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30 Aug 2021

The Great Eight at Falkland Palace & Garden

Written by Naomi Webster, Visitor Services Supervisor
A view of Falkland Palace from the gardens on a sunny summer's day. A stretch of green lawn ends in a collection of different trees and shrubs. Behind those the stone walls of the palace are visible, with the tower stretching up into the blue sky.
Falkland Palace, as viewed from the gardens
Once the pleasure palace of the royal Stuarts and beloved by Mary, Queen of Scots, Falkland Palace & Garden holds a special place in history. Naomi Webster, Visitor Services Supervisor, tells us about some of the things she loves at this place.

Falkland Palace & Garden in Fife stands as one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Scotland. Although the palace fell into disrepair in the late 1600s, the property was saved from ruin in the 19th century by John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. Cared for by the National Trust for Scotland since 1952, the palace’s design is inspired by the grand châteaux of France. It was also Mary, Queen of Scots’ favourite sanctuary, where she hunted in the grounds and played in what is now one of the oldest surviving tennis court in the world. Today you can follow in her footsteps, wandering through a historic orchard and formal gardens before marvelling at the palace’s stunning interior, filled with intricate wood panelling, impressive painted ceilings and beautifully carved furniture.

Here are eight of my favourite things:

Two women in historical dresses hold rackets and play a game of real tennis on the royal tennis court.
Back in time on the original tennis court

The tennis court

This is one of the oldest tennis courts in the world, built by Mary Queen of Scots’ father, James V, in 1541. You really get a sense of history here. When you take a group of school children through and tell them that people have been playing on it for nearly 500 years, you can see that it has an impact on them. Mary would have played here and the whole feel of Falkland is very much a place of fun and relaxation. It was the Balmoral of its time: the royals’ hunting lodge and somewhere they would come to relax. Falkland isn’t a castle with fortifications, the type of place you would retreat to if you were worried for your safety. It has such a different feel from castles of the same period.

A Renaissance roundel on the walls of Falkland Palace

Renaissance roundels

These are little circles which you can see in the brickwork of the palace, and they show different characters from history. The roundels are a very distinct part of the architecture: they make it unique, and reflect the French style that was introduced around the time of James V, who had two French wives – Madeleine of Valois and Mary of Guise. The palace was based on a French châteaux and the roundels really play into that. This is believed to be one of the reasons why Mary, Queen of Scots loved Falkland so much, because it reminded her of her childhood in France.

Chapel Royal in Falkland Palace

The chapel ceiling

The ceiling was painted in 1633 for a visit from Charles I. It is adorned with fleurs-de-lis, symbolising France, as well as thistles for Scotland and roses for England. There is so much symbolism there. It is beautiful. It is also one of the surviving original features and gives an idea of how ornate the palace would have been at the time. All of the rooms would have had ceilings like this.

“It is incredible to think that for hundreds of years, people have been looking up at this ceiling in the chapel and at the stories it tells.”
Naomi Webster
Visitor Services Supervisor
The Marquess’ cabinet, with portraits of John Crichton-Stuart’s children engraved in the wood

The Marquess’ cabinet

In the 1880s Falkland Palace was a ruin and was bought by John Crichton-Stuart, who restored it and turned it into the building you see today. The building wasn’t watertight when he took it over, and some ceilings and floors were missing. It’s hard to imagine what state the building would be in today had it not been taken over, and John Crichton-Stuart is a very important part of the Falkland story. He was also keen to make it clear to people where modern changes had been made, and how they stood apart from original features. This cabinet is an excellent example of that. Engraved in the woodwork are portraits of his children, and it’s a lovely little touch which gives him and his family their place in the restoration of the building.

In a garden, many flowering purple-blue delphiniums grow next to a wall, with a view of Falkland Palace in the background.
Delphiniums in the Percy Cane Garden

The Percy Cane Garden

Percy Cane was a very famous post-war garden designer and was commissioned by the Crichton-Stuarts in the 1940s to create a garden fit for a palace. No-one had any idea of what the gardens would have looked like, so the family commissioned Percy to create this space. Barbara Crichton-Stuart had a very big influence on the project after she had moved into the palace with her husband Michael and their family. The fact that a woman in the 1940s took charge of this and was calling the shots is also quite unique as well.

A wildflower meadow, growing with tall white daisies and long grass. There are fruit trees planted here and there, and Falkland Palace is visible in the distance.
Falkland Palace orchard

The orchard

We have records showing that the first gardener worked at Falkland in the 1400s. The orchard has long been a part of this. It is currently a wildflower meadow, encouraging bees, insect pollination and greater biodiversity in our garden and the surrounding area. It has a very different feel to the Percy Cane Garden, particularly when the wildflowers are in bloom; it feels like a wild space, compared to the flower beds and lawns. There is also a living willow labyrinth in the orchard, which is very popular with young visitors.

A room with curved brick walls and ceiling set up like a traditional apothecary, with a long wooden table and shelves with pots and jars of ingredients for remedies.
The palace apothecary

The Falkland apothecary

This is a room which we set up to mimic an apothecary, and is where they would have prepared medicines using planted herbs and other ingredients. We know that apothecaries often travelled with the courts, working in areas like this at a palace. To create the space, we used a little creative licence and furniture which was either in storage or was specially made by a local craftsman, Leo Norris. Outside we have a civic garden, planted with traditional medicinal herbs which would have been used during the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. To ensure that the plants chosen were historically accurate, our gardener followed records and worked with historians to find what would have been used for different medicines at that time. The palace apothecary also featured in Outlander, with one of the early episodes filmed in the room! We still get visitors coming to Falkland to see where they filmed.

An elaborate bed with a frame carved from oak, with beautiful fruitwood and ebony marquetry.
The majestic ‘Falkland Bed’

The Falkland Bed

This is a beautifully ornate bed and was supposed to have been made for James VI of Scotland, but we are unsure of the exact story behind it. What we do know is that it was found at an auction by the Crichton-Stuarts. In the auction catalogue it was labelled as ‘The Falkland Bed’ and they just had to buy it. They then brought it back to the property and Barbara and Michael slept in it! It is beautifully carved and dominates the bedroom.

This story first appeared in The Scots Magazine

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