Newhailes is an astonishing relic, an apparently unrestored stately home whose surrounding parkland fills about half the open land between the built-up areas of Edinburgh and Musselburgh. Today this parkland, with its extensive views across the Forth to Fife and along the river to Aberlady Bayand Gullane, is a popular spot. But sooner or later most who visit will start to wonder about the house around which the park is wrapped.
Newhailes was, for a little under three centuries, the home of the historically powerful Dalrymple family. It was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in 1997, and since then the Trust has done as much as has been necessary to stabilise the house and prevent deterioration. But they also chose to respect the unique and original nature of much of the house by doing as little work on the property and its contents as they could.
It is fair to say that the result may not be to everyone's taste. Newhailes is no idealised grand house restored as it would have appeared at a particular moment in time, and it is certainly not a museum full of showcase exhibits. But this does mean that a visitor to Newhailes gets a real sense of what living in a house like this might have been like. Fixtures and fittings that date back centuries vie for attention with piles of books, one of which is topped off with a fully bound hardback shopping catalogue. The cover of this catalogue carries a sticker noting that in the year it applied to, 1917, fluctuations in prices were an unfortunate side effect of an event which, at the same time, was losing Scotland a large portion of an entire generation of its young men.
This is only one tiny example of the very many ways in which visitors to Newhailes gain a very unusual sense of having accidentally wandered into a real home occupied by real people. The house has a - very carefully preserved and conserved - "lived in" feel. Some parts have a slightly tatty-round-the-edges appearance, like the poor polar bear whose skin has long served as a rug in front of the fire in the library, and which shows the inevitable charred spot that comes with a long life as a hearthrug. And yet, aspects of the house have a splendour and magnificence that can match anything you are likely to see elsewhere. The library itself, though now devoid of books, is the sort of room you'd love to package up and take home with you, even if it's very unlikely you'd have the space for it. Likewise the dining room, which was built to impress, and which still does, all these years later.
The origins of Newhailes can be traced back to the estate, then known as Whitehill, purchased in 1686 by an architect called James Smith. While studying to become a priest in Rome as a young man, Smith had been greatly inspired by the work of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio. Instead of becoming a priest, Smith became an architect, and he was an early exponent of the Palladian style that was to become so popular right across the British Isles. Smith also went on to father 32 children during the course of his two marriages, perhaps a further sign of his unsuitability for the priesthood. Among Smith's surviving architectural works are the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh and Dalkeith House.
Smith's original Palladian Villa at Whitehill was seven bays wide and, though later restyled, can still be seen as the central portion of Newhailes. In 1702 Smith got into financial difficulties and had to sell Whitehill. In 1709 the house was brought from its then owner, Lord Bellenden, by Sir David Dalrymple, 1st Baronet of Hailes. He paid 40,000 Merks, which translated to £27,000 at the time, or about £2.5 million in modern terms.
Sir David was at different times Solicitor General for Scotland, Lord Advocate, and Auditor General of the Exchequer. He should not be confused with his older brother, Sir John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair, who became one of the darkest figures in Scottish history when he organised and authorised the 1692 Glencoe Massacre.
The house's new owner based his title on the existing family estate at Hailes in East Lothian, and Whitehill was rapidly renamed New Hailes, which has since become Newhailes. Sir David was quickly started work on a new south-east wing intended primarily to house his large collection of books, and he also began landscaping the surrounding park. The 2nd Baronet of Hailes, Sir James Dalrymple, completed the library wing, then moved on to balance it with what became known as the great apartment wing, a north-west wing designed primarily to accommodate a series of grand reception and function rooms, albeit within the constraints of producing a symmetrical building.
The 3rd Baronet, another Sir David, built on his grandfather's collection of books and became an important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. At this time the library was referred to by no less a commentator than Dr Samuel Johnston as "the most learned drawing room in Europe".
After Sid David's death in 1792, Newhailes passed through the hands of a further six generations of Dalrymples, starting with Miss Christian Dalrymple, and concluding with Sir Mark Dalrymple, 3rd Baronet of Newhailes. Sir Mark died without heirs in 1971, and his widow, Lady Antonia, continued to live at Newhailes until it was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in 1997.
The NTS's stated policy at Newhailes of doing "as much as necessary but as little as possible", plus the comfortable and lived-in feel of the house, might lead to you think that when they acquired the house, they simply had to recruit some guides and open the doors to the public. This was very far from the case. In the five years up to the public opening in 2002, a great deal was done to ensure Newhailes will be enjoyed by generations to come, and photographs from the period show the entire house covered in scaffolding. One of the problems was that because it had been decided to do no redecoration and to leave existing wall coverings in place, all the wiring and conduits for things like the new fire and security systems had to be routed beneath the flooring.
Today's visitor to Newhailes begins at the visitor centre in what used to be the stable block. Here you will also find the shop and the coffee house. Timing and details of guided tours are set out on the right. Visitors enter Newhailes via the vestibule, complete with plasterwork for which Sir James Dalrymple paid £44 in 1742. The colour scheme is very "Wedgwood" inspired, and leads you to expect similar light tones through the rest of the house. In fact, the vestibule was redecorated in 1986 after treatment for dry rot, and is far from typical of Newhailes as a whole.
Heading to the right from the vestibule brings you into the Chinese sitting room. This survives remarkably unchanged from its earliest role as the great dining room in the original James Smith villa. Today it is a room anyone could feel comfortable just sitting in and enjoying. Beyond the Chinese sitting room is the largest room in Newhailes, the magnificent library. A library without books has a slightly lonely feel, especially one as large as this: but despite the removal of the books to the National Library of Scotland, the library will for many be the highlight of the tour. At the back of the library, a door leads to the china closet.
Returning to the vestibule, you begin to realise that almost the whole of the main floor of Newhailes is just a single room deep. This was a house designed to impress from every angle: and clearly built in a time when coal for heating was cheap and readily available. In fact, on at least one occasion, the owners of Newhailes had to come to an agreement with the local pit owner to stop the property being - literally - undermined.
Heading the other way from the vestibule brings you into the first of the rooms of "the great apartment", the dining room. This fairly large room is aligned along the length of the house and has windows on both sides. Its most striking feature are four massive columns, about three quarters of the way into the room. At first it isn't clear whether these are decorative or function, but we suspect they probably prop up what was once the main end wall of the 1686 villa. The dining room's second most striking feature is its colour scheme. Who would have come up with the idea of painting such an important room in a dark green colour that would look more at home on a second world war tank? Yet it works superbly well: perhaps dark green will become the new magnolia...
Beyond the dining room, the front of the wing is occupied by the drawing room, or winter sitting room, with behind it the best bedroom, usually reserved for the most important guest. The dressing room off the bedroom is one of the highlights of any tour of the house, complete with its Chinese silk wallpaper.
Taking one of Newhailes three staircases brings visitors to the first floor, where the green bedroom, the yellow room and the alcove bedroom are all included on the tour. Visitors then descend two floors to the basement service level where the old kitchen is viewed. Today you depart from the house by the servants' entrance, which is at the far end of a tunnel enclosed within an embankment that kept them out of view of residents or their guests. Servants should, presumably, be neither seen nor heard, just be ready to respond instantly when called by one of the many bells lined up in the basement corridor.