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22 Jun 2018

New look for Newhailes

Emma and Ursula the Unicorn stand in front of Newhailes House on a sunny spring day.
Emma and Ursula the Unicorn explore Newhailes.
Travel writer and blogger Robin McKelvie and family report back after their first visit to Weehailes Playpark at Newhailes. Spoiler alert: they liked it, and they learned a lot about the Enlightenment too.

I feared it might be a hard sell to my family for a day out. Would my kids be interested in a historic country house you can only explore on a guided tour? Would my wife see the merits of spending time shut indoors on what was a glorious spring day? I needn’t have worried on either count as Newhailes House boasts a brilliant brand new playpark and is surrounded by flower-sprinkled woodland dotted with walking trails. Oh, and we found the house isn’t half bad either!

Newhailes House from the south
Newhailes House

Newhailes House, tucked just inside East Lothian by Musselburgh on the fringes of Edinburgh, has long fascinated me. It first grabbed my attention when I learned that famous literary grump Dr Johnson once hailed it as having ‘the most learned drawing-room in Europe’. That is quite a claim, but one it lives up to. It may have ‘only’ been the home of a minor aristocratic family (according to our understated guide), but it was grand enough to play a role in the seminal Scottish Enlightenment when various luminaries visited.

Our visit started well. Just minutes after my own grumpy ones had left the car we were in the sweeping stables courtyard, a welcoming hub that sets the scene perfectly with its neat proportions and genteel air. My girls, ten-year-old Tara and seven-year-old Emma headed straight for the shop, the latter emerging with her new prized possession, Ursula the Unicorn.

The McKelvie family at Newhailes
Exploring the grounds

We put our names down for a guided tour – I recommend you do this before your visit as the site is getting increasingly busy with the extra visitors flocking to the new playpark and spaces are limited. Then we snared a few drinks from the shop and headed for a bench in the trees to enjoy a picnic lunch as we leafed through the Newhailes guidebook, planning our time.

I learned more about the Dalrymples, who are famously associated with this retreat just back from the banks of the Forth. It served as their home from 1709 and the National Trust for Scotland has done a great job of retaining many of the features that date back to the 18th century. The emphasis is very much on unstinting conservation, not rejuvenation or augmenting the house itself.

While the house is an impressive timewarp – more on that later – after our picnic we caught right up with the modern day. The Weehailes Playpark only opened this spring and it’s the sort of wonderland I dreamed of as a child, but that just didn’t exist back then. It’s a real Aladdin’s Cave of treasures with walkways, cute wee wooden buildings, rope bridges and even zip wires. It’s handily split between a toddlers’ area and a larger space where older kids can let rip and let off steam.

Tara and Emma at the Playpark
Tara and Emma at the Playpark

Mummy reckoned the best thing about the Playpark was that there is a café and diner overlooking the action. We whiled away over an hour in the sun here, watching the kids tire themselves out and had a real break as they didn’t come over to us wanting anything even once.

Finally I pulled the kids reluctantly away from the playpark as it was time to join our tour. We eased under the grand arch of the courtyard and delved back through the centuries as we approached a house hidden away in the trees. The fact you can only visit on a guided tour adds a sense of mystery as you approach a completely deserted building. My kids said it was like something out of a movie and it does feel cinematic as you emerge from the trees and sweep towards this strikingly grand Palladian-style gem.

We climbed up the solid stone steps and left the 21st century firmly behind. I liked that there were no security ropes or crowds. The only rule apart from the usual no touching one was to stick to the red carpet. It felt like we were VIPs getting an exclusive window into a private world. It must have been some private world as the guide informed us that the original owner and architect James Smith was said to have fathered no fewer than 32 children!

Speaking of children, you might imagine that guided group tours don’t suit kids, but we were on one of the regular family orientated tours so a special effort was made to entertain the wee ones. My kids loved searching for a hidden door on the ground floor and were fascinated by the polar bear rug in the Library Wing. This was once one of the most impressive libraries in Scotland and Enlightenment figures are said to have sought out the treasures within Newhailes.

Guided tour at Newhailes standing at the gates before the driveway to the house.
Group tour at Newhailes

There are two floors to explore, with a multitude of delights ranging from the Grand Apartment, which is actually a quintet of rooms fashioned with the sole purpose of accommodating and entertaining guests, through to the lavish Dining Room, with its striking chimneypiece by the celebrated London sculptor Henry Cheere. For me the real stars were the quartet of paintings by Dutch artist Isaac Vogelsang, which dramatically depict the house and its setting.

Rather than dragging on too long, the tour actually left me with a desire to know more and a resolution to come back on one of the slightly longer standard tours. My kids were ready for another run around and rather than return to the playpark I coaxed them into exploring the sprawling 80-acre estate. Much conservation work is currently ongoing to bring it back to its best. We wandered through the forest surrounded by an explosion of wildflowers, with the calls of birds and a gurgling burn for company. 

Shell Grotto at Newhailes
The Shell Grotto

Deep in the woods we came across the ‘fairy house’, better known as the Shell Grotto. My girls’ moniker was not far off the mark as this charming 18th-century oddity does look more Hansel and Gretel than historical. The shell motif was important for the Dalrymples and you can see it throughout Newhailes House. It makes sense that the star of their water gardens was covered in all manner of shells. The original shells were said to have been plucked from as close as Musselburgh and as far away as the shores of China.

We had arrived with my kids and wife doubting Newhailes House. Five minutes on to the City Bypass and the kids were asleep after their exertions and my wife agreed it certainly hadn’t been a spring day wasted cooped up inside. I left more fascinated by Newhailes than ever, with even more questions to tempt alongside the answers I’d soaked up and in firm agreement with Dr Johnson.