lovats; and other Scottish leviathans.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

A walnut-panelled room at Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

Wardrop was also an early and sensitive restorer and revivalist, as demonstrated at Nunraw, East Lothian, in 1868, anticipating Lorimer’s Arts-and-Crafts career. It was this latter streak in his work that made him the obvious choice for Barnbougle, which he reconstructed as a four-storeyed, wingless tower with lime-jointed rubble-and-ashlar dressings continuing the treatment of the retained north- and east-corner walls.

The scale of the new building was dictated by the old foundations, the crenellation and crowstepped gables copied from original remnants and other features such as the bartizan and stone water spouts derived from authentic specimens. Such, for example, are the oriels on the north and south fronts, which were inspired by those at Maybole Castle in Ayrshire.

A sense of in-built history was established by the retention of the large Georgian arched windows on the ground floor of the north front. The work was completed in 1881, the date over the front door.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

Detail of the staircase, with a blackened Italian Baroque figure of Pan. Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The interior is a remarkably evocative Victorian ensemble, complete with the books, family and historical portraits, furniture and antiquarian objects that were assembled there by the ‘Prime Minister Earl’.

His washstand remains in his bedroom (the only bedroom) on the top floor and his marble bath, fed by seawater, is still in the adjoining bathroom, the original pump for which is preserved in the basement.

When I first saw Barnbougle more than 40 years ago, his red dispatch boxes remained on his desk. Time had stood still; Victorian history was tangible. When Rosebery died, the place was sealed, staying untouched and as he left it for nearly a century.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The bow window in the Banqueting Hall overlooks the Firth of Forth. The Prime Minister’s telescope is still in its Victorian position, to study the ships traversing the waters. Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

A housekeeper lived on the ground floor and, every year, dusted the 10,000 books that fill the shelves. It is difficult to think of any parallel historical survivals, although Gladstone’s Hawarden comes near and Disraeli’s Hughenden is a clever National Trust re-creation.

Now, the sleeping beauty has been brought back to life and the place has been restored. The present 7th Earl of Rosebery’s 90th birthday was celebrated there with a party for the staff of the Scottish estates in February and, since May 7, the Prime Minister Earl’s birthday, the castle has been available to the public for events, conferences and weddings, which will provide it with an economically viable life, as well as preserving its unique historic character.

The recent restoration of the building took two years, beginning in 2017, under the Edinburgh architects Simpson & Brown with the assistance of two of the leading Scottish-based historic-buildings contractors. Restorex repointed and repaired the stonework and window joinery and overhauled the slate roof, which included the renewal of much of the leadwork, and Thomas Johnstone provided modern services.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The Scottish Library at Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

Lady Jane Kaplan, one of Lord Rosebery’s daughters, has directed the contracts on site and her indefatigable attention to detail has been responsible for the happy results. The interior has been treated with an admirable lightness of touch. Wallpaper, stamped leather, subdued colours and polished joinery finishes have been retained and revived and the rooms remain a muted symphony of browns.

All the original bronze light fittings have been resuscitated and the wall lights in the panelled little dining room, adjoining the Great Hall, are made out of old Scottish bed-warmer lids with pierced decoration, a charming Arts-and-Crafts touch.

The mood is set in the small ashlar-faced entrance hall, where the portrait by David Scougal of Sir Archibald Primrose, the Clerk Register, faces the visitor coming through the front door. Beyond are two fine carved rectangular panels of the arms of the 1st Earl’s wife, Dorothea Cressy of Everingham Cressy in Yorkshire, who owned Roseberry Topping, a hill in the North Riding that was chosen for her husband’s new title.

Sir Archibald was created a Scottish peer in 1703 after a military and parliamentary career in Scotland and a Court position as Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Prince George of Denmark, consort to Queen Anne. The 1st Earl was one of the Commissioners for the Act of Union. He began a continuous family tradition of marrying English wives, except for the 2nd Earl, who married a Campbell, sister of the 4th Duke of Argyll, which was almost the same thing.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The Parlour with portrait of Hannah, wife of the 5th Earl. Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The two main rooms on the ground floor open off the entrance: the Reading Room and the Scottish Library, largest of the book rooms, which are both fitted with oak shelves en-suite in mildly Jacobean taste. The library has wall coverings above the bookcases of gilded hessian-effect paper, which were possibly supplied by the Tynecastle Company. The paper survives in perfect condition as a rare decorative feature.

At the foot of the staircase are a portrait of the 5th Earl with his 1894 Derby winner Ladas and one of his wife, Hannah, by G. F. Watts. The original telephone fitting is still on the wall. In 1918, Rosebery told Margot Asquith: ‘I cannot use the telephone and the servant who does perpetrates the most astounding gaffes.’

At the foot of the stair is a near-life-size blackened-wood Italian figure of Pan, a lump of stone from the Auld Brig of Ayre, a boneshaker bicycle and the Linlithgow bushel measure of 1707, giving the standard Scottish measure for dried goods as updated at the time of the Act of Union, as well as other curiosities. This eclectic and intriguing mix introduces the character of the contents throughout the castle.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

A bedroom at Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

On the first floor, the principal room is the Banqueting Hall, which rises 30ft through two storeys and is 60ft long, a spacious contrast after the more domestic scale elsewhere. At one end is a minstrels’ gallery, where Lord Rosebery practised his speeches, declaiming to the empty room below.

The windows have heraldic glass, with impaled arms of successive Earls and their wives, including the 5th Earl, with the five arrows of the Rothschilds for his wife. Georgian glazed cabinets contain miscellaneous treasures. Above the wainscot hang family portraits — including the future Prime Minister when Lord Dalmeny with his sons Harry, in cricket clothes, and Neil, who was killed in the First World War — as well as his ancestors, notably a wonderful Francis Grant of his mother, later Duchess of Cleveland.

Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

Bathroom at Barnbougle Castle. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life Picture Library

The adjoining parlour is another book room, with more oak bookcases and red-flock wallpaper. Unlike the mildly Jacobethan rooms downstairs, and the Scots baronial of the hall, this room is charmingly neo-Georgian, another of Wardrop’s specialities, and still contains the Prime Minister’s desk in the south-facing oriel window.

In this parlour hangs his favourite portrait of Hannah by Lord Leighton, re-hung in the place of honour where he intended it to be. It underlines the strongly personal nature of this amazing house, now all beautifully restored and displayed. The castle is a monument to his life and interests and an era of British history.