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25 May 2021

The Great Eight at Culzean Castle

Written by Gordon Nelson, Head Guide and Collections Care Officer
A view of Culzean Castle from the Fountain Court garden in front of it, on a sunny day. Palm trees line the walls of the garden. A flowering yellow shrub is in the right foreground.
Gordon Nelson has worked at Culzean Castle for the past 25 years and today serves as Head Guide and Collections Care Officer, welcoming visitors and helping to care for the castle’s vast collection of paintings and artefacts.

A sprawling cliff-top masterpiece, which looms over woods, beaches, secret follies and play parks, Culzean Castle was the home and playground of the wealthy Kennedy family for many generations. Designed by Robert Adam in the late 18th century, the castle has been in the care of the National Trust for Scotland since 1945 and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Ayrshire coastline each year.

Here are eight of my favourite items inside the castle:

A view of a wall in the Culzean Armoury. It is covered in carefully arranged pistols and swords, all surrounding a heraldic crest at the centre. The pistols form two oval rings around the crest, whilst the swords make up a kind of outer frame.
The pistol collection in the Armoury at Culzean Castle

The Culzean pistol collection

We have a collection of 716 used flintlock pistols on display at the castle. Archibald Kennedy, 1st Marquess of Ailsa and 12th Earl of Cassillis (1770–1846), purchased many of them from the Office of Ordnance at the Tower of London, where they were being decommissioned. He acquired hundreds of swords from there as well, over 1,000 weapons altogether, which are also here in the collection. All of them have been used. While it’s hard to identify exactly which battles they were used in, the earliest is from 1738 and there are others from the early 1800s. We have weapons from the Jacobite period in Scotland, the Napoleonic Wars, the Peninsular War, the actions of the East India Company and the American Revolutionary War as well. These pistols could have been used in any of those conflicts. Each one will have a story – maybe it’s a good job they can’t talk!

A large wooden aeroplane propeller, with brass tips, is attached to a ceiling. From it hangs a brass chain, holding an elaborate light fitting.
The propeller in the Armoury at Culzean Castle

The propeller

This is in the same room as the pistols and is a very unusual item. It’s a large teak propeller mounted on the ceiling; many people don’t see it when they walk in, even though it’s huge. It has an incredible story as it came from the aircraft that first shot down a German airship, just outside London in September 1916. The aircraft was a B.E.2c night fighter, flown by Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson. It was a horrible thing to fly and he was around 1,000ft higher than he should have been when he decided to attack the zeppelin. He emptied his drums of bullets into it and, as he fired his last shots, it suddenly ignited and fell out of the sky. He won the Victoria Cross for that action and later became a captain before being shot down, captured and badly treated by the Germans. He fell ill in the 1918 influenza pandemic when he returned to Britain and tragically died at just 23 years of age.

After the war, the plane’s squadron moved to the airfield at Turnberry, where the golf course is today. They called themselves the No. 1 Fighting School. The land belonged to the 3rd Marquess at the time, and the squadron presented the propeller to him.

Read more about the story of the propeller

A large model of a three-masted sailing ship is displayed inside a glass cabinet. The ship is made of white bone, and stands on a matching white platform.
The model of Hortense at Culzean Castle

The ship of bones

This is a model of the French frigate Hortense, a vessel whose crew were all captured during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). They were imprisoned in Portchester Castle on the south coast of England and made this model of their ship (a fine recreation of the 40-gun Hortense) from the bones they saved from their beef rations. It is an amazing thing. It was quite common, certainly during the Napoleonic Wars, for captured soldiers and sailors to make models; they would use whatever materials they had to hand. Sailors in particular were used to making and mending all the time – if something went wrong on a ship, they had to fix it themselves. They were often skilled craftsmen who could turn their hand to anything. I’ll never tire of looking at this stunning example.

