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On our last day of exploring together, Clan Maitland members visited Traquair House, the oldest continually inhabited house in Scotland. Maitlands owned this property for a short time. The interest in visiting this house, beyond its own incredible historic value, is that Thirlestane Castle began life as a house very similar to this one.
Upon arriving, our large group divided into two smaller groups and off we went on our tours.
The History of Traquair House
The word traquair is Celtic in origin, from tret or tre meaning “a dwelling place or hamlet” and quair meaning “a winding stream”. The name is perfect for this incredible house. The Quair Burn joins the River Tweed a few hundred yards from the house.
The earliest mention of Traquair House dates to 1107, when King Alexander I signed a royal charter there. The property served as a hunting lodge for many of the kings and queens of Scotland. In the museum room a mural painting dating back to the early 1500s depicts a hunting scene from this time.
It is likely that a tower with three stories and an attic created the beginning of Traquair House and now occupies the north corner of the present structure.
In the mid 13th century Traquair belonged to Thomas de Mautelant, ancestor of the Maitland line of Earls of Lauderdale. He passed the house on to his son, William when the young man married. That line eventually failed to produce an heir and the property passed to the Murrays in 1464.
From there Traquair House changed hands several times until 1478, when the estate sold to James Stewart, Earl of Buchan, uncle of King James III. The Stewarts have remained in residence since. Expansions and additions enlarged the house through the years, with the last of these completed in the late 1600s. While the interior underwent extensive remodeling in the 1800s, the exterior is relatively unchanged.
There’s an interesting story about the gate at the end of the original driveway. The 5th Earl of Traquair built the pillars in 1738 and topped them with sculptures of bears holding the family crest. The bear gates closed following a visit by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1744, with a vow to keep them closed until a Stuart king sat on the throne once more. The gates never opened again and remain closed to this day. A smaller driveway, called the “temporary drive”, allows entrance into the property.
Touring the Main Floor of Traquair House
My group had such a fun tour guide! Kenneth speaks with a soft Scottish brogue and displays a wonderful sense of humor. His stories illuminate the history of the house while adding whimsical elements too, all punctuated by that dry Scot’s humor.
In the High Drawing Room, the largest room in the main house, we studied a section of the original ceiling, covered over when the 5th earl redesigned the interior. The original beamed ceiling was discovered in 1954 and two small sections are on display. Also in this room is a rare harpsichord crafted in 1651 by Andreas Ruckers. The harpsichord is restored to perfect working condition. Kenneth played a few chords on it, and joked that his cds are available in the gift shop.
We also viewed a bedroom and dressing room, complete with furnishings, that Mary Queen of Scots used. The queen, her husband, and infant son James visited the house in 1566.
The Upstairs at Traquair House
My group moved upstairs to continue our explorations, by way of the main staircase in the house, a set of narrow stone steps that spiral upward.
There was much to see on the upstairs floors, as we wandered through bedrooms, a library, a museum room and the priest’s room.
The household maintained a Catholic tradition within Traquair, in spite of the dangers of doing so at that time. Mass was held in secret in the priest’s room on the top floor. If necessary, the priest could escape through a concealed passageway hidden behind a cupboard door and flee down a small twisty staircase. The room remained in use until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1828. There is now a chapel on the property that is used for services and special events such as weddings.
Saying Goodbye to Traquair House
We concluded our tour with visits to the two side wings, added to the house in the 1600s. The laundry room and chapel occupy one wing, along with a gift shop and ale tasting room. Kenneth told us a funny story of Americans who got married in the chapel. He noticed, right before the ceremony fortunately, that the groom and his groomsmen all had their kilts on backwards!
In the other wing we viewed the formal dining room and sat in the blue sitting room, while Kenneth entertained us with more stories.
I loved the daring tale of Lady Winifred Herbert, Countess of Nithsdale, whose portrait hangs in the dining room. She rescued her husband William, charged with treason for being a Jacobite, from the Tower of London in 1716. On the night before his execution, Winifred visited him, accompanied by several maids. They dressed him in women’s clothing. William walked out of the tower with a maid, wearing a dress and the “nithsdale cloak”, which is still held by the family. Lady Winifred remained in the cell and pretended to talk to her husband, before making her own escape. She joined William in Paris, to live out the rest of their lives together. I love a happy ending!
In twos and threes Clan Maitland members walked up the driveway, in the pouring rain, and finished our afternoon with lunch at the cozy Traquair House Café.
Back to Edinburgh
After a wonderful lunch at the café, enjoyed with pots of hot tea and lively conversation, we boarded our coach for the trip back to Edinburgh. En route we stopped at Lochcarron Mill. There we looked at the Maitland Tartan and several had fittings for kilts.
The Maitland Tartan is a private one and products are only available at Thirlestane Castle and by special order here at Lochcarron. How grateful I am that we could purchase tartan products during this trip. Debbie and I picked up scarves and sashes and Maitland Clan badges to wear at our final former clan dinner.
The dinner marked the end of our time together as family. I’ll share thoughts about that evening in my next post.
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