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31 Aug 2020

Newhailes: designed for relaxation

Written by Dr Daniel Rhodes, Archaeologist
A large Palladian mansion house framed by the branches of a tree.
Newhailes House, Musselburgh. The Dalrymple family bought the estate in 1709 when it was called Whitehill. They named it Newhailes after their original family seat of Hailes Castle in East Lothian
Standing on the east edge of Edinburgh in Musselburgh, Newhailes House is surrounded by almost 44 hectares of designed landscape. The estate, house and contents were donated to the National Trust for Scotland by the Trustees of the late Sir Mark Dalrymple in January 1997.

Sir David Dalrymple acquired the estate of Whitehill in 1709 and initiated immediate improvements, renaming it Newhailes. His son Sir James undertook the Grand Tour after 1708 and took over the estate in 1721. In the 1812 publication Memorial to Sir James Dalrymple (by Christian Dalrymple), James is said to have improved the grounds to ‘suit the mansion’, planting out the landscape on either side of the burn which runs through the estate and forms a central theme throughout its design. He’s also said to have constructed ponds and waterfalls, forming pleasure grounds along the water course and, most importantly, building grottos and walks.

Many of these features were not immediately visible, and it’s taken a programme of archaeological investigation over the last 20 years to piece together the remains of a designed landscape and gardens that encapsulate the major aesthetic trends of 18th-century landscape design. These features provide a fascinating walk around the grounds and show how the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment 300 years ago influenced the ways people changed the world around them and interacted with nature.

The house and main entrance are flanked by woodland groves and pleasure grounds, which contain a number of significant garden buildings and other features. These include a grotto or shell house, a tea house, the Earl of Stair’s monument, a terrace walk, bridges, archways, and a ha-ha.

Shell house

During the 18th century in Britain, shell houses or grottos became a common feature in the designed landscapes of upper class estates. As the influence of the Grand Tour developed, so too did the adoption of European Renaissance architectural motifs. The earliest grottos originated in classical Greece and were designed to augment natural caves containing sacred springs. Later, these shrines became temples or nymphaeum, and later still Roman grottos utilised sea caves for dining and entertaining, and were associated with Venus, often including a half dome, symbolising her birth from a scallop shell. Roman grottos were also built at the sites of natural calciferous springs where water bubbles out of the ground forming porous tufa deposits.

A shell house grotto in woodland. The walls are constructed of large boulders and there is a central doorway.
The shell house at Newhailes was first constructed in the mid-18th century; the decoration on the walls was to represent volcanic lava

All of these classical influences can be seen in the shell house at Newhailes. The building itself is a small pavilion, around 6m square in plan, and the walls vary in height between 3m and 5m. Its main façade is made up of large, water-rounded boulders, which have been decorated with pieces of fused and bubbled vitreous industrial material, broken mirrors, glass and ceramics, giving the front of the shell house a reflective and lava-like appearance. The doorway is similarly decorated, but the stone used in its construction is carved to create a coral-like appearance.

The interior was beautifully decorated with shells in geometric patterns. A letter in the Newhailes archives, dated 6 January 1774, suggests that the completion of the shell house was inspired by Jenny Dalrymple and used material sent by her brother William Dalrymple from Canton:

My Dear Sister
So you have really undertaken the arduous task of finishing the Grotto & want my assistance for shell Corals and other things of the kind … I have sent a Box with some roots of trees cut quite with Grotesk stile by the 2nd Mate of the Prima, they will be delivered to Cha Ferguson along with a number of other things to Lady Dalrymple.

Christian Dalrymple’s journals of 1798–1838 often refer to the grotto, as part of a perambulation of the estate. These visits occurred throughout the year and usually in the afternoon or in the evening. The spectacle of the shell house on these walks was further enhanced by some startling building and landscape design features.

Archaeological excavation in woodland in front of a grotto. In the trench are the remains of walls and ditches,
Archaeological excavations at the shell house uncovered a highly decorated water cascade inlaid with quartz and other semi-precious stones

Archaeological investigation revealed that the walls of the shell house were constructed with flues running through them and a fire pit was located at the back of the building. As the Dalrymple family and their guests walked around the estate, on reaching the shell house they were met with the spectacle of a pavilion apparently constructed of volcanic lava inlaid with reflective glass-like material, with the building itself emanating smoke. All of this was reflected in a large pond and waterfall, which we discovered during one of our excavations. With decorative lava and quartz linking the shell house and cascade, it gave the illusion that the shell house was melting into the pond.