A silver carriage clock stands on a polished shelf, with two glass bottles either side. A gilt frame can be seen behind. The silver clock stands on a marble plinth, inscribed with Bloodhound 1877. There is a plaque with a list of dates on the side panel of the plinth. On top of the clock is a small silver figurine of a seated woman, holding a long banner above her head.
The silver clock at Culzean Castle

The Bloodhound clock

This has nothing to do with the dog! The Bloodhound was a racing yacht, built by Fife & Son shipbuilders of Fairlie and commissioned by Archibald Kennedy, 3rd Marquess of Ailsa, in 1874. The Bloodhound was hugely successful and won the Marquess a considerable amount of money. In 1877 alone it won around £2,000, which at the time was a huge sum. To commemorate that, the Marquess decided to commission this beautiful silver clock. The man who made the exterior was Alexander Crichton, one of the best silversmiths of the time. The clock also shows Shakespearean scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

“I recently spent two days cleaning it with cotton buds, so you get to look very closely at it. The detail is just amazing. It blows me away.”
Gordon Nelson
A close-up of the detail on a very decorative, white, plaster-style ceiling. A candelabra-style light hangs from the centre of the ceiling.
The Dining Room ceiling at Culzean Castle

The dining room ceiling

The castle was built by Robert Adam, but the dining room has been altered over the years. It was two rooms before becoming a much larger dining room, created by the 3rd Marquess. This ceiling was commissioned by him, but he was very influenced by Adam’s style and based it on an original Adam ceiling at the house of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn in St James’s Square, London. It’s not exactly the same, for there is one major difference between the two: the ceiling at Culzean is white; the one in London is coloured in the 18th-century style. At that time, people were experimenting with different styles of plasterwork and, believe it or not, this one is made from papier-mâché. It looks just like plaster. When I found out what it really was, that it was actually made from layered and pulped paper, it amazed me.

A view from above of a double staircase, swooping around an oval opening. The stairs are covered in a red and gold carpet. Two tall lamps stand either side of the bannisters at the bottom of the stairs.
The Adam staircase at Culzean Castle

The Robert Adam staircase

The story behind the creation of the staircase is very interesting. When Robert Adam arrived here, there were a number of existing buildings on site. He wasn’t able to knock it all down and start from scratch, so the buildings had to be adapted and changed. He had a 1590s tower house to start from, and part of that is still here within the existing castle building.

Phase one of the work started in 1777. Wings were built in phase two, a few years later. Phase three knocked down more of the older buildings and built the drum tower and round rooms. However, this left a disjointed staircase in the middle and, in phase four in c1787 (which wasn’t part of the original plan), they opened up the middle of the castle and added this magnificent oval staircase, designed for the space that was available. Normally, everything radiates from a staircase, but here at Culzean it was the last thing that was built. This was the final piece that tied the castle together, a stunning piece of architectural design.

A barrel organ, housed in a tall wooden cabinet, stands by the wall, in front of blue curtains. There are silver pipes at the top of the cabinet, with a row of pegs halfway down. There are two cupboard doors at the bottom of the cabinet.
The barrel organ in the Blue Drawing Room at Culzean Castle

The barrel organ

We don’t have an exact date for this, although the organ is inscribed Broderip & Wilkinson of London, who made organs and many other musical instruments between 1789 and 1808. I often describe this as an early version of a karaoke machine. A handle on the front turned the barrel organs inside, which had little pins, like a music box, that opened valves. There is a set of bellows and a drum in there, and each barrel (of which there are four) held six or seven tunes. The golden pipes on the front are purely decorative. You can imagine the family sitting around, someone going to turn the handle and everyone singing and dancing along to it. It still works today, but we’re very careful with it. I did get a chance to play it for a recording a few years ago and was surprised by how much hard work was needed to get a tune out of it. You really have to turn it quickly and need a turn a second to play it. So, it was a daily workout for someone, as well as a karaoke machine!

An oil painting of Culzean Castle, seen from the sea, is framed by an elaborate gold frame. It hangs on a wall with green wallpaper.
Nasmyth’s ‘Culzean Castle from the Sea’ in the Long Drawing Room at Culzean Castle

Alexander Nasmyth’s views of Culzean

There are two Nasmyth paintings here, both of which were painted in 1816 and offer views of the castle. One includes Ailsa Craig, ‘Culzean Castle from the North with Ailsa Craig’, and the other is simply titled ‘Culzean Castle from the Sea’. They are part of a series of views commissioned by the 12th Earl of Cassillis. I never tire of looking at them. They are pretty big paintings but offer beautiful, detailed views of the castle. And there is a lovely, intriguing little detail on one. Nasmyth never signed his paintings but in one of these, in the foreground, is a yacht. On the yacht we spotted the initials ‘AN’. Is this to represent Alexander Nasmyth?

This story first appeared in The Scots Magazine.

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