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17 Nov 2020

How Falkland Palace became a home

Written by Ella Duréault (with editorial assistance from Marietta Crichton-Stuart, Dr Katy Jack and Dr Antonia Laurence-Allen)
Grainy black and white photograph of the head and shoulders of a woman. She is looking downwards.
To mark International Students’ Day on 17 November, we’re delighted to bring you a story written by a student from the University of St Andrews.

This story emerged from the ‘Women in Fife’ project, where students were asked to research the 20th-century women who lived at Kellie Castle, Hill of Tarvit and Falkland Palace. I chose to look at Barbara Symes and discovered an adventurer who transformed the gardens and interiors of Falkland from the moment she moved to the palace with her husband, Major Michael Crichton-Stuart, in 1944.

Born in Italy, Barbara Symes was the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Stewart Symes (1882–1962) and Lady Viola Coulston Symes (c1884–1953). As her father was a colonial governor, she was brought up in the Middle East and Africa and went to boarding school in England, France and Germany.

Black and white group photograph showing a colonial governor general in uniform. A woman sits to his left and three other men are on the front row. Three men of colour stand behind them.
The Governor-General of Sudan, Sir Stewart Symes (middle). His daughter Barbara is on the right (Image Courtesy of Magdalen College, Oxford University)

Barbara travelled widely in Europe and Africa, including Austria, England and Scotland in 1937, when Tatler wrote a short piece on her returning to Khartoum to visit her parents at ‘The Palace’. Her father was Governor-General of Sudan, and at this time Khartoum was the seat of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudanese government. She attended high society weddings and receptions, and visited Ethiopia and Egypt during these years, where she met Major Michael Crichton-Stuart (1915–81), the Keeper of the Royal Palace of Falkland.

During World War II, Barbara became a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment and, in Cairo in 1941, married Michael. A grandson of the 3rd Marquess of Bute – who bought Falkland Estate in 1887, including the palace – Michael was educated at Eton and Oxford University. He joined the Scots Guards and served in the war until 1943, when he was badly wounded at Salerno in Italy.

An unusual relocation

In 1944, Barbara and Michael decided to make Falkland Palace their family home, rather than the House of Falkland, a large Victorian mansion outside the village.

It might seem strange that they chose to move to the palace, which was partly ruined and in need of serious restoration, but the House of Falkland was an immense property and just too big for them. It had been used as a convalescence home in World War I and then only occasionally as a holiday home during the 1920s and 30s. Carrying out work on the palace was a challenge after the war. Following the introduction of Defence Regulation 56A, all building materials were rationed until 1951; licensed work was not allowed to cost more than £100 and had to be completed within a 12-month period.

Black and white photograph of a man and a woman standing in a large garden in front of a block of wood.
Barbara and Michael Crichton-Stuart in the gardens at Falkland Palace in the 1950s

A sense of responsibility

As Keepers, the Crichton-Stuarts had to keep the palace ‘wind and water tight’. They were conscious of the importance of Falkland’s heritage, so in 1952 they brought in the National Trust for Scotland to help as Deputy Keeper. The Crichton-Stuarts drove the restoration of the exterior and interior of the palace, commissioning renowned designers and architects, such as Percy Cane (1881–1976) for the garden, Guy Elwes (1895–1966) for the chapel and Schomberg Scott (1910–98) for the interiors and furnishings.

Barbara’s role at Falkland

Michael’s main involvement was with the bricks and mortar – tackling the leaks, improving the plumbing and electrics, and getting in skilled craftsmen to restore the ceiling of the Chapel Royal. Barbara’s role was to turn a building, long unoccupied, into a comfortable family home. She was very resourceful, using furniture and fittings from the House of Falkland, and visiting antique shops and country house auctions. Occasionally, something unusual caught her eye, such as two umbrella stands that she turned into lamps.

Lamp, with a Chinese base and a pale cream lampshade.
Previously used as umbrella stands, Barbara turned these Chinese vases into lamps in the 1950s (they can still be found in the Drawing Room)

The post-war furnishing of the palace by the Crichton-Stuarts should be regarded as a tour de force, as it had rarely been used as a permanent residence. Barbara played the leading role in redecorating and the Drawing Room is a prime example of her style.

