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Kinneil House and Grounds: from Roman Fortlet to Renaissance Country Palace

As is often the case with historic houses in Scotland, it’s the women that have provided influence, guidance, and sometimes even safety. Using the word ‘safety’ might seem like an odd choice, but I use it in the sense that many women have made sure that the historic and grand homes survived through actions guided by intelligence and cautiousness.

This was certainly the case with Kinneil House- the country home of the Hamiltons. While there are notable men who have made their mark at Kinneil House- it’s one woman who particularly stood out to me when I recently visited the House- Anne, Duchess of Hamilton. In fact, much of how we see Kinneil House today was due to the renovations and work done by Duchess Anne and her husband- William Douglas, Earl of Selkirk- in the late 1500s.

Looking at the photo at the top of this article, you can see a door that was once the entrance to the main part of the House. Now, upon entering this doorway, you would expect to see a grand home as the Hamiltons would have created in the late 16th century. However, I’m deeply saddened to say that this section of Kinneil House was completely gutted by the local council in the 1930s.

In fact, they we were working on demolishing the entire House during this time period. Fortunately, this didn’t happen and perhaps we can thank Duchess Anne for this (albeit in a rather indirect way). You see, while they were preparing the House for demolition, workers came across rooms that had exquisite Renaissance wall paintings (dating to the 1550s and 1620s) behind wood panelling that Duchess Anne had put in during her time.

Now, at first, I thought that was a strange thing for her to do, but I suppose everyone has their specific tastes and preferences when redecorating their home. Perhaps biblical scenes painted on the walls and ceiling weren’t of interest to her. Regardless of the reason why, the walls were probably preserved and in the relatively good condition they are in today because they were protected over the centuries by the wood panelling. Sit tight because we’ll come back to these wall paintings in just a bit.

I want to mention that we can also thank Duchess Anne for her perseverance at making sure her husband did not lose Kinneil House due to his penchant for gambling. This is what I was alluding to at the beginning of this post- I’m definitely thankful for her intelligence and cautiousness!

I realise that I’ve jumped around historically quite a bit and it might be wise to stop and take a wee step back to better situate Kinneil House with more historical context. As I mentioned earlier, the House was once the country home of the Hamiltons. According to Historic Scotland, “Robert Bruce gave the estate to Walter fitz Gilbert de Hambledon for his support at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It remained with Walter’s family for the next 600 years”.

Before Duchess Anne had the more modern looking palace added- there would have been a large 15th century tower house. An adjacent palace was added in the 1550s by James, 2nd Earl of Arran. Long-time readers of the blog might recognise this name. The 2nd Earl of Arran is often known as ‘Regent Arran’ as he was the regent for Mary Queen of Scots before her mother, Marie de Guise, took over that role.

We now move into the parts of the House that are still somewhat preserved. Regent Arran had his private chamber- now known as ‘the Parable Room’- decorated around 1553. Historic Scotland points out that they have the “appearance of a collection of large tapestry cartoons, each one related to the surface of the wall it was painted on”.

If you look carefully at the photos above, you might be able to see that they look incomplete. This was most likely due to Regent Arran’s resignation from power in 1554. Despite their incompleteness, you can still make out that the paintings illustrate the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The ceiling of The Parable Room

We then move into what would have been Regent Arran’s bedchamber, but is now known as ‘the Arbour Room’. According to Historic Scotland, “the upper parts of the walls and the west half of the ceiling were the work of Regent Arran”. The paintings consist of “leaves and blossoms, inhabited by birds and animals, growing from a band of foliage. The foliage sweeps around a series of roundels”. The roundels have biblical scenes such as Samson and Delilah as well as heraldic displays including the arms of Regent Arran and his Countess.

Historic Scotland goes on to further explain that, “the lower parts of the walls and the east half of the ceiling, including the central armorial panel, are the product of the 2nd Marquis’s redecoration in the 1620s. This was more architectural in flavour, with the lower surfaces painted to represent panelled oak wainscot and the upper parts resembling enriched plasterwork”.

As a person who has had a lifelong fascination with archaeology, it is always fun to see what treasures an Historic Scotland site has on display...and the Kinneil House did not disappoint. Situated on the ground floor, among other archaeological artefacts, is the ‘Kinneil Cross’ or ‘Kinneil Rood’ which “belongs to a rare class of sculpture known as rood crosses”. It bears a representation of Christ on the cross.

The Cross came from the 12th century Kinneil Church. However, while the Church was 12th century, Historic Scotland points out that it is possible that the Kinneil Cross dates to even earlier- to the 11th century (it cannot be definitively dated at this point) as there is archaeological evidence on-site that there was a structure that predates the Church. Nevertheless, what is crucial to point out is that it is “extremely rare to find early medieval crucifixions in stone in Scotland such as depicted on the Kinneil Cross”. Furthermore, Kinneil Cross is the only known example from Scotland of a rood cross!

Unfortunately, the Kinneil Cross was horribly defaced during the Scottish Reformation. Historic Scotland states that, “it has suffered considerable damage, including a defacing of the Christ figure leaving only its outline and the sides of the deeply-cut ribs above the waist, and the remains of the legs and feet, indicating he was wearing a long kilt”.

Close up image of the Kinneil Cross or Kinneil Rood

While it has been fun admiring the treasures of Kinneil House, I think it is time we step out for some fresh air, as well as a few fun historical surprises around the grounds. Our resident canine tour guide, Sawyer, will assist on this ‘explore and discover’ mission.

Situated to the rear of Kinneil House is the ruins of a small building. However, this wasn’t just any old building- it was the workshop of James Watt and was where he began to build his first full-scale steam engine in 1769.

Yet, this isn’t the only historical highlight of the grounds- let’s keep walking to see what else we can find. Do you see those ruins that surround Sawyer below? Well, those rather unassuming rocks are all that is left of the Antonine Wall- once the Roman Empire’s most northerly border (we’ve also written about another location on the Antonine Wall in our post on Callendar House and Park).

Attached to the Wall would have been a Roman Fortlet. “Fortlets such as this lay at mile intervals along the Wall. They provided access through the Wall and were manned by about 30 men acting as customs officials”.

You can find a model of what the Antonine Wall and forlet at the Kinneil Museum. The Museum is separate from the House (and not run by Historic Scotland), but is the perfect complement to your visit to Kinneil House. Therfore, we highly recommend that you stop in and check out the fascinating artefacts on display relating to Kinneil House, the grounds, and the town of Bo’ness (where the House is located). Kinneil Estate and Museum is run by the Falkirk Council and you can find more information on their website.

Do you remember the 12th century church I mentioned earlier? Well, the ruins of it are located on the Kinneil House grounds. There isn’t much left, but that doesn’t take away from its important historical and archaeological significance. If we follow Sawyer’s magnificent fluffy tail, you can see that he’s leading us to the surviving west gable of the church with its double belfry.

The grounds all around Kinneil Estate are simply stunning. However, what you can’t tell in the photo below is that the mama swan was hissing at Sawyer to let him know to keep his distance from her babies. Poor Sawyer just looked at her in confusion as he wouldn’t hurt a fly!

Well, that brings our exploration of Kinneil House and grounds to a close. We highly recommend you visit due to its historical significance, artefacts, and the fact that it has some of the best-preserved Renaissance wall paintings in all of Scotland! Please note that the grounds are open year-round, but the house is only open to tours from 1 April to 30 September. Be sure to go to the Historic Scotland website for the most up-to-date information on how to best plan your visit.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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