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10 Aug 2021

The Great Eight at House of Dun

Written by Jason Robertson, Visitor Services Manager
The front entrance of House of Dun, with the gravelled driveway and lawn.
House of Dun and Montrose Basin Nature Reserve
Near the town of Montrose in Angus, standing in the midst of glorious gardens and woodland, is House of Dun, an elegant 18th-century Georgian house fit for a laird.

House of Dun reopened this summer after a major re-imagining by the Trust to create a heritage park that encompasses hundreds of years of history and tells the story of the landscape and its people. As well as the splendours of the house and its surroundings, House of Dun is now also the new permanent home of the Angus Folk Museum.

Here are eight of my favourite things:

A harpoon gun resting on a wooden mount.
The harpoon gun on display

The harpoon gun

The harpoon gun is part of the Angus Folk Museum collection. The collection is extraordinary and was gathered by Lady Jean Maitland throughout her life. There are over 4,500 pieces and they all tell the story of Angus life. The harpoon gun is part of that and is displayed in a room which shows the impact Angus has had on the world. We look at industries, such as linen, and at thriving commercial ports like Dundee and Montrose. Another major industry was commercial whaling, which continued all the way up to the 1960s. They used to travel from Angus to the Antarctic in their boats, and there is actually a Dundee Island up there! Whales were a major part of our industrialisation and had so many uses, including providing the oil for streetlights. Nowadays whaling is seen as something monstrous but it is a major part of our economic history, and it’s important we tell these stories.

A row of old-fashioned servants' bells mounted to a wall, with the name of a room underneath each one.
Some of the bells and their matching rooms, such as the Library and Mr Erskine's Morning Room

House bells

Every single room had a handle that rang a bell to summon the servants, but what I didn’t realise until I started working here was that each individual bell makes a different sound. The question that fascinates me is, how long did you have to work here before you knew which bell was ringing without checking the label beneath it? The bell would have stopped ringing before you got to the kitchen to check, so you had to know the sound. In total there are 20 different bells and 20 different sounds. The staff would have been expected to know every one of them and which room they matched.

A harpoon gun resting on a wooden mount.
The ornate clock bought in Italy

Mother of pearl clock

Lady Augusta’s husband, John Kennedy Erskine, was seriously ill and had reached a point where the doctors could do nothing for him. He was told to go to a warmer climate, and they travelled to Italy where, unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis. He died there at just 27 years of age. While in Italy Lady Augusta bought this clock and brought it back with her, keeping it in her boudoir. It was something she looked at every day and it reminded her of her husband; the clock is this enduring memorial of their love. We have a walk in the grounds, the Lady Augusta Walk, which follows the path she used to take every day to visit his tomb in the family mausoleum.

A harpoon gun resting on a wooden mount.
The beloved family parrot with the photo of it in life with Lady Augusta's daughter

The parrot

Every item we have in the house belonged to the family, and tells you something about the individuals who lived here. This parrot was a family pet, one that they loved so much that when it died, they had it stuffed and mounted. The family obviously cared hugely for this parrot, so much so that they wanted to preserve it in death. Next to the parrot you will see a photograph of Lady Augusta’s daughter holding it, and that’s a beautiful link to the past. It allows you to put a face to the owner and to see what the parrot meant to her. The picture shows that this wasn’t a trophy, it was a memorial to a part of the family that they wanted to remember.

A harpoon gun resting on a wooden mount.
Imagine riding the penny-farthing!

The penny-farthing

This is another object from the Angus Folk Museum and it's a fantastic item. For a start, I think it’s impossible to look at a penny-farthing and not start to smile – you immediately get this mental image of what you’d look like on it! The Angus collection contains so many different items that tell the life stories of people from the area, from childhood to the grave. We even have a hearse in the collection! A lot of the items were donated to Lady Maitland, some others were bought at auction, and when you look through them the penny-farthing just jumps out at you.

“The roads weren’t in fantastic condition back then and you have to wonder how they managed to cycle without falling off. It’s a great, fun item and really makes me smile.”
Jason Robertson
Visitor Services Manager
A harpoon gun resting on a wooden mount.
House of Dun is known for its incredible plasterwork by Joseph Enzer

The plasterwork

It took Dutch plasterer Joseph Enzer four years to complete the plasterwork in the house and it is incredible. When you look, you see stunning little details. There are real shells from Montrose Basin which were brought back to the house, dipped in plaster and stuck on the wall. There is a basket, a violin – like the shells they too are real, dipped in plaster and added as a feature. It is just incredible to look at and there is so much mythology and so many different stories running through it. You will find an interpretation of the Earl of Mar – who was a great Jacobite – depicted as Mars, the God of War, standing on the crown. You could easily spend hours studying the details and unlocking the stories.

A harpoon gun resting on a wooden mount.
The incredibly large and powerful punt gun

The punt gun

We have all kinds of different guns in the collection but this one sticks out a mile. It is a beast of a thing. The punt gun is basically an extremely large shotgun which was used for hunting large numbers of birds. We have a picture, taken at the Montrose Basin, which shows it mounted on a boat. They would take the gun, row it out into the basin, fill it with shot, and simply point it in the direction of the birds.

A harpoon gun resting on a wooden mount.
House of Dun's resident silent companion, also known as 'dummy boards'

The silent companion

This is upstairs in our parlour and is a bizarre item, dating back to 1590 or so. Back then there was no communication allowed between the lords and ladies of the house and their staff; it was a case of, ‘don’t look me in the eye when you are talking to me’. But they still wanted to talk and have a conversation, so they would ring the bell and tell the servant to bring them their silent companion. It is the strangest thing, this cut out doll that they would sit and talk to, but it was considered quite normal at the time. As time went by and society changed, and the number of staff working at the house decreased, the silent companion became redundant. It’s something that people find hard to believe today. They always ask, why didn’t they just speak to someone?

This story first appeared in The Scots Magazine.

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