Rosebery House: A former Prime Minister’s retreat in the heart of Midlothian

Rosebery House, Midlothian is today the home of Lord Dalmeny — but this late-Georgian shooting lodge was once the favoured retreat of the Victorian Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery. It escaped ambitious remodelling at his hands and has recently been the object of sympathetic restoration, as John Martin Robinson reports; photographs by Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library.

It is a charming, but disconcerting anomaly that the Earl of Rosebery lives at Dalmeny House in West Lothian, whereas his son Lord Dalmeny lives at Rosebery House in Midlothian. The Rosebery estate, although not continuously owned by the family, was acquired in the 17th century as an augmentation of the Roseberys’ original land holding nearby at Carrington. Then called Clerkington, it was bought in 1695 by Archibald Primrose (1664–1723), Commissioner for the county of Edinburgh to the Scottish Parliament, who changed the name to Rosebery after Roseberry Topping, a hill in Yorkshire.

It was from this that he took his title when he was created a viscount in 1700 and 1st Earl of Rosebery in the Scottish peerage in 1703, in honour of his heiress wife, Dorothea Cressy, who owned land near Wetherby in the North Riding.

Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

By acquiring Clerkington, the 1st Earl was emphasising the origins of his family in Midlothian. This was before the acquisition of the baronies of Barnbougle and Dalmeny on the shore of the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, which, in turn, became the main family seat in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The property was alienated by James, the 2nd Earl of Rosebery, in 1749, a spendthrift who wasted the family lands and fortune, but it was re-acquired after a gap of 70 years in 1821 by Archibald, the 4th Earl, a more prudent and financially astute man. To emphasise the restored connection, when he was given a UK peerage in 1828, Archibald took the title Lord Rosebery of Rosebery.

The Dining Room, a 1915 addition at Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

Despite this, the house at Rosebery is not a large historic seat, but a relatively simple late-Georgian house. The Buildings of Scotland: Lothian describes it as ‘nondescript’. It is, however, of considerable interest on three counts: for the remains of 17th-century Clerkington House; for the improved estate with rule-straight roads, plantings of beech and a wonderful farmsteading opposite the entrance gate; and, not least, for its associations with the Victorian prime minister 5th Earl of Rosebery.

He commissioned several unexecuted plans for a grand Baronial house at Rosebery and built the handsome Gothic Revival Episcopalian chapel in the policies. When eligible for the traditional earldom after being prime minister, he added Midlothian to Rosebery. His RM monogram is inscribed on the keystone of the front door under a carved panel of his arms.

Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

Today, the Rosebery estate is the property of the current Lord Dalmeny, UK chairman of Sotheby’s, and has been since he came of age in 1988. Following his marriage to Caroline (Daglish) in 1994, he revived the house and gardens and it remains his Scottish home, where he and his five children spend holidays and weekends. The steading has been restored over the past two years and converted for holiday and corporate letting.

The 17th-century house that was bought by the 1st Earl was U-shaped in plan and stood to the south-east of the present house. Part-demolished in about 1804–12, the ruins lasted into the 20th century and the foundations can still be traced under the lawn. The house overlooked a rectangular forecourt and was the centrepiece of an ambitious formal garden layout in Franco-Dutch style created by Robert Hepburn I (1698–1756), a lawyer and Commissioner of Customs, after he bought the estate from the 2nd Earl of Rosebery in 1749. This layout incorporated axial lime avenues to the north, south and east.

The Glass Room that overlooks the gardens. Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

The north avenue was the main approach and the vanished entrance there is still marked by a solitary, Georgian, stone-built lodge. This was originally one of a pair, but its twin has disappeared. It is not known who designed the lodges and avenues, but the latter appear on John Laurie’s 1766 map A Plan of Edinburgh and Places Adjacent.

The surviving lodge was converted to a library in about 1900 by the bookish 5th Earl, who kept specialist collections of books in his different houses and enhanced its historic interest by incorporating a salvaged 17th-century carved-stone doorway from old Clerkington House. Sydney Mitchell (1856–1930) the Edinburgh Arts-and-Crafts architect who produced designs for a completely new house at Rosebery, was probably responsible for this sensitive restoration work.

Entrance Hall at Clerkington House, once the 5th Earl’s library at Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

He was a pupil of Rowand Anderson and specialised in the Scottish Baronial style, working officially for the Commercial Bank of Scotland and the Board of Lunacy for Scotland. He was influenced by William Morris and designed country houses and social tenement schemes, such as Well Court in the Old Town, as well as restoring the Edinburgh Mercat Cross. He practised in partnership with George Wilson, a fellow pupil of Anderson’s, and his sensitive architecture and respect for old buildings obviously appealed to the historically minded Rosebery.

Mitchell was not the only architect to present designs for a new house at Rosebery. Over a period of 50 years between 1867 and 1915, the 5th Earl commissioned no fewer than eight remodelling proposals in styles that transmuted from full Scotch Baronial to neo-Georgian. The first of these was drawn up by the fashionable Edinburgh firm Wardrop & Reid, which proposed a Scottish tower house, with a stone cartwheel main staircase and asymmetrical wings. The plans included a billiards room, business room and dining room on the ground floor, a large drawing room on the first floor and numerous bedrooms for family and guests there and on upper floors.

