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A Tour of Traquair House: Scotland’s Oldest Inhabited House

This week we continue with part two of our series on Traquair House and grounds. Last week, we highlighted their spectacular Traquair Medieval Fayre. We now venture into the house to take in the grandeur of its architecture and history, as well as admire antiques, artwork, and other treasures that have been collected over the centuries. Lastly, we reveal some of the stunning beauty of the surrounding grounds and countryside.

This article hits on some of the major romantic highlights of Scottish history, and the stories that took place at Traquair House are positively legendary! We will uncover tales such as a visit from one of the most famous women in history, Mary Queen of Scots, Jacobite rebellions, an escape from the Tower of London, and secret rooms and staircases in the house to hide priests and Catholic worship. So, buckle up and hold on tight- this is going to quite an amazing historical journey!

Brief History of the Stuarts of Traquair

Traquair House is a historic mansion located in the beautiful Scottish Borders region. With its rich history spanning over 900 years, it is Scotland’s oldest inhabited house. The house was originally built as a hunting lodge for Scottish royalty (from around 1100 to 1491). Later, it was a tower house before it transformed into the mansion we see today.

Traquair House was a favourite destination for many Scottish monarchs, and, in 1566, Mary Queen of Scots visited. She was welcomed with great ceremony by the Laird of Traquair and his family (who also had the family name of ‘Stuart’). She was accompanied by her husband, Lord Darnley, and their 3-month-old infant, James.

During her stay, Mary was given the opportunity to hunt in the surrounding forests. While she was an avid hunter and usually enjoyed the freedom of the outdoors, she didn’t want to hunt on this occasion as she thought she was pregnant and wasn’t feeling well. However, her husband, Lord Darnley, didn’t seem to care about his wife’s health and, according to Traquair House, he crassly commented, “Never mind, if we lose this one, we can make another!” Interestingly, “Sir John [the 4th Laird of Traquair], who was the Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard, told him to treat his wife with more respect; a brave move with a bore like Darnley” (if you want to get a bit more insight into the kind of despicable man Darnley was, check out our article on Mary at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and his demise in our post on Craigmillar Castle).

The family’s loyalty to the Stuart royal family and dynasty continued on long after Mary’s visit to Traquair House. In fact, the family were avid supporters of the Jacobite cause- which sought to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne after they were forced out during the so-called 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. In a nutshell- anti-Catholics in England didn't want the Stuarts to establish a Catholic royal dynasty. Therefore, the English political elite ousted the rightful King James VII and instead put his Protestant daugther, Mary, along with her Dutch husband, William of Orange, on the throne. Many Jacobites saw themselves as defenders of an older, more noble form of monarchy, one that was rooted in tradition and the divine right of kings (not to mention trying to overturn a clear injustice).

Regarding the House of Traquair, the 4th Earl of Traquair and his wife, Lady Mary Maxwell, were strong “Jacobite sympathisers” and were “determined to support the 1715 Uprising”. Unfortunately, Lady Mary’s brother, William, was captured while fighting with the Jacobite army and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. His wife, Winifred, tried to get a pardon for her husband but was unsuccessful. However, she didn’t let that stop her. That amazing woman rode to London, and devised a plan to rescue her husband the night before his scheduled execution. When she arrived at the Tower of London, she had her husband dress up as her maidservant and smuggled him out. Fortunately, her bravery was rewarded and she and her husband successfully escaped and fled to France where they lived with the exiled Stuart royal court.

Charles Stuart, the 5th Earl of Traquair, was a Jacobite supporter like his father. He installed the Bear Gates in 1738 along the old avenue. As the legend goes, six years later he closed them in a gesture of support after a visit by Prince Charles Edward Stuart (better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) and swore they would not be opened again until a Stuart king was restored to the throne. However, the Jacobite rising of 1745 was eventually crushed by the British army, and many Jacobite supporters were executed or exiled. The gates remain closed to this day.

