Today sees the official launch onto the market of Scotland’s first wholly Classical country house, 17th-century Palladian Kinross House in Kinrossshire, at ‘offers over £4.25 million’ through Knight Frank (0131–222 9600) and Strutt & Parker (0131–226 2500). Described in Country Life (February 16, 1951) as ‘the complete expression in stone of the Renaissance in Scotland’, Kinross House, listed Category A, was built between 1685 and 1693 by Sir William Bruce, a career politician and gentleman architect, who introduced Classical architecture to Scotland.
Appointed to various lucrative Crown posts following his role in the restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, and created a baronet in 1668, Bruce made his mark as an architect with the virtual rebuilding of Holyrood House, Edinburgh, between 1674 and 1679, and major alterations to Thirlestane Castle, Hopetoun House and Caroline Park, Midlothian. But Kinross House was to be his masterpiece, and also his swansong.
In 1675, with cash and favours flooding in, Bruce bought the sprawling Kinross estate on the shores of Loch Leven, which today still sports the ruins of the island stronghold where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in 1567–8, from the impoverished Earl of Morton. For the next 10 years, Bruce and his son John concentrated on draining and levelling the site chosen for his grand new house, then laying out and planting its splendid formal gardens, with Loch Leven and its castle providing a dramatic backdrop.
The accession of James II in 1685 saw Bruce appointeda privy councillor for Scotland, and construction started at Kinross, but a year later, he fell from grace and eventually lost his remaining government posts. Writing in Country Life (April 1, 1965), Mark Girouard sums up his career with ‘the fact that Kinross rose at all, and on such a scale, is the index of his initial political success; the fact that it was never fully completed, and was sold by his descendants less than 70 years after his death, was the result of his ultimate failure’. Kinross House was eventually built at a cost of £10,000 in 1693, but, with government income drying up, the interior had still not been completed by the time of Bruce’s death in 1710.
The ground-floor reception rooms were decorated more or less as originally planned, but the roomson the first floor and above remained largely undecorated.
The Kinross estate was in a pretty sorry state when, in 1777, it was bought by George Graham, a Scottish merchant who had made his fortune in Jamaica and India, and the great-great-great-grandfather of the present owner. Graham made few alterations to the house, being content to have it re-sashed and put in good repair by Edinburgh architect George Paterson.
The estate passed to the Montgomery family in 1819 when Sir James Montgomery married George Graham’s grand daughter Helen. But, due to the fact that the Montgomerys had their main seat at Stobo Castle in the Scottish Borders, Kinross House wasn’t lived in for 80 years, and so escaped the Victorian remodelling so common in Scottish country houses at that time.
Kinross House stood empty and deserted until 1902, when it passed to Sir Basil Mont-gomery, who made it his life’s work to restore the house, filling it with fine furniture and bringing back many of the family portraits including Bruce’s own, which must have been acquired by George Graham with the house. He also recreated its famous formal gardens, still among the finest in Scotland.
Fortunately, Bruce had built well, and Sir Basil and his architect, Dr Thomas Ross, found little reason to deviate from the original plan, apart from some essential modernisation. Sir David Montgomery, father of Jamie Montgomery, the present owner, further updated the interior some 30 years ago.
The main reception rooms remain pure Renaissance, especially the pillared entrance hall, the small ground-floor drawing room (originally the garden hall), the panelled dining room, and the great staircase with its carved and pierced panels which leads directly to the first-floor ballroom (Bruce’s ‘sallon’) where hangs Raeburn’s notable portrait of Lady Helen Montgomery.
The imposing four-storey house has a state bedroom, plus 14 more bedrooms, five bathrooms, a self-contained two-bedroom flat, and a vast basement. Outbuildings include the stable courtyard built in 1680, and north and south gate lodges added in 1902.
Since Sir Basil’s day, Kinross House has been the family home of three more generations of Montgomerys, who have developed the surrounding estate as a thriving, mainly leisure-based, operation, with a golf course, two hotels and trout-fishing on Loch Leven. But as its history has shown, a house such as Kinross needs a fortune to sustain it, and in order to protect the rest of the estate for future generations, Mr Montgomery has regretfully decided to sell and build a new family house on the north side of Loch Leven. Most of the contents, including the portraits historically associated with the house and most of the furniture, will be offered to a new owner separately, or dispersed later by auction through Christie’s.
Some historians suggest that Kinross House may have been built by Bruce as a possible royal residence. It was in poor condition when it was last offered for sale in 1777; this time, thanks to the efforts of the Montgomery family, it is again a house fit for a king.