In 1748, having faced down a second Jacobite rebellion north of the border, the Hanoverian government leased a dilapidated, conflict-ravaged building in the Highlands to serve as a garrison against the troublesome natives. Some half-a-century later Braemar Castle (r) would be returned to its owners, the Farquharsons of Invercauld, reconstructed and relatively habitable. Today, with post-Brexit tensions threatening a twenty-first century constitutional stand-off, a British government so-minded to quell those pesky Nationalists would find the lease on Braemar already taken. A mile or so east, Invercauld House – ‘the most beautifully situated mansion on Deeside’ – is similarly spoken for.
In a double first Handed on heads at last to Scotland and spotlights a model of ancestral country house sustainability where occupation by the hereditary owner is not a practical (or appealing) proposition. At the end of the nineteenth century it was remarked that ‘the Invercauld Farquharsons seem to have adapted themselves promptly to altered times’, a trait which continues into the twenty-first.
2017 marks the tenth anniversary of an ongoing community-driven initiative at Braemar Castle which has maintained the building’s fabric and seen it develop as a thriving heritage attraction. A small band of dedicated volunteers convinced the Invercauld Estate to hand over the castle on a 50-year improving lease, averting its likely sale. Since 2003 Invercauld House has also been available, the maintenance burden at the 14-bedroom pile most recently taken on by a private tenant on a similar long-term lease. While the chief of Clan Farquharson and his heirs reside principally in England the family remain possessed of their ancestral residences which lie at the heart of one of the largest private landholdings in Britain.
Before the complicating reality of the Brexit vote the nationalist-dominated Scottish Assembly had already tossed a caber into another hornets nest with its vowed intent to shake up the traditional pattern of land ownership in Scotland. Characterised as “a Mugabe-style land grab” by one peer1 (the 4th Viscount Astor, 20,000 acres), the fact of less than 500 individuals owning half of the country excited much debate (↑) before the passing of the 2016 Land Reform Act, seen as a staging post in pursuit of a ‘more socially just’ state of affairs.
The omission of a statutory register of ownership disappointed some campaigners. In its submission to the consultation process the Invercauld Estate had little issue with such a thing in principal and indeed readily declares its 108,000-acre (156 sq mile) extent here (though a figure over 120,000 acres is commonly cited). The estate did, however, demur from the proposition ‘that in future land should only be owned (or a long lease taken) by individuals or by a legal entity formed in accordance with the law of a Member State of the EU’. ‘This could,’ Invercauld suggested, ‘threaten inward investment from other nationals, such as the Swiss’ – a nationality plucked, in this case, not entirely at random.
Capt. Alwyne Compton Farquharson, who will be 98 next month, is the 16th ‘Farquharson of Invercauld’ and clan chieftain (r), his innings in these roles now longer by some margin than any of his predecessors. He had already been laird for three years by the time he was awarded the Military Cross in 1944 having stuck to his task though ‘wounded in a hail of shellfire during the fighting in Normandy’.
Findlay, the 1st Farquharson of Invercauld, had less luck on the battlefield having perished with thousands of compatriots at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547. Initially vassals, from the time of Robert, 5th laird of Invercauld (succeeded 1632), the Farquharsons would become substantial landowners here in their own right, and have remained so. The succession of Robert’s grandson John (9th Farquharson of Invercauld) in 1694 ushered in the greatest period of expansion and improvement of an estate which would have but two owners across the entire eighteenth century, his son James inheriting in 1750 (d. 1805).
In his time John Farquharson (r) would experience the violent double rupture of the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. Though possibly less hardcore in his commitment to the cause, Farquharson was obligated to his local superior, the quixotic Earl of Mar, in actively supporting Mar’s call to arms at Braemar in September 1715. Once routed the earl fled to France, never to return. Meanwhile his lieutenant languished in Marshalsea Prison for nine months doubtless fearing the worst.
But Farquharson received a fair hearing from the king and parliament and after his release he would eventually acquire Mar’s attainted Braemar estate. Having been there, done that, John Farquharson decided to opt out of ‘the ’45’ entirely (leaving his Jacobite daughter Anne and her Hanoverian husband to fight out the conflict in microcosm, surely the mother of all domestics).
‘A barrel-vaulted undercroft may be its oldest element,’ but details of the development of Invercauld House to this point have been subsequently obscured.2 While a relatively modest L-shaped affair – its naturally dramatic setting at this time further enhanced by radiating landscaped drives – Invercauld remained adequate for James Farquharson (r) as all but one of eleven children born to his first wife Amelia died young.