Nevertheless, I think it is important to point out that the romanticism of the Jacobite cause has endured over the centuries, and its legacy can still be seen in everything from poetry of Robert Burns to the hit television show, Outlander. Though the Stuarts may never return to the throne, their memory lives on in the hearts of those who continue to admire their bravery, their loyalty, and their determination to fight for what they believed in. Therefore, I admire those in the House of Traquair who stood strong in their beliefs- even though it eventually led to tragic consequences for the family.

Tour of the House

We’ll cover a bit more of the history of Traquair, but let’s do so as we explore the house. As soon as you step into the Entrance Hall, you come face to face with a reminder of the family’s connection to Mary Queen of Scots as there is an armorial in oak of the Royal Arms of Scotland, which was presented by Mary during her visit in 1566. At the same time, visitors are also reminded of her tragic demise with a framed copy of the warrant for her execution in 1587 signed by Elizabeth I of England.

Just off of the Entrance Hall is the Still Room. Originally, in the 1700s, this room was known as the Garden Parlour. However, the room was partitioned in the 1800s and it became the housekeeper’s room.

As we continue our tour of the house and make our way upstairs to the first floor, we need to take our time so we don’t miss anything as there are so many incredibly detailed works of art- whether it be in the traditional painted form or even a exquisitely carved door.

We are now entering the High Drawing Room which would have looked very different when it was first added onto the house in the late 1500s. “The ceiling was covered entirely with painted beams, a typical Scottish form of decoration at that time, and the plastered walls were decorated with wall paintings”. However, after the fifth Earl of Traquair made his grand tour of Europe, he decided to renovate the room as you see it today with a more classical style that was popular at that time.

They rediscovered the old beams when carrying out repairs in 1954, but they decided to only expose a small section (pictured below) as it remained in good condition. If you would like to see more examples of the wall paintings that were popular in the 1500s, check out our post on Kinneil House. You can also see more painted beams and ceilings in our articles on The John Knox House and The Museum of Edinburgh.

Part of our tour includes explorations of the oldest part of Traquair House which were part of the original royal hunting lodge (dating back to the 12th century) and subsequent tower house. This part of the house was partitioned and divided into rooms in the 1700s including the Dressing Room and the King’s Room. Our first stop is the Dressing Room which is arranged to show domestic life ranging from the 1800s-1900s. According to Traquair House, the first bathroom with running water wasn’t installed until the 1920s and electricity didn’t come about until the 1950s.

If you look closely, to the left of the fireplace, you can see an open wall safe that, when the door is shut, can easily be hidden among the wood panelling. This was due to the fact that the family were Catholics (which was banned in all of the United Kingdom but especially in Scotland after the Reformation). Sit tight because we will return to and expand on this when we get to the top floor of the house.

The King’s Room was originally the main room of the old tower house, and later where Mary Queen of Scots stayed during her 1566 visit with her husband Lord Darnley, and her infant, James (later King James VI). You can see the cradle he slept in. Interestingly, the bed was slept in by Mary Queen of Scots, but in a different house. The family had a home in Terregles, and this bed was brought from that house in the early 1900s.

Situated on the second floor is the Museum Room. Architecturally, the room is a mix of the original part of the tower house and the later additions. Incredibly a wall painting from 1530 was rediscovered under wallpaper in 1900. There are a variety of artefacts on display, but of note are the crucifix, purse, and wallet that all once belonged to Mary Queen of Scots.

For those of you who have a fear of might want to skip the next picture.😂 One of the unique collections at Traquair House is the collection of dolls as well as a fully furnished Georgian doll house. The dolls come from England, Germany, and France and date from the 1840s to the 1900s. They were donated by Mrs. Sarah Peyton who collected the dolls throughout her life and eventually wanted them to find a home in an historic house.

