Scottish Aristocracy: Equestrian High Jinks and Dining with History

The Scottish aristocrats are somewhat of an odd lot. Some exhibit the refinement and breeding one would expect, and some behave as vile commoners or worse. Here is a couple of examples.

Gerald Edward Ian Maitland-Carew
Lord Lieutenant of Roxburgh, Ettrick and Lauderdale
at Thirlstane Castle

Captain Maitland-Carew, was born a humble Gerald Connolly-Carew. He is an indirect descendant of William Maitland of Lethington who was the Secretary to the beloved Mary Queen of Scots during her short and tumultuous reign in the late 1500's. As the ascendancy was through his mother he simply changed his name by deed poll to Maitland-Carew when he inherited Thirlstane Castle in 1971, a rambling castle/mansion in the Scottish Borders region. As romantic as this may sound, the castle with its numerous drafty and barely heated rooms was a perfect drain on Maitland-Carew's modest financial resources. Nobility and a title did not equate with instant wealth any longer and the days of simply plundering ones' neighbor when the cash well ran low were long gone.

But Maitland-Carew was now the proud laird of his castle and this demanded that a proper respect was shown. He insisted on being addressed as "Your Grace. This was a stretch as 'His Grace" was a bit on the chubby side and the overindulgence of usquebaugh crocheted a doily of gin-blossoms on his aristocratic proboscis and cheeks endowing him with a ruddy, jolly appearance.

Other then the ocassional tipple and a penchant for proper court etiquette, His Grace liked all things equestrian. Along with his wife, who sported the un-aristocratic name of Bunny, he started breeding horses for racing and slowly developed a respected, if unprofitable, Equestrian center at his castle.

By the late seventies, His Grace had a cash flow problem. The Castle was slowly falling into disrepair and most of the 100-odd rooms had not seen a coat of paint or a breath of fresh air in decades. His Grace approached a government agency that administers historical properties, The National Trust, for money to fix and maintain his crumbling mansion. He received a grant with the condition that he opened his ancestral home to the Great Unwashed for a specified period each year. This, in itself, meant that parts of the castle, unvisited by a human being for decades, required attention.

At the time, I worked for a lighting design company and through the National Trust, we were asked to produce an appropriate lighting design for certain parts of the property. A site visit was arranged so we could conduct a survey of the castle.

We arrived on a beautiful Scottish summer morning, that rare day when the sun actually shone and there was no trace of drizzle or rain. Thirlstane was an imposing building, allowed to claim its presence on generous grounds. At the front was a green grass lawn defined by a well-used gravel driveway. The building looked as expected, largely decrepit and run down. We met His Grace out on the front lawn where he was exercising a fine-looking thoroughbred. He was friendly enough, but his demeanor left no doubt that he was in charge and we were the hired hands. He was remote and plummy in that particular Anglo-Saxon way that clearly sets class boundaries. It was his commoner wife who let us in and showed us the wing we were meant to survey. It was an astonishing sight. A row of interconnected Victorian rooms totally filled with antique furniture, china, crystal, porcelain; all of it covered with fine old dust as these treasures were untouched for decades. It reminded me of Gormenghast and I half expected to find Steerpike lurking behind a vase.*
I began taking rough dimensions, and notes barely able to breathe in the stale, motionless air. The work was progressing well but by early afternoon I was ready for a break; some tea and biscuits on the lawn, served by a comely wench, was the image that formed in my tired brain. Instead there was a loud horse whinny, a dull thud, followed by a thick-tongue, working-class oath and a cry for help. I raced through the ghostlike rooms, down the haunted mansion stairs and out into the warm sunshine…and there was the Captain, prostate on that lush lawn, breathing deeply and whimpering. The horse was next to him nibbling on the turf. Nearby was Bunny, the stripper-duchess, looking fetching in her riding breeches, but obviously in distress, crying:
"Help! His Grace broke his fucking leg!"

I am proud to say, I managed to smother the emerging schadenfreude snigger and tried to ineffectually help by asking inane questions and shooing the horse away lest he should attempt to kick His Grace in his tweed encased arse.

That was sometime in the early eighties. Thirlstane Castle is now open to the public and has, in fact, become, a popular “bed-and-breakfast”. His Grace still lives in the Castle and I am sure he still rides his horses on the lawn after breakfast fortified by a “nippy-sweetie” in his hip-flask.