It’s thought that the pond was eventually filled in sometime around 1815. Local people attest to the vandalism of the shell house in the 1950s and 60s, causing much of the decoration to collapse into the surrounding landscape, where it has been archaeologically recorded. The last two original shell-decorated timber planks from inside the shell house were recovered from the nearby burn and have been professionally cleaned and conserved by the Trust. These are now awaiting display.

Tea house

The tea house is a rare piece of Palladian design. It’s contemporary with the internationally acclaimed Palladian bridge at Wilton House, Wiltshire, of 1736–37 (by the ‘Architect Earl’ – Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke, and Roger Morris). The design for the bridge was originally inspired by Andrea Palladio’s rejected design for a triumphal bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice. The bridge was also imitated at Stowe (c1742) and Prior Park (1756). It’s possible that this shared design occurred when architect Roger Morris visited the neighbouring Brunstane estate.

The ruins of a tea house building built over a bridge in woodland.
The tea house is a miniature version of the internationally acclaimed Palladian bridge at Wilton House, Wiltshire

The recovery of stone fragments has enabled us to produce a reconstruction. When the site was excavated, each piece was individually numbered, photographed and drawn, with nearly 200 fragments recovered from the burn which flows below.

Reconstruction drawing of a tea house built over a bridge.
The recovery of fragments of the tea house and its archaeological recording has allowed us to create this reconstruction

The tea house is a building intended for quiet contemplation. Its inscription, nos humilem – a reference to a line from Horace (for myself, I will sacrifice a humble lamb …) – emphasised this to visitors of the day. The poet is affecting humility, in contrast to the pomp and ceremony of high office – a sentiment very much in tune with the character of the Dalrymples’ rural retreat.

Walled kitchen garden

Now home to the Weehailes play park, the kitchen garden was the location of the day-to-day workings of the estate. The walls were designed with a complex system of flues and furnace boxes, which allowed the growing of fruit unsuitable to the Scottish climate. Likewise, the complex of Mackenzie & Moncur glasshouses was designed to include a wintering house, and a furnace and heating scheme which would heat all the glasshouses all year round. This utilitarian part of the estate continued to produce fruit and vegetables right up the mid-20th century. Even when the garden was rented to others, archival documents attest to an agreement that guaranteed the occupants of Newhailes one box of produce per day to be delivered to the house.

Recently we have been investigating the flower garden, where we uncovered the intricately designed remains of the flower beds and paths.

Bird's-eye view of a cleared area of ground being archaeologically investigated, with a house in the background, surrounded by woodland.
Archaeological excavation and analysis by the Trust has uncovered the design of the 19th-century flower garden

Ladies’ Walk

By far the simplest, yet most distinct and dominant feature within the Newhailes designed landscape is Ladies’ Walk, built between 1730 and 1750.

A raised walkway, with a stone-built wall, overgrown with vegetation on top.
Ladies’ Walk cuts through the centre of the estate’s parkland and was designed to offer views of the Firth of Forth and East Lothian

The walk is a causeway, 280m long and 5m wide, standing 1.2m high, through what have become known as Sheep Park and Cow Park. At first glance the structure seems quite simple – a raised pathway designed to offer access from the furthest point of the designed landscape near the tea house to the lawn adjacent to the house. However, in relation to the overall landscape design the walk is essential in creating a symmetry that positions the main axis of the estate and house in alignment. Without Ladies’ Walk, Newhailes House and its lawn would sit off-centre within its surroundings and the framing of the principal view out to sea would be disturbed. The construction of Ladies’ Walk is also indicative of the construction of illusion that’s symbolic of the wider designed landscape. By constructing the walk of brick on the west (away from the house) and stone on the east (facing the house), the design presents a rusticated historical façade and not a modern brick frontage. This is also a technique used in the tea house and shell house – disguising the industry and manual labour within the estate in favour of making things look natural or ancient. This also disguised the true age of the features and the fact that the estate was only a recent acquisition of the Dalrymples. Livestock in the landscape also embellished the image of the family, who in reality were more politically centred on the law courts of Edinburgh rather than with the traditional pursuits of country gentlemen.

At Newhailes visitors are able to walk the grounds and experience the landscape as it was designed by the Dalrymples in the 18th century. It’s a place to breathe and a place to think, as well as one of Scotland’s most well-preserved designed landscapes from the Enlightenment period. It’s a walk designed in recognition of the importance of nature in sustaining our bodies and minds.

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