Scotland Sublime: Great Houses & Gardens of the Scottish Borders

There’s nothing quite like the Scottish Borders. You can experience some of the most breathtaking places in this special part of the world in a webinar—part travelogue, part virtual tour—that highlights American Ancestor’s 2015 tour to the Borders. Curt presented the webinar online in April of 2022 for the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Click here to the watch the presentation on YouTube. 


Floors Castle, Melrose Abbey, Abbotsford, Traquair House & Ferniehirst Castle

Scotland! The name conjures up visions of misty heather punctuated by divine, art-filled country houses, historic buildings, and yards of tartan. And it’s all true! During June of 2015, based at The Roxburghe Hotel on the Duke of Roxburghe’s Floors Castle Estate, we experienced some of the greatest art and architecture of this small, but hugely influential and amazing country.

We began with an evening visit to Floors, the largest inhabited castle in Scotland, where we were welcomed with drinks hosted by the 10th Duke of Roxburghe, whose family has been seated here since the house was built in the early 18th century. Floors is noted for its outstanding collections of tapestries, French 17th and 18th century furniture, Chinese and European porcelain, silver, and one of the celebrated series of Savonnerie carpets commissioned by Louis XIV for the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre.

St. Mary’s Abbey, Melrose, is a partially-ruined monastery founded in 1136 by Cistercian monks at the request of King David I of Scotland; it was the chief house of that order in Scotland until the Reformation. The abbey, built in the Gothic style in the form of a St. John’s Cross, is 258 feet long, 137 feet wide, and 943 feet in circumference. Here we had a curatorial-led tour of one of the Scotland’s most remarkable monasteries, today owned by Historic Environment Scotland.

In 1822, using income from his extraordinarily successful books, Walter Scott built Abbotsford. Possibly the most famous house in the country, the Scottish Baronial style home became a place of pilgrimage during Scott’s lifetime, something that has never abated. Here we had a before-hours tour of many treasures, including Scott’s breathtaking 9,000-volume library.

Continually occupied for over 10 centuries, Traquair is the oldest inhabited house in Scotland and the originator of the Scottish Baronial style. Originally a 12th century hunting lodge of Scottish kings, Traquair House was added to over the centuries, reaching its final form in the 17th century. The house is particularly rich in collections associated with the Catholic Church in Scotland, Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Jacobite Risings. Here Laird Catherine Maxwell-Stuart gave us an amazing history-filled tour of her ancestral home, followed by a lovely locally-sourced lunch.

The seat of Clan Kerr, ancient wardens of the Middle and East Marches, Ferniehirst Castle is an L-shaped house on the east bank of the Jed Water. The castle, known as “Scotland’s frontier fortress,” is one of the best-preserved of a distinctive group of mansion houses erected by wealthy Border lairds during the late 16th century. Here we had a grand dinner in the great hall and celebrated the amber nectar (scotch).

Mellerstain House, Thirlestane Castle & Paxton House

Frequently cited as one of the finest examples of Georgian design in Scotland, Mellerstain House is a tour-de-force of the work of Robert Adam, especially his library, considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Neoclassical decoration and color in Britain. The estate of Mellerstain was granted by royal charter to George Baillie of Jerviswood in 1642. In the 18th century George Baillie commissioned the design of the current house; his descendant, the 13th Earl of Haddington, opened his historic house just for us for a tour that produced repeated gasps of delight.

Thirlestane Castle is possibly the most Scottish of historic houses. The house, as seen today, was built in the 1670s by John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale, one of the most important and powerful Scots of the 17th century. A favorite of King Charles II, the duke ruled Scotland with an iron hand in the king’s name; as such, he felt he needed a house that reflected his exalted status, thus were born Thirlestane’s lavish interiors, grand staterooms, and magnificent Restoration plasterwork ceilings, the latter considered the finest in existence. Edward Maitland-Carew welcomed us to his family’s home, where we were given a private tour before the house opened to the public.

Sited overlooking the River Tweed, Paxton House is considered one of the finest examples of an 18th century Palladian country house in Britain and one of the few houses on which all three Adam brothers were probably involved. The house contains the preeminent Scottish collection of Chippendale furniture and a magnificent collection of Regency furniture by William Trotter of Edinburgh, all in their original room settings. The picture gallery, one of Scotland’s most dramatic interiors, serves as an outstation of the National Galleries of Scotland and has over seventy 18th and 19th century paintings on display, including works by Raeburn, Reynolds, and Naysmith. We were given a curatorial-led tour of this exceptional house before it opened to the public.


Traquair House | Photo by Curt DiCamillo


Scotland has it all -- history, art, architecture, surprisingly good food, and wonderfully friendly natives!

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Arthur Lodge & the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Founded in 1882, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is the second-oldest national portrait gallery in the world (London’s was first). This world-class Edinburgh museum contains 3,000 paintings and sculptures, 25,000 prints and drawings, and 38,000 photographs that document the people and history of Scotland. The collection is housed in a Scottish red sandstone building that is a stylistic combination of Arts and Crafts, 13th century Gothic, and the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Here we had a curatorial-led tour of one of the world’s most luscious small museums.