Angus Alan Douglas Douglas-Hamilton
15th Duke of Hamilton and 12th Duke of Brandon
at Lennoxlove House

Sometime in the seventies I met a lighting designer named Andre Tammes. The
theatre design community (sets, lighting, costumes) is very small, specially in Scotland and after a while everyone knows everyone. I got along well with Andre and we worked together on a number of projects; he as a designer and I as an operator. Andre took his craft very seriously and I learned an awful lot from him; how to be disciplined in design, methodical without resorting to cheap gimmicks, analytical in identifying solutions. Theatre lighting is a perfect mix of art and technology. Often un-appreciated, it is a powerful medium. With a simple flick of a switch, I could transform the mood of a set and people, just by the angle of lighting, the color and intensity.
Along with a handful of other designers, Andre saw an opportunity to use theatre lighting principles in architectural design. He was a true visionary and today he is a highly respected lighting expert on a global scale.

In 1978, Andre started an architectural lighting design company and I was employee numero uno. I enjoyed it immensely. For the first time in years I didn't have to work evenings and I was creating something that lasted for more than a few weeks or months.

Andre found a contact in the National Trust, a government agency that looks after historical properties and that is how we came to Lennoxlove House and I touched history as never before or since.

Lennoxlove House had been owned by the powerful and ubiquitous Maitlands since the 1300's and in 1946 the property was bought by the 14th Duke of Hamilton. It gets a tad confusing here. The 14th Duke, proper title Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 14th Duke of Hamilton, 11th Duke of Brandon, born in 1903, was a Member of Parliament and a keen and proficient aviator. He attended the infamous Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 and evidently met socially (if that is possible!) with Hitler, Göring and others (imagine: martinis and hors d'oeuvres with Adolf!). Whether he schmoozed with Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy at the time and also an aviator, is in dispute. In any case, in 1941 on the eve of the Soviet invasion, Rudolf Hess secretly flew from Germany to Scotland in a breathtakingly naïve attempt to negotiate peace on behalf of Germany or to attempt to persuade Great Britain to join Germany in war against the Communist Soviet Union. He crash-landed in the Scottish Borders region, close to Dungavel House where Duke of Hamilton lived at the time. When found by a local farmer he gave a false name of “Alfred Horn” and was taken to a nearby hospital to treat his injuries. The Duke was notified and he visited Hess in the hospital at which point Hess revealed his true identity. Winston Churchill was immediately informed and Hess was taken into custody. After the war he was tried in Nuremberg and sentenced to life. He spent the rest of his days as the only prisoner in Spandau prison near Berlin and he died there in 1987. Recently, in July 2011, his remains were exhumed from a grave in Bavaria after the site became a gathering spot for neo-Nazis.
The Duke of Hamilton did not suffer any political fallout from his apparent ties to a Nazi leader and continued as a respected Member of Parliament.

It was his son Angus Alan Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 15th Duke of Hamilton who greeted us at Lennoxlove Castle in 1979 and showed us the areas that required some special lighting. Again I had to perform a quick and dirty survey and was left alone in the rambling house with my trusty tape measure and a notepad. It was amazing. There were artifacts everywhere going back centuries. I remember a stairway with walls completely covered with monochromatic photographs of the Duke's fathers' various adventures; flying over Mount Everest and pictures of Rudolf Hess being taken away in handcuffs.

I took forever to measure the areas we were asked to cover, and suddenly it was dark. The Duke asked if we would stay for dinner. Could one say no?

The dinner was served in
the Great Hall and it felt like a movie. It was just the three of us at the end of a giant table near a walk-in fireplace under a vaulted flagstone ceiling and walls. I forget what was served but it was simple fare accompanied by an exquisite red wine. The Duke and Andre bantered back and forth about obscure topics such as what happens to electrons in wires when the electricity is turned off. Where do they go?

In Scotland, there are stories of ghosts and paranormal events everywhere. I've been to many places that claimed to be haunted. But I've never seen or felt anything of paranormal nature. That evening in the Great Hall, there was a subtle feeling that the three of us were not alone. It was just a hint of a sensation that someone was behind me, watching me. A presence. At one point I wandered around the room. The Hall was sparsely furnished; just the huge dining table, some flags along the walls and that massive stone fireplace. There, in the corner was a vitrine with an odd, opaque object. You could hardly see it, but it was a face; a beautiful, child-like serene face. Emboldened by the consumed claret, I asked the Duke,” Ehm, excuse me, Doug, what is that in the corner?" "Oh, that's Mary," he said lightly, "Mary Stuart". It was a death mask of Mary Queen of Scots, the child monarch of Scotland who was crowned when she was 9 months old in 1542. She was beheaded for treason in 1587.

The 15th Duke of Hamilton passed away in 2010, and his son, the 16th Duke, now resides at Lennoxlove House. The memory of the dinner with The Duke and The Queen lives with me to this day.

* A reference to the gothic trilogy Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake, written in the early fifties

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions