I headed down the A76 to Dumfries House, south of Glasgow, by royal command. A couple of months earlier, when we’d met at the newly repaired Shobdon Church in Herefordshire, the Prince of Wales had spot-checked me. At least, he put me on the spot to check whether I’d seen his flagship project. This came just before he graciously accepted patronage of the World Monuments Fund’s 50th anniversary celebrations. As the director of the British office, I made a fumbling admission that I needed to find out more. I’m genuinely glad I did.

Dumfries House is signposted off the main road two miles west of Cumnock, a former coal-mining town with 16 per cent unemployment, which according to Strathclyde University, “suffers from social deprivation and widespread degradation of the built environment and associated infrastructure”. Within minutes came the entrance gate, and an avenue through sun-dappled woodland with rhododendrons fit for Barbara Cartland’s boudoir to one of the UK’s greatest monuments of artistic collaboration.

At first glance, the great symmetrical mass of the sandstone mansion seems a typical embodiment of the vast wealth that enabled much of the 18th-century aristocracy to create private estates. Its rolling hills and finely chiselled architraves seem a million miles from urban deprivation.

Dumfries House map

Since The Prince took on its cause in 2007, founding The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust, the estate’s rebirth has created a stir on a scale unseen since the house was built 250 years ago. It is thick with diggers, turf-layers, hedge-planters, builders, cooks and shop staff. Working estates have always offered employment from the purses of the privileged. Yet making trust-held assets economically self-sufficient is the challenge in the 21st century. On one level, it is common for great houses to have become pleasure palaces, enjoyed by thousands of National Trust members. However, Dumfries House is unusual. The project is going beyond mere restoration for the sake of recapturing an authentic beauty to not only teach crafts but generate businesses to support that skilled employment and help lift the area out of the doldrums. It represents cultural aspiration on a grand, almost Olympic scale.

Charlotte Rostek, the curator of Dumfries House, took me to the tea room, lined with Vivienne Westwood wallpaper of funky pink diagonal tartan, a past reversioned for the present. She is a storyteller; part of her interview for the job in 2007 was to sell Dumfries to a coach tour company, and she was unswerving.

A corridor at Dumfries House
A corridor at Dumfries House (Photograph: Robert Ormerod) © Robert Ormerod

Every great house has a central story, a leading character, some star exhibits and sometimes a saviour. Dumfries is no exception, but its cast is exceptional. What it is not, Rostek reveals, is what everyone at first assumed it was – a time capsule that had miraculously remained intact, as she would explain later.

Visitors learn of the history of Dumfries House through guided tours, which start from a panelled room in a late 19th-century extended wing. A model of a sailfish arcs over the door, with charming inappropriateness. “That will be leaving soon,” Rostek says. The occasional absurdity can offset formality with character, but Dumfries’ story offers plenty of colour beyond sailfish silver.

This grand Palladian house, guests are told, was built for William Dalrymple-Crichton, 5th Earl of Dumfries. Dalrymple-Crichton was born in 1699 and as a young boy he learnt that the Act of Union had been effected on May 1 1707 to bind England and Scotland into a United Kingdom. He served in the new nation’s army from 1721-47, and inherited his earldom in 1742. However, the year after he fought in battle at Dettingen, tragedy struck when his only child – a son – died aged nine in 1744.

The idea of building a new house on the estate that his mother bequeathed is first recorded in 1748, when he retired from military service. Dumfries was a glorious situation in which to settle down, but by its green fields sat the family’s dull plumage, the ancestral pile called Leifnorris.

Dalrymple-Crichton received the advice of the Anglo-Irish “Apollo of the arts” Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, the national promoter-in-chief of Palladian architecture. The restraint of Dumfries House may have been encouraged by his example. Yet the earl had noted the early rise of some notable designers: the Adam brothers from Edinburgh, John and Robert. In 1754, 26-year-old Robert Adam produced the design drawings for Dumfries as his first major commission. By then the earl was 55. The foundation stone was laid to musical accompaniment on July 18, when toasts were drunk to the royal family, and gifts presented to the workmen, a gentle custom long forgotten, it seems. The year after it began, his wife, Lady Anne Gordon, died.

“He was a bit of a bully, a man’s man,” says Rostek. “But he wrote poetry, and put his house together with great aesthetic sense. His wife died – so he kept his own counsel for the decoration. It’s a romantic notion.”

A flowerpot man
A flowerpot man (Photograph: Robert Ormerod) © Robert Ormerod

The house was transformed, with silks bright as a peacock’s fan: Dalrymple-Crichton would attract a bride to his Enlightenment-era home, with a second chance at an heir. If all went to plan, that is. Robert Adam left for his grand tour, and his brother John supervised until the completion in 1758. By then, the earl was almost 60.

Once Adam had returned from his grand tour to Florence, Rome, and Spalato, he was a metropolitan man in demand. Yet he kept one eye on furnishing the first great house he had designed at Dumfries, writing to the earl that “I have seen a thousand things in London today that would tempt an angel and would answer your house most charmingly”. Perhaps the work of Thomas Chippendale (1718-79) featured among them, as the two men certainly collaborated.

Dumfries is visited by Chippendale aficionados to see the most extensive survival of his early work. “They bring knee pads and torches,” says Rostek, gesturing to mahogany chairs reupholstered in silk from the looms of Humphries of Sudbury, Suffolk.

Chippendale’s greatest piece of work at Dumfries is the earl’s magnificent bed, its restored blue silk drapes and cornice set against deep mahogany posts that are fluted with expensively tricky spiral garlands. This was the inner sanctum of the 5th Earl of Dumfries’ love nest for his new bride, Anne Duff, whom he married on June 19 1762. Its splendour conveyed the promise of children in an age that chose elegance over superstitious fertility symbols, with the exception of the scallop shell from which Venus was born. As it turned out, the shell was empty.

When the earl died in 1768, his house passed to his nephew Patrick McDouall; thereafter, the marquesses of Bute kept the old-fashioned rococo-era furniture. It was the rare combination of the architecture and its en-suite Chippendale pieces that persuaded The Prince to step in with a consortium of charities, government bodies and philanthropists, when the estate was put up for sale in 2007. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, also supported it – this was, after all, a king-in-waiting’s show of responsibility to the welfare of his kingdom. The National Trust for Scotland expressed an interest, but the cost unseated it. A total of £45m had to be raised, or the collection would be scattered, and the house could become a private realm. Perhaps even a corporate headquarters. With minutes to spare, The Prince borrowed £20m from his charities to stop the sale. It was a controversial decision. And in hindsight it seems a brave risk, well taken.

I ask Rostek why it was not the time capsule everyone thought just seven years ago? “It turns out that the house and the furniture were redecorated, reupholstered and rearranged about once a century.” The collection had struck the fine line between being appreciated enough to be maintained until the Victorian Chippendale revival valued it anew, while it was underused enough not to wreck it. This much was clear when the gilding on the ceilings was found to be Victorian, as was the paint on the bed cornice, daubed in lieu of sun-shredded silk. In the 1950s another rush of blood cast the Pink Dining Room’s eponymous rosiness. The Venetian chandelier recalls the ancient temples of Baalbek, surrounded by early Pompeian red and black Wedgwood. It is a confection of Mediterranean flavours – a sanctuary in a Scottish winter.

“What you see is pretty much what we have,” says Rostek. “There’s very little display material in store.”

As we drove around the estate, the grounds were like a film set in construction. A new hotel extended seamlessly from an old farmhouse capable of hosting the 30 wedding parties already booked for 2015. Following the mill, woodyard and cookshop lay the Tamar Manoukian Outdoor Centre, a sponsored residence for 50 young people to explore the great outdoors.

Past three houses with pending slate roofs, a landscape garden was spread over a valley slope, punctuated by the roofs of gazebos. The Prince and his charities encourage trainees to attend retreats and construct the best annual design. If only all architecture schools taught the practicalities of traditional materials before the aesthetics of social engineering, we might enhance places and even find the next Chippendale. Yet by the time we reached the training allotments for gardeners (turn left past the biomass boiler), it was already clear that Dumfries House is making the UK a slightly better country.

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain


Sarah-Jane Clark – chef apprentice

Sarah-Jane Clark
Sarah-Jane Clark (Photograph: Robert Ormerod) © Robert Ormerod

When Sarah-Jane Clark was offered a two-year chef apprenticeship at Dumfries House, she burst into tears, writes Mure Dickie. “I thought: ‘Dumfries House is wanting me’,” she says.

The offer came at the end of a training course that Clark, 23, had already been relishing – particularly a work placement where she helped to cater for 1,000 people at Ayr Racecourse.

Clark had not done well at academic studies at school and had never landed a long-term job, but kitchen work plays to her practical, hands-on skills. She speaks with engaging enthusiasm about mastering the challenge of preparing meats, ranging from hare to pheasant.

“I thoroughly enjoy that. I like to gut and pluck and skin,” she says. “A couple of months ago I got my first shot at skinning a deer.”

In the future Clark hopes to realise a childhood dream of travel, and hopes to work in London and later perhaps France or Italy. She says she is far more confident now than when she started the training course. “I don’t think I would be anywhere near my ambitions if it wasn’t for Dumfries House,” she says. “It’s probably been the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

Stuart Banks – house butler

Stuart Banks
Stuart Banks (Photograph: Robert Ormerod) © Robert Ormerod

Stuart Banks did not have high expectations when jobcentre staff offered him the chance to join a hospitality training course at Dumfries House last year. He had few skills and little job experience beyond a string of temporary contracts, mainly in call centres.

“I went along expecting just to get a couple of little job qualifications and then be back on the broo again,” says Banks, 24, using a Scots expression for unemployment benefit.

Yet Banks, whose childhood had been clouded by the suicide of his father, says the Dumfries House experience turned out to be transformative.

“I loved it,” he says. “For once I had people . . . trying to pull strings for me and trying to help me grow as a person . . . It did really inspire me.” Banks was offered a job in the kitchen of the hotel where he had been placed for work experience but instead accepted a role organising hospitality at Dumfries House itself. Four months ago, he was promoted to house butler, looking after guests and in charge of catering for “the boss” – The Prince of Wales – when he visits.

In the future, he hopes to apply his skills in other royal residences in England or perhaps to seek managerial roles. “I’ve got a new way of doing things,” he says.

Mure Dickie is the FT’s Scotland correspondent

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