‘The mother, worn out with watching, anxiety and sorrow followed her children in 1779 leaving only the youngest, five-year-old Catherine,’ who would be thirty-one when inheriting as Invercauld’s first female laird. While Catherine may have lacked siblings her son and heir James made sure she would not want for grandchildren…
… he and wife Jane averaging a child a year between 1834 and 1845 (all of whom would reach maturity). Unsurprisingly given such a reproductive schedule Invercauld was enlarged, ‘the house becoming an extended Z-plan with north service wings, a long south elevation facing the river with Dutch gables and the SE wing, at right angles to the main block’.2
But this demure appearance would be beefed up by the 13th laird ten years after he succeeded his father in 1862. ‘Piccadilly Jim’ Farquharson (below, d.1888) and his London architect John Thomas Wimperis were not exactly original in their concept for Invercauld House, however, joining in a mania…
… for the ‘Scots Baronial’ style which had taken hold across the country by the middle of the nineteenth century. Robust yet lively compositions in granite, Ardverikie House – Invercauld’s exact contemporary some eighty mile west, familiar as the location for popular BBC series ‘Monarch of the Glen’ – exemplifies these romantic Highland confections. More locally the bar had been raised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s remodelling of neighbouring Balmoral from 1852.
From 1872 Invercauld House would be recast as a refined echo of its natural setting with the principal materials all sourced from the vast estate. The granite structure now revolved around a 70ft tower ‘created by heightening the existing walls of the old main block to six storeys at the intersection of the main block and its SE wing’.2
The main entrance was now relocated from the elbow of that juncture to the opposite side. ‘Its pyramidal roof adds to the wider fantastical outline busy with battlements, crow-stepped gables and pepperpot towers.’3 Within, carved pine interiors…
… compete with wall-to-wall tartan and antlers, all by now de rigeur characteristics with a purpose beyond simple lairdly oneupmanship. For such displays became a marketing tool in attracting plutocratic seasonal tenants keen to enjoy the full Highland sporting experience: from the late C19 the Farquharsons would regularly decamp to make way for blue-chip paying guests. (With extensive grouse moors, a large deer population and 24-mile stretch of the River Dee, field sports continue to underpin the estate’s viability.) In 1956 they obliged for a royal tenant, the Queen Mother, who, with the builders in at Birkhall, leased Invercauld House in order that she could ‘give her usual summer house parties for the shooting’.4
Her Royal Highness had plainly not been put off by the aesthetic impact which had recently been made here by the presiding mistress of Invercauld. American-born Frances Lovell Oldham – ‘Frances the fabulous‘ – a former fashion editor at British Vogue and editor of Harper’s Bazaar, had married (her third husband) Capt. Alwyne Farquharson in 1949 and gleefully set about importing a fondness for outre design and bold colour schemes into the tartan traditions of Deeside.
Also in the year of his marriage Alwyne would be formally recognised as chief of the clan by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. Born the eldest son of Edward Compton of Newby Hall in Yorkshire, he had taken the Farquharson name having inherited Invercauld under the settlement of his maternal grandfather, Alexander Haldane Farquharson (r), in 1941. (Alexander had been succeeded by his eldest daughter, socialite Myrtle (far right) – a bridesmaid at the wedding of Vita Sackville West’s lover, Violet Keppel, ‘the most curious of many a Season’ – who would be killed in the London blitz that year.)
The Farquharsons alternated between Invercauld House and Braemar Castle as one or the other was let before Frances’s death in 1991. Since when the clan chief has remarried and relocated to Norfolk, returning for traditional gatherings. Having no children, the designated heir to Invercauld and effectively its present-day laird is Farquharson’s nephew, botanist Dr. Jamie Compton (Newby Hall having once again passed to a younger son).
At an event in 2014 the future lady of Invercauld, garden designer and writer Tania Compton, led a conversation with pre-eminent fellow practitioner Piet Oudolf about his recent undertakings at a rather unlikely arts complex evolving in rural Somerset. The choice of host that day was perhaps not entirely unconnected with the fact that the creators of the said Durslade gallery (complete with its Bar & Grill and boutique Farmhouse accommodation) have, since 2012, been the Farquharsons’ tenants at Invercauld House.
An ability to ‘alchemise the wackiest contemporary art into vast sums of money’ through a canny combination of instinct and strategic commitment has seen this Swiss couple ranked among the most influential gallerists and dealers in the world. Last year saw the grand opening of a major 100,000-sq-ft presence in the Arts District of Los Angeles – adding to galleries in Zurich, London, New York and Somerset – the palpable expense involved being characteristically ‘natural and beside the point’.
And, five years into a fifty-year lease at Invercauld House, this empathetic munificence is now flowing into upper Deeside. The venerable Fife Arms in Braemar has since been acquired and is presently undergoing a stylish transformation ahead of rebirth as an ‘art hotel‘ in 2018. Less commercially, various local cultural and environmental initiatives are benefiting from generous support. (In light of such investment few will begrudge the indulgence of a rather more personal badge of commitment in the form of a bespoke tartan commissioned from top fashion designer Sir Paul Smith.)
At Invercauld itself the 1,400 acres of designed landscape surrounding the house are the focus of ‘a major programme of conservation, restoration and enhancement under the current tenant’, and outsized works of art have appeared.5 Al fresco sculpture was also occasionally to be seen outside the couple’s first London gallery, in the adjacent churchyard of St. James’s, Piccadilly. Built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1676, two centuries later this church was also in need of major restoration. The work would be overseen by J. T. Wimperis, the architect of Invercauld House…