The restoration of Kellie Castle was an adventure. Discovered when the family were out walking, Prof. James Lorimer swiftly arranged a 38 year lease and set to work to restore the castle with his family, local craftsmen and the architects William Burn and John Currie, remembered by his son John Henry for saving the great hall ceiling by fixing railway rods across the room above. The latin inscription above the door reads: “This house, seized from crows and owls, is dedicated to honest ease amid labours.”
Prof. James' son Robert restored Earlshall Castle with the same sensitivity that had been applied to Kellie, reiterated by Robert's teacher Rowan Anderson who stood for true restoration over elaborate embellishment. The surface of the painted gallery was removed and reapplied to new timber with tender care. Having returned from London to oversee the restoration, Robert stayed at Kellie with his mother at the weekends, cycling the 11 miles to Earlshall to take dimensions. During the week, he returned to Edinburgh where he lived with his sister Louise. It was Louise who spotted and passed on an architectural model, made by John Fraser Matthew. On seeing the model, Robert marched to the bookshop where the seventeen-year-old was working, gave the owner a week’s wages in place of the boy’s notice and employed him as his apprentice. In time, Matthew became partner of Robert's practice.
Robert’s older brother John Henry also completed several restorations, the first of which was The Gyles, battered by the sea and deemed unfit for habitation. When he died, his nephew Hew Lorimer lived there for a time before moving to and saving Kellie for a second time. Hew lived and worked at Kellie with his family until it was sold to the National Trust. He later worked on The Little Houses Improvement Scheme, continuing his family's legacy, by “rescuing dilapidated old houses of true Scottish character […] without destroying the character of the buildings.”
“They have an atmosphere. Something you can’t describe...you feel yourself thinking, you don’t know what, about everything that is most precious in life and design, fancy that has taken fair shapes, children’s laughter and the never to be discovered girl. The ideal life is the old, traditional “un-hurrying” Scotland, and outside right below the windows, the great sad, moving sea, and ships tacking for the Baltic.”
- Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer (about Earlshall & Wemyss Castle)
Kellie Castle (West Tower: 1360, East Tower: 1573, Central Part: 1606, Restored by the Lorimers: 1878), Arncroach, Photo: Private Collection
Earlshall Castle (Built: 1540, Restored by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer: 1892), Leuchars, Photo: © Paul and Josie Veenhuijzen
Painted Gallery before Restoration, Earlshall, Photo: Private Collection
Painted Gallery after Restoration, Earlshall, Photo: Private Collection
Design for Earlshall Garden by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, John Begg, Photo: © Royal Scottish Academy
Gate at The Gyles, JHL initials, Pittenweem, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
The skills and crafts observed and absorbed by the young Robert Lorimer at Kellie Castle became the foundation of his career as an architect. In his Lecture on William Morris (1897), he said that “the only real way to approach design was through a thorough knowledge and appreciation of the material in which your design was to carried out.” The importance of craftsmanship had also been emphasised by George Bodley, the architect who first Robert on as an apprentice.
From Hew Wardrop, the teacher Robert came to name his own son Hew after, Robert learned three things: “the 1st is proportion, the 2nd - is proportion & and the 3rd - is - proportion.” The sloping towers of Ardkinglas curve with the Argyllshire hills behind, reflected in the ripples of Loch Fyne. Christopher Hussey, Robert’s first biographer, wrote that it was raised from the three key factors Robert relied upon: beautiful materials, an intricate and well-organised plan and a romantic setting. Together with his circle of friends, craftsmen and designers, Robert completed the mansion house for Sir Andrew Noble in an astonishing twenty-one months.
“The wife was with me at Ardkinglas over last week end…Vi motored to church with Miss N. and I wandered around, and I tell you I had a lump in my throat, as if I was saying goodbye to a child. I made a tour - the power house, the dam, the water works, then down the hill again to the home farm, the garage, the kennels, the pier, the gardens. All done and finished up. Never in my life have I enjoyed a job like that, it all went with such a swing. I managed to make everyone keen.”
- Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer
The Master of Works for this extraordinary project was James Grieve, described by Robert as "the finest clerk of works man ever had." Together, they worked on five projects, including The Thistle Chapel. Built in less than a year, the chapel was complete for St Andrews Day 1910 when the members of the Order of the Thistle, recognised for great acts of chivalry, traditionally met in their chapel: an event which had not been held since The Thistle chapel at Holyrood and been destroyed two hundred and twenty years previously.
“The first impression as one enters the chapel is of restrained splendour, the rich colours of the heraldry in enamel and mantling enriching the canopied stalls and streaming through the jewelled windows - a fantastic forest flaming upwards around a dark pool represented by the deep green Ailsa Craig marble floor.”
- Christopher Hussey, The Work of Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer
The beauty of the materials, plan and setting of the Thistle Chapel in Romantic Edinburgh parallel Ardkinglas, drawn together by Robert’s established team of craftsmen. The speed of both projects was the result of the confidence Robert had in the creativity and skill of his craftsman, to whom he gave responsibility and freedom of expression. Robert described the blacksmith Thomas Hadden, with whom he worked for thirty years, as “a rare bird, a working blacksmith with an imagination of his own.” The Clow brothers, both woodcarvers, showed similar loyalty to Robert for this reason, working almost exclusively for him for his entire career.
Ardkinglas House (1907), Loch Fyne, Photo: Private Collection
Ardkinglas House (1907), Loch Fyne, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Gate (1907), Thomas Hadden, Ardkinglas House, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
James Grieve outside the Thistle Chapel (1911), Photo: © St Giles Cathedral
Interior of the Thistle Chapel (c.1909), Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, Photo: © Canmore
Lamp (c.1911), modelled by Louis Deuchars, cast by Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts, including crest by Phoebe Traquair, Thistle Chapel, St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Photo: © David Allan
Ceiling of the Thistle Chapel (1911), St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Photo: © David Allan