Some of the cosier parts of the house can be found in the First and Second Libraries which were built in the 1700s. Most of the original collection of books in the First Library survived the centuries. Do you see that odd looking reading chair below to the left? It is also from the 1700s and you have to sit on it as if riding on horseback. Long-time readers of the blog might recognise it as we saw another example of one at Lauriston Castle. The Second Library was used as an overflow room for the main library and now has examples from the family’s extensive archives.

We continue our tour of Traquair House with a bit of intrigue and an exploration of secret rooms and passageways! As I mentioned earlier, Catholic worship was strictly prohibited in Scotland after the Protestant Reformation. Penal laws ensured that Catholics could not serve in the government or armed services and were barred from attending universities. Despite this, the Stuarts remained faithful to their religion throughout the centuries. However, as it was illegal and dangerous to be practicing Catholics, the family had to be creative in hiding their faith.

For example, as I mentioned earlier, the hidden wall safe in the Dressing Room would have been a place for the Stuarts of Traquair to hide any objects that might reveal they were still practicing their Catholic faith. As they were Jacobites, the house was often raided and searched by anti-Catholics. Another example of their determination to hide their Catholicism can be found in the on the top floor of the house in the Priest’s Room. Let’s make our way in now to learn a bit more.

This room was used as a secret chapel from the late 1600s until 1829. The priest at Traquair lived in the house, would say mass, and would have also acted as tutor to the family’s children as they also needed to be educated in secret. Remember the First Library? That was also used as a classroom by the priest.

The recess in the wall that is now a cupboard would have been where the altar was hidden. Next to the north window, what looks like a regular bookshelf actually had a false back that opens into a secret staircase where the priest and Jacobite refugees could escape to the ground floor and leave the house undetected when it was being searched.

Standing in the secret staircase, it’s almost as if you can feel the presence of the priest of Traquair as he rushes to escape capture. I can only imagine how frightening it would have been to randomly have your house searched and have to resort to such secrecy just to practice your faith.

If you are looking for a bit more formality, you will be pleased to find it in one of the ‘newer’ wings of the house in the Dining Room (built in 1694). Here you can find an assortment of lovely porcelain dishes, glasses, pewter plates and mugs, as well as silver cutlery from the 1700-1800s.

Adjoining the Dining Room is the Lower Drawing Room.

We now exit this wing of the house and cross the courtyard to find the Roman Catholic chapel. It was created from a former billiard room in 1829 after the Catholic Emancipation Act. Interestingly, it was the only Catholic chapel in the district at that time and worshippers travelled from afar for weddings and christenings (which still take place to this day).

The altar is made of Italian marble and was brought from Genoa in 1870. While you can only see one carved wood panel in the photo above (all the way to the right), there are twelve in total. They are 16th century done in the Flemish style and came to Traquair from the Chapel of Marie de Guise (Mary Queen of Scots’ mother) at Leith.

One fun fact about the Chapel is that it sits on top of the 18th century brew house which is situated directly beneath. It most likely fell out of use in the 1800s, but was rediscovered in 1963 and brewing resumed. I assume that that might make for some interesting smells while you attend mass! Today the brewery produces “around 250,000 bottles and almost 70% of the production is exported to the U.S., Canada, Italy, France, Sweden, Finland, and Japan” (you can also buy it in the Brewery Shop).

The beauty of Traquair doesn’t end with the house as there are over 100 acres of grounds and woods for visitors to explore! Obviously we can only touch upon some of the highlights in this post. Therefore, we highly recommend that you visit in person to get a more encompassing experience. Our Golden Retriever tour guide, Sawyer, will take the tour from here. Enjoy scrolling through the following photos taken around the grounds- including a few sweet memories of our Golden angel, Stirling.

Well, that brings our grand tour of Traquair House and grounds to an end. Overall, it is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in its rich history, stunning beauty, and unique attractions. Traquair House sure has left a lasting impression on us and we are convinced it will do so for all who visit! It is open daily from 1 April to 31 October, but be sure to check their website for the most up to date information on how to best plan your visit (or event).

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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