Country House Rescue: a matter of taste – Monreith House, Galloway

Monreith House, Scotland (Image: Mike Harrison / UK Wildlife Photography)
Monreith House, Scotland (Image: Mike Harrison / UK Wildlife Photography)

Country House Rescue heads from Tapeley Park in Devon to the other end of the country to Monreith House in Galloway, Scotland.  A dignified house, it has suffered from a classic problem for those that inherit, as the current owner Sir Michael Maxwell did in 1987, that: “…to put it politely, my relatives’ expenditure exceeded their income by many times.”. The necessary economies forced on Sir Michael have meant some cut corners which Ruth Watson quickly identifies as hindering his attempts to move upmarket.

The Maxwells of Monreith were certainly aristocratic with their baronetcy granted by Charles II in 1681 and various family members marrying well including the 8th Baronet’s wife, Lady Mary, who was a daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the richest and largest landowners in England. The Maxwells had been based at Myrton Castle since they bought it in 1685, obviously needing a house to match their newly elevated status.

Leuchie House, Scotland (Image: John Small - 1883 / buildings fan on flickr)
Leuchie House, Scotland (Image: John Small - 1883 / buildings fan on flickr)

Monreith House was built in 1791 by Sir William Maxwell, 4th Baronet, to replace Myrton, which was partially demolished to provide building materials for the new one.  The architect was the Edinburgh-based Alexander Stevens, son of a better known Alexander Stevens who specialised in designing and building bridges.  His design at Monreith shows that he was well versed in the Palladian vocabulary but is in contrast to his other principal design; the impressive Raehills in Dumfriesshire, built for the 3rd Earl of Hopetoun in 1786, which is an imitation of Robert Adam‘s castle style.  Monreith shows closer similarities with Leuchie House in Lothian, built for Sir William Dalrymple between 1779-1785, to designs by the little known Alexander Peacock who was also based in Edinburgh.  By the 1790s, the first wave of Palladianism had long ago swept through the country and much provincial design can be traced back to the many architectural pattern books which had been produced.  Stevens’ limited but varied output could indicate he used also used them, though perhaps more competently than most.

The Maxwells of Monreith became one of the most important families in the area with a substantial estate which totalled 17,000-acres.  The house has passed down through the Maxwells, though it never went to the most famous of the family, the writer Gavin Maxwell, heir to the 8th Baronet, Aymer Maxwell, but who died of cancer in 1968.  Gavin’s books were best-sellers, with his most famous being the autobiographical ‘A Bright Ring of Water‘ about his pet otter, the profits of which might have helped the estate but for his profligate ways.  His father also faced financial difficulties and, lacking funds to maintain the house, apparently felt it easier – and cheaper – to let the house deteriorate rather than pay to have it demolished.

When Sir Michael inherited the house from his uncle it was in a seriously neglected state, saying he remembers that “When it rained hard the water would run down the stairs and land in puddles on the floor.”.  Sir Michael had trained as a surveyor so he was able to approach much of the work himself – though this also appears to be part of the problem. One money-making scheme was to convert the top floor into holiday flats but these, and the rest of the house, all show signs of his major flaw – a determination to do things as cheaply as possible leading to various poor choices which compromise his aspirations.

Sir Michael displays an admirable duty towards maintaining the house – a contrast to that displayed initially by Hector Christie of Tapeley Park in the previous episode.  Sir Michael says “It would be too easy if your great-grandfather dropped dead and left you money to end up a drunk in the gutter – so it’s a challenge. Essentially, you’re not given much choice when you inherit a house like this.”.  Thankfully he does appear to want to listen to Ruth Watson’s advice and one hopes that this will put him on the path to a sustainably prosperous future which will ensure the Maxwells remain at Monreith.

Official website: Monreith House, Galloway

Programme website: Country House Rescue: Monreith House [Channel 4]

12 thoughts on “Country House Rescue: a matter of taste – Monreith House, Galloway

  1. jeff Aldridge March 20, 2011 / 15:10

    Thank you so much for offering this post. While it does sting that we are unable to view the episode in the US, it does whet the appetite for what we will, I hope, be able to see when the dvds ultimately become available. We will be visiting Scotland in September and I am wondering if there is a Scottish version of the Historic Houses group which might list old homes offering accomodation. If anyone knows, I would vey much appreciate the information.

  2. Jacqueline Coyle March 20, 2011 / 21:21

    The Landmark Trust is a building preservation charity that rescues historic and architecturally interesting buildings and their surroundings from neglect and then makes them available as holiday accommodation,
    The VivatTrust is a building preservation trust that restores unusual historic buildings for use as self-catering holiday accommodation, have used both of these organisations and have had many happy holidays in interesting and unusual properties.

  3. jeff Aldridge March 20, 2011 / 23:58

    Jacqueline; I very much appreciate this information and I thank you. Jeff

  4. Andrew March 21, 2011 / 14:21

    Jeff, there are also country house hotels and B&Bs (of which these lists mention just a few). For larger listings the AA hotel and B&B Guides are quite comprehensive, or search the AA online or other sites. It all depends on whether you prefer to stay in hotels, B&B’s or self catering flats, how far your budget extends and where in Scotland you are staying.

  5. jeff Aldridge March 21, 2011 / 23:19

    Thanks Andrew; The historic character of the lodging is more important to us than whether it is a B&B or a hotel. I appreciate the tips. We plan our route and then look for the oldest and most interesting places to stay. One of the best nights ever was during a trip to Yorkshire where we were fortunate enough to stay at the home of the late Laura Ashley………I think it was Applethorpe Hall. Thanks again for the guidance.

  6. James Canning March 21, 2011 / 23:32

    Jeff – – You might check Wolsey Lodges. A fair number are historic, venerable, etc.

  7. jeff Aldridge March 22, 2011 / 03:20

    What a great help. I just booked a stay at Cairness House because of the Wolsey Lodge suggestion. Thanks James!

    • Andrew May 22, 2011 / 10:01

      Jeff, I hope your planned stay in September will not be effected by the current sale of Cairness House and its 16 acres for around £3m.

  8. James Canning March 25, 2011 / 22:06

    Jeff – – You are very welcome and you made an excellent selection. Fantastic achievement at Cairness House.

  9. Ron Hart October 12, 2016 / 00:49

    I worked for Sir Michael for a couple of years,living for a while in the nursery ,in that room were two paintings by Herbert. I also oversaw the fishing whilst there . It’s an experience I shall never forget !
    My regards to the man who gave me another chance of life .. .

  10. Noreen Lyon January 14, 2017 / 19:31

    I have a lady who would like to visit Monreith House in April. I am a Blue Badge Tourist guide and I’m trying to facilitate this visit. She is from Canada and is related to the Maxwell family.
    I’m hoping to have a recce and make contact with people from the house.
    Seems a fascinating place and it’s in a lovely area.
    Can anybody out there be of assistance?

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