Arniston House is an exceptionally fine Palladian mansion designed by the architect William Adam in 1726 and completed by his son John Adam in the 1750s. It stands in a substantial estate close to the village of Temple just to the east of the main A7 some 5 miles south of the Edinburgh bypass. To the south east the land rises steadily to form the Moorfoot Hills, while a little to the west of the house is the steep sided valley of the River South Esk.
The story of Arniston House is closely entwined with the story of the Dundas family. The family has played a notable role in the affairs of Scotland for many centuries, and a number of members became prominent lawyers and politicians. What makes Arniston House such a special place today is that it remains the home of the Dundas family. It has lived and evolved with the family, and has been adapted a number of times to accommodate their changing tastes and needs.
This continuing connection means that a visit to Arniston House is a visit to a real family home, albeit a large one, and you are likely to find your guided tour conducted by a member of the family. Information about guided tours is available on the house's website, see links on the right. As a visitor attraction Arniston House deserves to be better known than it is, especially given its relative proximity to Edinburgh.
The link between Arniston and the Dundas family began in 1571, when George Dundas purchased the Arniston Mains estate from the Scottish Crown. In the early 1600s it was recorded that the family were living in a tower house on the site of the house you see today. It is unclear whether what is sometimes referred to as Old Arniston House was built by the Dundas family after they acquired the estate, or whether it formed part of the property they purchased. On balance, the thickness of the surviving walls within the later house and its description as a "tower house" suggest that Old Arniston House may well have already been standing for some considerable time when George Dundas and his wife Katherine Oliphant first visited in search of a home for themselves and their baby son James.
If so, it is likely that the tower house was built by Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, the religious order which had owned this land until their properties were annexed by the Crown after the Reformation of 1560. The Knights of St John's presence here dated back to the early 1300s, when they took over all the Scottish properties of another, rather better known religious order, the Knights Templar, following the latter's suppression across Europe.
The memory of the Knight's Templar is retained in the name of the nearby village, Temple, which was the site from which they administered their Scottish estates. It is also thought that the cottages you pass half way along the drive to Arniston House stand on the site of buildings constructed by the Knights Templar: but there is no suggestion that any part of Old Arniston House dated back to before the 1400s or 1500s, by which time the estate had long been owned by the Knights of St John.
It was Robert Dundas who was responsible for the building of Arniston House. He became Solicitor General and then Lord Advocate of Scotland, and served as President of the Court of Session. By the early 1720s he appears to have concluded that Old Arniston House was no longer an adequate reflection of his power and prestige, and when he inherited the estate in 1726 he decided to replace the house. The man he chose as his architect was William Adam, a rising star whose ongoing work at nearby Mavisbank was much admired at the time. It is easy to imagine Robert Dundas telling William Adam he wanted something like Mavisbank, only on a much bigger scale.
And that is, pretty much, what eventually emerged. Work commenced as soon as the plans had been agreed and the existing, U-shaped, tower house was largely demolished, retaining just two rooms at ground floor level and vaulted basements. Over the next six years the new house took shape around the parts of the earlier structure that had been retained. In 1732, however, the money ran out, largely because both the owner and his architect had been carried away with the extensive and expensive new gardens being laid out to the south of the house.
When work ceased, Arniston House was left in a very strange state, with the western third of the main house simply unbuilt, leaving a gap between the finished parts of the house and the end of the colonnade that was meant to link the house to the west pavilion, which had been completed.
It was left to the next generation to sort things out. Robert's son, also Robert Dundas, inherited the estate in 1753, and his immediate intention was to sell the estate and its incomplete house to clear family debts. He had, however, married Henrietta Baillie of Lammington in 1741, and she offered to sell her own extensive landholdings instead, so that Arniston could be retained and the house completed. Robert Dundas engaged John Adam, one of William Adam's sons, as architect, and after a gap of 21 years work finally resumed and Arniston House was completed, albeit to a very different internal layout to the one envisaged when it was first commissioned.
Later generations of the Dundas family made a series of changes to Arniston House. Most strikingly, a porch was added to the north front in 1877. Access had previously been via external stairs which swept up both sides to a main entrance. The new porch was generally regarded as a poor addition on architectural grounds, while at the same time making life much easier if the house was lived in during the winter months. Rather earlier, in 1813, an extension had been made in the centre of the south face of the house to allow more space, and a great deal more light, in the Oak Room.
In 1957 it was discovered that the ground floor rooms in the western third of the house were riddled with dry rot. They were stripped back to the underlying structure and once again the residents had to live without the use of this part of the house for an extended period. Only this time it was for rather longer. The John Adam Dining Room reopened after restoration in 1993, and the John Adam Drawing Room reopened in 1998, after a closure of 41 years.
Visitors to Arniston House can enjoy many of the main rooms in the house as part of their guided tour. The heart of Arniston House is the Main Hall, a marvellous space occupying what was previously the courtyard within the "U" of the tower house, and offering an immediate "wow" factor; while off to the west are the John Adam rooms.
For us, the two other highlights on the main floor of the house are the Oak Room, occupying what was originally the ground floor of the tower house, and the library in the north east corner of the house, formed from what had previously been a bedroom in the 1860s. Meanwhile the Dundas's Sitting Room is also visited by tours of the house, as are, on an upper floor, the original William Adam Library, now home to porcelain rather than books, and the Picture Room/School Room.