Duntreath and the Edmonstones

Illustrated Essays

A Brief History of Duntreath Castle
and the Edmonstone Family
By Juliet Edmonstone

Originally thought to have been of Flemish stock, the Edmonstone family are said to have come to Scotland in the train of Princess Margaret who became the Queen of Malcolm Canmore III (1031-1093) and first settled in Midlothian. The line of ‘Edmonstone of Duntreath’ descends from a cadet (younger) son of the Edmonstones of Culloden who owned land throughout Scotland, all of which stayed with the senior line.  

The association of the Edmonstone family with Duntreath itself began in 1425 when the last Celtic Earl of Lennox was obliged to forfeit his lands of Duntreath to the Crown – namely King James I of Scotland, son of King Robert III.   In 1434 these lands were granted by the Chamberlain to William de Edmonstone of Culloden on becoming the fourth husband of Lady Mary (or Mathilde) Stewart (1378-1457), daughter of King Robert III (c1338-1406) and therefore sister of James I.   Her memorial tablet lies in Strathblane church.   Their son was William de Edmonstone, 2nd of Duntreath.

Sir Archibald, 3rd Laird of Duntreath, was escort to the young James I (son of Robert III) as he fled to France. At Flamburgh Head the ship was intercepted and the young prince taken to the court of King Henry IV.  Sir Archibald visited him during his 18-year imprisonment in the Tower of London. 

In 1437, after the murder of King James I in Blackfriars Monastery, Perth, the Countess of Lennox reclaimed Duntreath which was her paternal inheritance and in turn re-granted the lands to her grand-daughter Matilda (Mary) on her marriage to Sir William Edmonstone (1480-1513), 4th Laird of Duntreath and great-grandson of the original William de Edmonstone.

In 1452 King James II ‘erected’ the lands of Duntreath into a barony with full baronial powers and the family built a tower house (Scottish keep), tagging it on to an earlier Lennox ‘fortalice’ of 1406.

The fourth laird became Keeper of Doune Castle.   He fell at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 leading his men under the banner of Capt. Edmonstone of Doune.

Sir William, 5th Laird, was also Keeper of Doune Castle, but insulted the Queen by refusing to house her servants on a royal visit in 1525 for which he was punished by having to vacate the position in 1531.  In 1543 William provoked a quarrel with Sir James Stewart, the new Keeper of Doune Castle, and during a scuffle in Doune High Street between the Stewarts and the Edmonstones, Sir James Stewart was slain. The feud between the two families lasted a further 30 years.

William’s son Sir James Edmonstone (1544-1618), 6th Laird of Duntreath, added an impressive range of buildings around a central courtyard.  This Sir James had unwisely participated in an idle conversation about the possibility of kidnapping King James VI.   Not surprisingly he was indicted for high treason but threw himself on the King’s mercy, and was lucky to receive a pardon.   Life, however, was not the same without the power and prestige that came with their position at Court and in 1609 he took the family to Redhall, a property in County Antrim, Ireland where he died in 1618.  Sir James is recorded as having taken the first Presbyterian minister to Northern Ireland.

The 5th Laird’s great-grandson, also called William (1621-1677), noted as a handsome and intelligent man, was sadly born deaf and dumb. Known as “The Dumb Laird” (Fig.1), his portrait hangs in the present dining room. 

Fig 1. “The Dumb Laird” 1621-1677
Fig 1. “The Dumb Laird” 1621-1677

His brother Archibald, 9th Laird of Duntreath, succeeded their father in 1637.   A strict Presbyterian, he was imprisoned in the Tolbooth Prison in Glasgow for taking part in a secret conventicle at Duntreath.   In 1651 Cromwell garrisoned Duntreath and the table on which he signed the occupation document is in the castle hall.  Returning to Ireland, Archibald died in the rebellion of 1688 fighting for the British cause.

The Edmonstones supported the Jacobite cause in 1715 and 1745, but remained clear of the actual rising by living in Northern Ireland.  Several members of the family emigrated to North America in 1747 and changed their name to avoid persecution.  Following the Jacobite rising of 1715 cattle lifting became an increasing problem.   Rob Roy MacGregor was amongst the raiders and in 1716 the Duke of Montrose’s factor requested an order to “subdue these villains who have stolen a good deal of sheep from the Muir of Blane above Duntreath and daylie threaten more mischief”.