The Episcopalian Chapel, designed by Sydney Mitchell and built 1910-13. Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

Wardrop & Reid designed an even larger house in 1880, more like a French château, symmetrical, with mansard roofs. The same year, the practice produced an intriguing English Classical alternative in the style of Ashdown in Berkshire, the central block copying that doll’s-house-like Carolean house, magnified with symmetrical matching wings. It was presumably deemed to be not Scottish enough. Instead, Wardrop & Reid was diverted to the reconstruction of Barnbougle Castle on the Dalmeny estate and Lord Rosebery changed architectural horses, transferring his patronage to Mitchell and George Wilson in 1894.

They produced a relatively modest project, keeping the Georgian shooting lodge for service accommodation and adding the inevitable Scotch tower, as well as a compact wing with a two-storeyed hall, large dining room, smoking room, morning room and business room for the owner. There was no drawing room, the hall serving as a general sitting room.

The Chapel, Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

This plan, which was devised after the death in 1890 of Rosebery’s wife, Hannah, has something of a Victorian bachelor air about it, intended for shooting parties. Any thought that Lord Rosebery was holding back, however, is belied by the grandiose project he commissioned in 1907 from Mitchell and Wilson for a very large house on a completely new site on the estate in full-blown Baronial tenor, with bartizans, pepper pots and corner towers and a stone crown of St Giles’s Kirk derivation on the central square entrance tower. Most astonishingly, the ground plan, with the office courts, formed the letter R for Rosebery, like an Elizabethan architectural conceit by John Thorpe.

This fantasy exhausted Lord Rosebery’s architectural ambitions. The sixth and last scheme in 1915 was for a neo-Georgian enlargement of the house with a new wing of main rooms and a ‘Glass Room’ to the south. Only the latter and a modest enlargement of the entrance front with a new entrance hall and dining room were carried out, rather an anti-climax in the circumstances.

Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

The long Glass Room, not quite a conservatory as it is of masonry with 13 large windows rather than being fully glazed, faces south and is a much appreciated amenity in the Scottish summer — indeed, in spring and autumn, too. Mitchell’s design for the garden was carried out in 1910 and a new Episcopalian chapel in Gothic Revival style was built to the east of the garden in a walled enclosure approached through wrought-iron gates. The date 1913 is marked on the iron door handles. The interior has fine ashlar walls and a timber barrel-vaulted roof borne on an elaborately carved timber cornice.

Unpretentious Rosebery House survived as a Georgian shooting lodge with two-storeyed ranges around a court, the main rooms to the east, the Glass Room to the south and the kitchen offices on the north side. It was built by Robert Hepburn III in 1805 after the demolition of old Clerkington House, according to The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Volume I (1845), of rubble stone with ashlar dressings, including quoins, architraves and sash windows. There is a canted bay at the south end of the main east wing, lighting the drawing room.

Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

As remodelled by the 5th Earl, the compact main rooms comprised a dining room, a study or sitting room, library and drawing room with bedrooms above, all with simple plaster cornices and marble chimneypieces, plus a staircase with cast-iron bannisters. Hepburn, an Advocate as his father and grandfather had been, had married Catherine, granddaughter of the 5th Earl of Balcarres in 1800. His father was a friend of James Boswell from Edinburgh University days and his mother gave her name to the traditional tune Mrs Hepburn of Clerkington’s Reel. After three generations and energetic agricultural improvements, the Hepburns sold the estate back to the Roseberys, who changed the name back to Rosebery from Clerkington.

Architecturally more interesting than the main house is Rosebery Steading, the model farm also built in about 1805. It is a perfect example of its type, the symmetrical front in semi-Gothic style with central entrance and incorporating a farmhouse, dovecote and clock tower with octagonal spire on top, flanked by castellated walls and end pavilions. All this formed an eye-catcher opposite the new gateway to the house, which frames it with its Gothic gateposts topped with obelisk-like pinnacles inspired by 17th-century Moray House in Edinburgh. The court with additional farm buildings to the rear was added by the 4th Earl of Rosebery in 1855.

Rosebery House, Midlothian. ©Paul Highnam for the Country Life Picture Library

This wonderful building has been fully revived, the work being completed this year, with later utilitarian accretions removed and the stonework and windows restored. The interior of the steading has been adapted for commercial and residential uses, including the turbine hall installed by the 5th Earl to produce electricity for the estate that also forms a large reception room. The architects for the recent works were Pollock Hammond and the builders Lock Contracting.

The restoration of the steading completes a programme of works over the past 20 years. Rosebery House had been let before Lord Dalmeny took it on and required structural repair and refurbishment, as well as refurnishing and decoration. The aim has been to maintain the understated character of a shooting lodge, with the odd flourish. The west garden outside the drawing room windows has been replanted as a geometrical parterre of lawn, topiary and low box hedging and the Glass Room has been enhanced with painted murals on a warm stone ground.

Rosebery House, although not an architectural masterpiece, is of more than usual fascination on account of its history, what has gone or was never built at all and its present condition. It is one of a group of old buildings of great charm, in a beautiful setting: house, lodge, chapel, Steading, garden, gateposts and ancient avenues add up to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.