Four years ago, faced with the sale of a unique 18th-century house in Ayrshire, I took the decision to try to save the building and its contents for the nation. At the time, our consortium’s acquisition of Dumfries House for £45 million was described by Alex Salmond as the “save of the century” – and with good reason. This magnificent Adam brothers building, completed in 1759, still retained much of its original Chippendale furniture and stunning plasterwork interiors. Sadly, it is incredibly rare to find an 18th- or even a 19th-century house which retains its original furniture, especially of such quality. Indeed, in 1994, the curator of the National Trust for Scotland concluded that Dumfries “represents one of the most important interiors not only in Scotland, but also in the United Kingdom”.
Saving a property of this size and stature is no easy task. Our aim was simple enough: to make Dumfries House accessible to the public and to conserve it for the nation. But right up to the moment the deal was signed, the ending was in considerable doubt. At one stage, lorries full of Chippendale furniture were heading to auction in London, only to be called back in the middle of the night.
We had two major obstacles – time and money. A separate attempt to save the house had failed, and unless we were able to act immediately and decisively, this wonderful house, its estate and furniture would have been lost to the nation for ever. With the assistance of a number of committed individuals, I was able to bring together heritage charities, the Scottish Government and private donors to raise the total of £45 million. Around £12 million had already been committed, and in the time available we increased this to £25 million. To plug the gap, my Charities Foundation donated the balance of £20 million – despite needing to borrow the money in order to do so.
From the start, my intention has been twofold. First, to allow visitors to enjoy the beauty of the house. And second, to use the project as a catalyst for regeneration – what I call heritage-led regeneration. My Regeneration Trust managed something similar at Sowerby Bridge near Halifax and Anchor Mills in Paisley, and I knew that, with a little imagination, Dumfries House could be a real asset to this community, struggling economically (and in many other ways) since the closure of the mines.
Central to this strategy will be an “enabling” development on 77 acres, at nearby Knockroon. Like Poundbury in Dorset, this will expand an existing town, in this case Cumnock. Building has begun and the foundation stone will be laid during my next visit. More immediately, jobs are being created by opening the house to visitors, running a café, hosting teaching and conference facilities, and making the house available for events. I was delighted when, just two days before my son’s wedding, I met Jamie McCann and Mairi Gilles, the first young couple who will be getting married there. With the help of Morrisons supermarket, the Home Farm is being brought back to life, which I hope will be a model of genuinely sustainable farming, and teach children about healthy eating. Plans are also under way for a training centre to tackle the shortage of traditional craft skills, as well as hospitality skills.
All these initiatives will, we hope, generate income and jobs, but the investment needed remains substantial. The restoration of Dumfries House and its estate has required help from a wide range of people. Furniture experts have restored and conserved items such as the Chippendale bed. Textile experts have recreated the 18th-century fabric. Conservation experts have unearthed the intricate paintwork, and an army of quantity surveyors, electricians, engineers and builders has worked tirelessly to provide heating and hot water, fired by a woodchip boiler.
Such work has brought the house back to life – but a lot more needs to be done. There are important structures to be restored, including the old walled garden and the beautiful Adam bridge. Some furniture is yet to reach its former glory. This will require considerable help in terms of expertise and financial contributions. I very much hope that the public can also play its part, by visiting and enjoying this magnificent house, or using it for a wedding, conference or event.
My charities foundation took a risk borrowing £20 million, but it was well worth taking. The house is almost restored, and recently opened to the public. More than 100 jobs have been created, with more to come; well over half of the loan has been repaid ahead of schedule; and I hope that a model for heritage-led regeneration has been established. This is something I have been pursuing for a long time, as I firmly believe that any truly civilised society values its past and learns from it as it strives for a better future. Our heritage informs who we are, helping to give us our identity and sense of belonging. We lose touch with it at our peril.