Fig. 2 Sir Archibald Edmonstone 1717-1807, 1st Baronet, as a child
Fig. 2 Sir Archibald Edmonstone 1717-1807, 1st Baronet, as a child. The goldfinch is a religious metaphor. Symbolising the soul, it often appears in medieval portraits of children, including the infant Christ.
Fig 3 Sir Archibald Edmonstone 1717-1807, 1st Baronet, in old age
Fig 3 Sir Archibald Edmonstone 1717-1807, 1st Baronet, in old age

Sir Archibald (1717-1807), 11th Laird of Duntreath (Figs. 2&3) and MP for Dumbarton, was created a Baronet in 1774 and bought an estate in Kilsyth, where he lived.   Sadly neglected, Duntreath had fallen into decay and by the mid-18th century was unroofed (Fig.4).

Fig. 4 Duntreath in ruins
Fig. 4 Duntreath in ruins

Sir Archibald had four sons. The eldest, Archibald, fought in the American War of Independence and died of consumption aged 25.  The second son, William, was persuaded against his will to go to India aged 17 but pined for Duntreath and sadly died in Calcutta of tuberculosis aged 35.  Shortly before his final illness he sent home a considerable amount of money to pay off his father’s debts on Colzium in Kilsyth.  The third son, Charles, was educated at Eton and Oxford and inherited the title.

The fourth son, Neil Benjamin (1765-1841) was an expert linguist and rose to prominence in the East India Company as one of its directors and also served on the Supreme Council of Bengal.   He married Charlotte Friel but also had several Anglo-Indian children who were educated in Scotland by a friend.  They chose the surname Elmore.  His legitimate son, also Neil Benjamin, followed in his father’s footsteps.

Fig.5 Sir Archibald, 3rd Baronet, who restored Duntreath from a ruin
Fig.5 Sir Archibald, 3rd Baronet, who restored Duntreath from a ruin

It was not until 1851 that Charles’s son, Sir Archibald 3rd Baronet (1795-1871), 13th Laird of Duntreath (Fig.5), inherited Duntreath. He devoted his life to its restoration, employing architect Charles Wilson (designer of the Park Circus area of Glasgow) to pull down most of the old ruins to make way for a vast scheme of restoration lasting four decades. During most of this period the family lived at Colzium – now in public ownership with a unique collection of small conifers in the old walled garden.

Fig.6 Duntreath c1850
Fig.6 Duntreath c1850
Fig. 7 Admiral Sir William Edmonstone, 4th Baronet
Fig. 7 Admiral Sir William Edmonstone, 4th Baronet

Sir Archibald died in 1871 and was succeeded by his half-brother Admiral Sir William Edmonstone, 4th Baronet (Fig.7), who married Mary Parsons and whose portrait hangs in the present dining room.   They had one surviving son, Archibald, 5th Baronet, and eight surviving daughters – one of whom, Alice (The Hon. Mrs George Keppel, Fig.8) had two daughters, Violet Trefusis and Sonia Cubitt. 

Alice later became the loyal confidante and mistress of HM King Edward VII, who visited her at Duntreath. They all wrote movingly about the special magic of the place. (The Blane Valley Railway ran through the estate and to facilitate discreet visits by the King on board the Royal Train a halt, which is still slightly evident, was constructed just behind the ornamental lake on the front lawn. There was also an official royal visit to Duntreath in 1909, Fig.9.)  Sonia Cubitt’s grand-daughter is Queen Camilla.

Fig.8 Alice Keppel, sister of the 5th Baronet & close friend of Edward VII
Fig.8 Alice Keppel, sister of the 5th Baronet & close friend of Edward VII
Fig.9. Edward VII’s official visit to Duntreath in 1908.
Fig.9. Edward VII’s official visit to Duntreath in 1909.

The 5th baronet’s eldest son, William George Edmonstone, (Fig.10) born in 1896, was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards in 1914 straight from Eton and was killed on the Somme one month short of his 20th birthday. His father’s poignant portrait of him, which was painted posthumously, hangs at Duntreath. On hearing of his son’s death, Sir Archibald is quoted as saying: “Nothing will ever be the same.”

Fig.10 William George Edmonstone, 1896-1916. (Given the name George after his godfather, King George V.)
Fig.10 William George Edmonstone, 1896-1916. (Given the name George after his godfather, King George V.)

Eddie, the youngest son, survived both world wars in the 9th Lancers and was aide-de-camp to Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India.