The Library and Drawing Room

A drawing room with dark panelled ceiling and hessian-lined walls. There is a large fireplace with a lit fire.
Drawing Room at Falkland Palace today

For the Drawing Room wall hangings and curtains, Barbara chose hessian, a type of jute and a cheap, raw fabric. She had the hessian dyed pale olive to match the carpet, which was repurposed from the House of Falkland, and cut and restitched to fit the palace’s Drawing Room. When travelling in Italy, she bought trimmings and fringes for lamps and curtains. Portraits of the kings and queens of Scotland known to have visited the palace were hung around the room.

The Library off the Drawing Room is one of the most impressive projects that Barbara initiated. In 1948, Thom & Sons, carpenters from St Andrews, were commissioned to take down shelves from the House of Falkland’s library and adjust them to fit the palace. A secret door was even inserted into the library shelves.

The Keeper’s Bedroom

Since the deaths of Barbara and Michael, this room has evolved from a bedroom to a showpiece centred on its historic bed. The Crichton-Stuarts purchased it in 1947, as it was supposed to be the bed of King James VI of Scotland, therefore appropriate for a Stuart palace.

In Barbara’s time the walls were painted white and draped with green hessian and gold brocade. The simplicity of the colour scheme would have accentuated the painted ceiling (dating from the Bute restorations of the 1890s). Portraits of her children – Marietta, Frances, Elspeth and Ninian – were displayed on either side of the main window, and there were comfortable chairs and spacious cupboards. The only remnant of the original layout is Barbara’s dressing table covered in delicate pale rose silk and her ‘curule’ seat (an elegant cross-frame stool), which are still in the alcove looking out to the High Street.

A boudoir decorated in pale pink silk, looking towards a window which has several framed black and white photographs of people.
The Keeper’s Bedroom suite doesn’t look as it did in the 1950s, except for Barbara’s pink boudoir, dressed with pale rose silk

Chapel Royal

In 1905, the Chapel was consecrated as a Catholic church (unusual for a royal palace) by Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart, Major Michael’s father. After World War II, Michael worked with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (one of the predecessors of Historic Environment Scotland) to restore the ceiling of the Chapel Royal, while Barbara took care of the furnishings. Electric lighting was installed and a new tabernacle, candlesticks and hand-painted shields were designed by Guy Elwes, who was a friend of the family. Elwes also used a brocade hanging from the House of Falkland to go at the back of the altar. The price for his work came to £122, a substantial sum in 1951.

Schomberg Scott

The presence of Walter Schomberg Scott maintained a tradition of Scottish architectural craft at Falkland. He had been trained in Edinburgh by Reginald Fairlie, a former apprentice of Sir Robert Lorimer, who restored several castles and country houses in Fife, including Kellie Castle and Hill of Tarvit, in the early 20th century.

Scott was recognised as a leading specialist in the conservation of big houses when the Trust appointed him in 1953. Since his apprenticeship with Fairlie, Scott had a penchant for wrought iron. Between 1956 and 1958, Barbara and Michael commissioned him to design the six ornate lamps that line the central aisle. There are three pairs – two lamps have the red lions of Scotland, two are decorated with fleur-de-lys and crosses, and the last pair feature angels and stars.

A chapel with wooden panelled walls and rows of chairs facing the altar.
Chapel Royal with the ornate lamps, kneelers and altar rail (designed by Schomberg Scott) and altar piece (designed by Elwes)

After the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), which reorganised the disposition of Catholic churches, the altar of the Chapel was pushed forward so the priest could celebrate mass facing the faithful. Scott designed a new altar rail with the signs of the Twelve Apostles (the keys for St Peter, the cross for St Andrew). He also designed the tapestry kneelers, which were sewn by Trust volunteers in Fife.