One arrives at the divine Arthur Lodge through the barrel-vaulted marble staircase, after which the theatrical Greek Revival house, with its painted dome and mirrored cornice entrance hall, reveals itself completely. This charming classical villa, frequently called “one of Edinburgh’s best kept secrets,” was part of Scotland’s first villa development (very likely based on the Regent Park villas in London). We were extraordinarily lucky to be hosted by the owners of this private house (never open to the public), who gave us a leisurely tour filled with yummy cakes, champagne, and elderflower cordial.

According to legend, King David I founded the Palace of Holyroodhouse as an Augustinian monastery in 1128. In 1501 King James IV built a palace for himself and his bride, Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII), on the site of Holyroodhouse; only a fragment of the gatehouse from that palace remains today. Holyroodhouse is the queen’s official residence in Scotland; the palace sits at the end of the Royal Mile, surrounded by beautiful grounds and Arthur’s Seat. Here we had a private after-hours tour of the palace that ended with champagne and glorious art at the Queen’s Gallery.


I thought I was well-informed about historic Scottish houses before I went on this tour, but I was wrong! The staircase at Preston Hall, a house I'd never heard of, was one of the most impressive spaces I've ever seen!

Preston Hall | Photo by Curt DiCamillo

Lennoxlove House, Preston Hall & Arniston House

Described by Historic Scotland as “one of Scotland’s most ancient and notable houses,” Lennoxlove House has, at its core, a 15th century tower house that has been altered and added to many times during the 17th, 19th, and 20th centuries. In 1947 the 14th Duke of Hamilton, the premier peer of Scotland, purchased Lennoxlove and the house remains the seat today of his grandson, the 16th Duke. On a glorious Scottish day the doors of Lennoxlove were thrown open exclusively for us, allowing us to experience one of Scotland’s most important collections of portraits, including works by Canaletto, van Dyck, Lely, Kneller, and Raeburn, all set in historic interiors filled with touchstones of Scottish history.

Alexander Callander came home to Scotland in 1786 from India a rich man. Like so many before and after him, Callander felt that he needed a house that reflected his new status, so he hired Robert Mitchell to design Preston Hall. The classical style house that Mitchell produced is considered the best work of his career: a house of seven bays with balustraded and domed pavilions (inspired by Robert Adam’s Register House in Edinburgh). The most impressive interior is the staircase hall, which features, as lusciously described by Colin McWilliam in The Buildings of Scotland: Lothian, an “Oval dome in pendentives, with top lantern, a panelled segmental vault at each end; beneath them on all four sides an opening with composite columns in antis, and four life sized figures on Coade stone (each one different) bearing lamps.”

Originally a royal hunting park in the Middle Ages, what is today the Arniston estate was later owned by the Knights Templar, who gave the nearby village of Temple its name. In 1571 George Dundas purchased Arniston, and the estate has remained in the family ever since. The current Arniston House was built in the early 18th century to the designs of William Adam (father of the more famous Robert Adam) and is noted for its superb molded ceilings, fireplaces, and stucco work. Althea Dundas-Bekker, the current generation’s owner, hosted us for tea, biscuits, and a private tour.

Little Sparta, Bowhill House & Dalmeny House

Little Sparta, a five-acre Arcadian garden in the Pentland Hills, was created in 1966 by artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay and his wife, Sue Finlay. Over their 23-year collaboration, Ian and Sue established Little Sparta as an internationally renowned composition, a combination of avant-garde garden design, Scottish wit and whimsy, all set within the tradition of the English landscape garden. On a stunning Scottish afternoon we were given a tour of this amazing garden, opened just for us, by the head gardener and his adorable dog.

One of Britain’s great treasure houses, Bowhill, ancestral seat of the dukes of Buccleuch, boasts an outstanding collection of art, most of which King Charles II gave to his illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch. The collection includes three great tapestries depicting the triumphs of Julius Caesar, woven from Mantegna’s cartoons at Hampton Court Palace, and paintings by Guardi, Claude, Ruysdael, Gainsborough, Raeburn, van Dyck, and Wilkie, with particular standouts being Reynolds’s Pink Boy and Canaletto’s view of Whitehall. Bowhill House was opened exclusively for us for a magnificent tour, followed by a home-cooked lunch in the grand dining room surrounded by jaw-dropping silver.

Dalmeny House, the first house in Scotland to be built in the Tudor Revival style, has one the largest collections in the world of Napoleonic memorabilia, in addition to paintings by Gainsborough, Raeburn, Reynolds, Lawrence, and the Rothschild collection of 18th century French furniture and porcelain — another treasure house! The 4th Earl of Rosebery employed his Cambridge classmate, William Wilkins (most famous today as the architect of the National Gallery, London), to build his new house. Completed in 1817, Dalmeny was based on the 16th century East Barsham Manor in Norfolk and is today home of the 7th Earl and his wife, who welcomed us for an exclusive tour that ended with coffee and tea overlooking the Firth of Forth.


One amazing historic house after another and more world-class museums than I could have ever imagined. This tour showed me that Scotland has all of this, and much more!