The title passed to the 5th Baronet’s second son, also named Archibald but always known as Charlie, who married Gwendolyn, daughter of the American magnate Marshall Field.   A handsome, elegant man, he was a keen sportsman and became the much-respected Master of the Fernie Hunt in Leicestershire, Fig11.

Fig.11 Sir Charles, 6th Baronet
Fig.11 Sir Charles, 6th Baronet

They had six children – Mary (Lady McGrigor), Fiona (Buchanan Jardine/Cameron Rose), Archibald, Angus (who died aged one of a heart condition), Susan (Erskine) and Sibylla (1943-1986).

Fig.12 (l to r) Susan, Fiona, Archie, Sibylla & Mary, 1944.
Fig.12 (l to r) Susan, Fiona, Archie, Sibylla & Mary, 1944.

Their son, Archibald, current Laird (the 17th) and 7th Baronet, inherited the estate aged 21 after the deaths of both his grandfather and father in 1954.   Faced with twofold death duties and the cost of future maintenance of such a large house, he made the difficult but realistic decision to remove approximately two thirds of the building, leaving the original tower freestanding and converting a remaining wing into the family home (Figs.13&14). The magnificent library (Fig. 15) was partitioned at one end to create the master bedroom and the adjoining morning room at the other end became what is now the dining room.

Fig.13 BEFORE Duntreath in the early 20th century in a hand-tinted postcard
Fig.13 BEFORE Duntreath in the early 20th century in a hand-tinted postcard
 In the 1911 Census, Duntreath is recorded as having 42 rooms with at least one window.
Fig.14 AFTER Duntreath following demolition of about two-thirds of the building
Fig.14 AFTER Duntreath following demolition of about two-thirds of the building
Fig. 15 The Library as it is today
Fig. 15 The Library as it is today

In 1957 Archibald married Jane, daughter of Maj. General Edward Colville (Gordon Highlanders) and Joan Denny.   They had three children: Philippa, Edward and Nicholas.  The marriage was dissolved. In 1969 he married Juliet, daughter of Maj. General Peter Deakin (Grenadier Guards) and Evelyn Grant of Monymusk and had two children, Dru and Elyssa.

Fig.16 Sir Archie & Lady Edmonstone at the family gathering for Archie’s 80th birthday
Fig.16 Sir Archie & Lady Edmonstone at the family gathering for Archie’s 80th birthday

In 1967 a road (the AE I) was constructed leading from the large lake up to Arlehaven Cottage and in 1973 another (the AE II) up the Machar Glen from Lettre Farm steadings to the Little Mount.   In the late 1980s two more lakes were added to the lake down the old front drive to create a landscaped chain.

In 1970 a wood at the foot of the main lawn was felled to create an ornamental lake and so began the development of a 10-acre garden.   Over the years important hard landscaping has been added to create the skeleton of the garden.   Namely – the rose parterre, fountain and balustrading, the front terrace and steps, the lake arbour and the long terraced gardens above the side lawn. Two extensive gardens, known as the Waterfall Gardens, have been hollowed out of the woods on either side of the front drive.  The King’s Walk at the bottom of the Lower Waterfall Garden has been left untouched. 

During the 1970’s the house was redecorated and new bathrooms installed.  The Tower Room in the keep was cleared of rubble and is now a Banqueting Hall.  In 1994 the ground floor nurseries, boiler room and small kitchen were amalgamated into one large living space called the Morning Room.  In 2019, the plasterwork ceiling in the chapel collapsed under the accumulated weight of honey from a hitherto unsuspected colony of bees inside the roof timbers.   During restoration the existing window behind the altar was left revealed and crimson damask curtains added.

Fig. 17
Fig. 17

The arms of Duntreath have three ‘crescent gules’ (yellow with red crescents) and are differentiated from others by a border of double tressure flory counterflory gules, Fig 17. This is normally restricted to royalty and would have been granted in recognition of the marriage to the Princess Mary. There are also references to a marriage to Princess Isabella. The motto, “Virtus Auget Honorem”, translates as “Virtue Increases Honour”.

Sir Archie and Lady Edmonstone
Fig. 18 Sir Archie and Lady Edmonstone
Fig 19. The keep at Duntreath dates from the 15th century
Fig 19. The keep at Duntreath dates from the 15th century

Modern photographs courtesy of Mark and Martin Shields. Text copyright©Juliet Edmonstone


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