An altar rail for a chapel, with different designs between the rails.
The Chapel Royal altar rail, designed by Schomberg Scott

The garden

Barbara had a particular love for gardens and flowers. Her correspondence and her children’s memories reveal how hands-on she was in the design and implementation of Falkland’s new garden.

In 1947, the Crichton-Stuarts commissioned the landscape designer Percy Cane to design a garden that would enhance the palace setting and replace the ‘Dig for Victory’ World War II potato field. Cane’s design was loosely based on a late 17th-century view of the palace and its grounds by John Slezer (Theatrum Scotiae, 1693). Cane had previously worked for Michael’s uncle at Ardencraig on the Isle of Bute. Barbara also might have known his work from the garden of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (r.1930–74) in Addis Ababa, as she had visited Ethiopia with her parents when her father was a colonial governor in Africa.

Engraving from the 17th century showing a view of Falkland Palace.
John Slezer, ‘The Prospect of Falkland Palace from the East’, Theatrum Scotiae, 1693

The Crichton-Stuarts were very clear in their vision for the garden. Barbara regularly corresponded with Cane, maintaining various lists of flowers that she wanted in the garden, and handled the deliveries of plants and trees. Much of the planting was later modified in the 1970s by the Trust.

The formal garden

In the courtyard, within the foundations of the north range, Cane originally created a formal garden of lavender, with red and yellow roses, the colours of the Stuart kings.

A rose  bed with yellow and red roses, with a ruined part of a palace to the left and a roofed range behind it. The photo was taken in the 1950s.
Photograph of the yellow and red rose bed on the foundations of the North Range in the 1950s

The cypress terrace

A paved terrace signals the division between the upper and lower garden. Part of the new garden design was also to suggest the earlier splendour of the palace. Barbara chose columnar Lawson cypresses to highlight the ruined east facade. A flight of stone steps leads to the lower gardens.

A photograph taken in the 1950s shows a palace in the background, with cypress trees in front of a ruined range, and a colourful flower bed below.
Cypress terrace, as seen in the 1950s (the trees now obscure the view of the palace from this perspective)

The ‘pleasure gardens’

On the east side of the palace, Cane realised his masterpiece. The ‘pleasure gardens’ he created included a large central glade with floral borders. On one side lay a vibrant bed of lupins and on the other a ‘great border’, which was 180m long and contained a range of shrubs and herbaceous plants. This latter bed was the most delicate and intricate part of the garden, its beauty culminating in the summer months when the flowers bloomed in reds, yellows and orange tones.

A sundial with Barbara and Michael’s initials, designed by Schomberg Scott, was placed nearby.

Close-up of an armillary sphere sundial in a garden.
Sundial with ‘MCS’ and ‘BS’, for Michael and Barbara, designed by Schomberg Scott

The leading firm of glasshouse and heating engineers, Mackenzie & Moncur (Edinburgh, 1868–1998), designed and built the original glasshouse in the 1890s for the 3rd Marquess of Bute. It was rebuilt in 1985. It was very much Barbara’s domain; she was particularly keen on geraniums (pelargoniums).

Inside a white-painted glasshouse, which has many red pelargonium plants.
Pelargoniums in the glasshouse at Falkland Palace

Italian influence

Italy was a source of inspiration for Barbara on many levels. She spoke the language fluently and brought back items from her travels there, including two Florentine lamps, now in the Tapestry Gallery, and a little terracotta ‘Luca della Robbia’ ware plaque, hanging outside the royal tennis court on a garden wall. This Renaissance technique was made famous in the 15th century by the Florentine sculptor, Luca della Robbia. It came back into fashion in the 19th century.

Close-up of a circular terracotta ware plaque, painted blue, showing a swaddled child.
Luca della Robbia ware terracotta plaque (this image of a swaddled child was originally used by della Robbia for the Foundling Hospital (Ospedale degli Innocenti) in Florence)

We hope that this story of a palace becoming a home gives you some insight into its unique qualities. The text has been adapted from a brochure that was created for visitors going round Falkland Palace in 2020. Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic meant that we had to close the palace this year, although we were able to open the garden and shop.

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