House of Dun near Montrose has reopened after a major ‘re-imagining’ by the National Trust for Scotland. Gayle Ritchie chats to Iain Hawkins, the man behind the project and NTS general manager for the north-east.
The story of Alice in Wonderland springs to mind when you talk to Iain Hawkins about his bold vision for House of Dun.
“Its large courtyard consists of lots of little rooms with black doors,” says Iain, animatedly.
“Every little room is an adventure in itself. Visitors can walk through the archway into the courtyard and go through all the little black doors and experience fascinating stories about Angus.”
It’s unlikely visitors will find any magic potions to drink, and thereafter shrink, inside these rooms, but they will experience an enthralling, enchanting journey of discovery.
They’ll even do a bit of time-travelling.
It’s a hugely exciting time for the House of Dun, an A-listed Georgian mansion near Montrose, having undergone a major £750,000 revamp and “re-imagining”, reopening to the public on July 1.
The transformation has been three-and-a-half years in the making and Iain, who is National Trust for Scotland’s north east general manager, and the man behind the project, is ecstatic to see everything come to fruition.
The new offering is not just about the historic mansion, compete with exquisite plasterwork which hides secret Jacobite symbolism – it’s about creating a heritage park which tells the story of Angus.
On top of that, the property has become the new home for the Angus Folk Museum collection of Lady Maitland of Burnside, which was housed in Glamis until a few years ago.
“There are so many amazing things here, never mind the house, its beautiful gardens and its lovely refurbished courtyard,” says Iain.
“The rest of the estate is fantastic. There’s Dun Castle, a ruin which one day we’d like to see investigated by archaeologists, an old mausoleum, and so much nature and natural heritage.
“It ticks all the boxes to be a really successful destination and visitor attraction.”
House of Dun was originally designed by renowned architect William Adam for the 13th Laird, David Erskine, a judge of the Court of Session. It was built in 1743 to replace the medieval tower house which had been home to the Erskine family since 1375.
The property is set in gardens – laid out by an illegitimate daughter of William IV, Lady Augusta Fitzclarence, the wife of the Hon. John Kennedy Erskine – and a large estate which encompasses policies and farmland, the Old Dun Kirk (which John Knox visited), Erskine Mausoleum, the Montrose Basin Nature Reserve, Dun’s Dish (an old curling pond) and a two-mile stretch of the River Esk.
It has been owned by the NTS since 1980 and first opened to the public in 1989.
Going back to those intriguing wee rooms branching off from the courtyard, Iain says they seemed the “logical place” to rehome the collection of Angus Folk Museum.
“People were upset it closed in Glamis but it had a lot of issues with damp and a leaking roof,” he says.
“The collection is huge, with around 4,500 pieces but we won’t show them all at once!
“There will be about 400 to start with. The museum was the brainchild of Lady Maitland who filled the boot of her Austin 7 with household goods and agricultural equipment from 200 to 300 years ago and showed it at the likes of the Highland Show to queues of people.
“It got to the point where her boot wasn’t big enough so she found it a new home in Glamis. It stayed there from the 1950s until recently.
“It’s been in a warehouse in Brechin since 2014 so it’s great to have it back on view in Angus.
“One room tells the story of Lady Maitland, another is called hen house and tells the story of food production in Angus over last the 300 years, more or less whisky and oats, the staple diet for many.”
The vast collection has everything from old ploughs and shears to a rare horse-drawn Glenisla hearse which was used for burials around Glamis, children’s toys such as the “gird and cleek” from the late 19th century, a harpoon gun, a punt gun (once used to shoot birds at the Montrose basin!), 20 house bells, once used to summon servants, a stuffed parrot, a penny farthing, and the bizarre sounding “silent companion” dating from the 1590s – a doll used by lords and ladies encouraged not to communicate with servants.
“We’ve had some of old toys retromade so kids can play with toys of old like the gird and cleek, the type of thing Oor Wullie would have played with,” says Iain.
“We want to take people back in time and have people saying, of yes, I remember those.”
Inside the main house, visitors can take tours led by costumed guides playing the roles of three former residents of the mansion: aristocrat Violet Augusta Mary Frederica Kennedy-Erskine (later known as poet Violet Jacob), house cook Isabella Peddie and William Young, overseer of the estate.
Award-winning theatre director Al Seed has created the immersive tours which feature garments by costume designer Zephyr Liddell. The NTS has also commissioned sound artist Guy Veale to develop audio installations throughout the property, including Doric readings.
The stables and courtyard area feature multi-sensory interpretation (think bird song and the smell of horses for starters) and costumed storytelling.
Other topics covered include the Declaration of Arbroath, and the debt we owe to horses in peacetime and war.
Elsewhere in the property, there are pop-up spaces for local artisan producers while new maps and signage point people to the beautiful walks around the estate.
Culzean of the East
Work on the transformation project was delayed due to the pandemic but the NTS has likened the repurposed House of Dun to the “Culzean of the East”.
“It’s a beautiful castle in South Ayrshire, also owned by the NTS, and is the go-to attraction for the people of Glasgow,” says Iain.
“Here at House of Dun, we tick a lot of the same boxes. We have multi-sensory interpretations on subjects ranging from toys of the past to hidden Jacobite secrets and agriculture heritage, as well as costumed story-telling, a new cafe, a restaurant, shops and a play area.
“We want it to become a day visit, where people can have lunch, explore the house and heritage areas, enjoy the play area, and sit outside with a coffee and an ice cream.
“The House of Dun has always had the oldest average visitor age in the NTS and I want to open the estate up to younger people and the family market, by providing engaging entertainment for adults and children.
“I hope to provide a new offering, and to boost the economy and tourism within Angus.”
Iain, who was born in Carnoustie and describes himself as “an Angus boy”, went to primary school in Montrose, did secondary school in Monifieth and flew the nest at 17 to move south and work for Merlin Entertainments, running huge attractions such as Blackpool Tower, Madame Tussauds and the Blackpool Dungeon, before returning to Scotland in 2016 to take on his NTS role.
With his office in Crathes, he’s responsible for 21 proprieties across the region, from Barry Mill near Carnoustie to Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire.
“It feels like coming home”
“It’s feels like coming home,” he says. “Having this project on the doorstep of Montrose is quite a proud thing for me to be able to do.
“But I’ve heard so many stories of people who’ve been here a long time ago and never been back.
“I suppose that was built into our thinking when we decided to scope out the project three and half years ago – about how do we get people to actually want to come here.
“When you start looking at what this estate is all about, you realise you don’t have to go far to find the answer.”
The House of Dun heritage park project is one of the biggest in the NTS’s 90th anniversary year, which is pretty special.
“We’ve been around since 1931 and have come this far by evolving and looking at new ways to bring history to life, celebrate these incredible places and connect with people,” reflects Iain.
“Angus has so much to offer and there’s so much to be proud of. We should be shouting about it.”
The House of Dun project has been made possible thanks to the legacy of Dr Sheila Bain, members of the NTS Patrons’ Club, Northwood Charitable Trust, Angus Members Centre, and other generous donors.
Gayle Ritchie remembers…
I was 12 when I last visited House of Dun, on a trip during my school’s summer “leisure week”.
I was proudly sporting a white shellsuit and a boy on the bus asked me on a date.
When I chat to Iain about perceptions of the property and reveal I’ve not been for decades, he’s not surprised.
“That’s a common thing to hear,” he says. “Hopefully our transformation will entice more people to come and see what it has to offer now.”
I may not meet a future boyfriend on a bus (he dumped me after a fortnight) but I’m confident I’ll be enthralled by the 2021 version of House of Dun.
- For more information, see House of Dun.