It’s a hard thing to keep secret, a four-storey baronial mansion house. You have to admit, it sticks out a little bit.
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Not Catherine and Mark Muller Stuart though. The 21st Lady of Traquair and her QC husband have never courted the kind of attention that ordinarily comes with owning a four-storey, historically significant (Mary Queen of Scots stayed at Traquair in 1566) pile in the country. Instead this high-achieving couple – Catherine runs a successful art fair while Mark is one of the UK’s top international lawyers and human rights experts – have tried to play down the fact that Traquair, the 100-acre 12th-century estate and house in the Borders that’s been in Catherine’s family for more than 500 years, is their home. “We’ve never kept it quiet, we just didn’t necessarily go and advertise it,” says Mark.
Although Traquair, five miles south of Peebles, is open to the public for tours, as well as being the venue for art fairs, plays, weddings and this weekend a new book festival, its owners have found that owning an important country house can have its drawbacks. “People treat you slightly differently as soon as they know that you’re connected with a home like this,” says Mark, who lives in a private wing of Traquair with Catherine and their two children, nine year-old Louis and eight year-old Charlotte, as well as 12 year-old Isabella, Catherine’s daughter with her first husband John Grey, who died of lung cancer in 1998. “Whether you’ve grown up in a house like this or whether you’ve moved into it, they end up ascribing all sorts of things to you which they wouldn’t ordinarily do.”
Catherine, whose southern English accent belies her Scottish upbringing, agrees: “The difference is I’ve grown up with that [the perceptions that come with being a Lady Laird] and I’m used to it. Whenever I was away, I just loved the anonymity of being in the city – no-one knows where you come from. When you live here you just have to accept that you carry it around wherever you go. It can be positive and it can be negative.”
Things are changing at Traquair though. The ivory-coloured mansion, with its marble chapel, 18th century decoration and beautiful wild gardens, might look the same as it did when King George III was on the throne, but there’s definitely a different mood in the air.
“I used to keep it very quiet about where I lived,” admits Catherine, whose casual appearance – today she’s wearing navy blue trousers and a casual jacket – allows her to blend in with her eight full-time and 30 part-time staff at the estate.
But after 11 years of marriage, Catherine and Mark, both 45 years old, have decided that it’s time to be more open about their life in one of Scotland’s most well-known mansions, which attracts around 40,000 visitors every year.
The book festival has been key to this change of heart. Books, Borders And Bikes includes talks from respected international writers such as Aminatta Forna and Petina Gappah and incorporates bicycle rides and walks to introduce visitors to the area’s literary heritage. It will be the first time the Muller Stuarts, who met on their first week at the London School of Economics in the early 1980s, have worked closely together on an event at Traquair.
Although Catherine, who inherited the lairdship in 1990 when her father Peter died, has been running the Traquair estate for 20 years, she has often worked in tandem with her mother, Flora, rather than Mark to organise events such as the Traquair Fair. Mark, on the other hand, has until now been busy working in his chambers in London, as well as travelling the world as chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee, chair of the Kurdish Human Rights Project and a senior advisor to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. Mark also helped to develop the script for the Mark Darcy character in the 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary. “Nominally, they based the character on my experiences working in law at the time with Kurdish human rights cases, although I’m not really like the character.”
The book festival marks a change, not only in the couple’s working life, but in their outlook as well. “Books, Borders And Bikes comes out of the larger project I’m involved in, Beyond Borders, which is about small nation dialogue,” explains Mark, who looks every inch the seasoned traveller, his suntan offset by a cream suit jacket. “It comes out of my humanitarian work. We realised that more and more people are looking to Scotland and Northern Ireland because of the whole devolution and reconciliation thing. We started to realise Scotland was a huge resource of cultural independence and devolution. I started to think about moving into the cultural sector and, of course, Catherine has been running fairs and events so I had the confidence to do it because Catherine had already done it. But the story underneath it all is just a desire for me to be with Catherine and the children more.”
It’s a cliche, but Traquair is obviously becoming more of a family affair now. With Catherine running her ancestral home as a tourist attraction and Mark becoming more involved in events at the estate, you could say that this 12th-century building is having a bit of a revival. Even the couple’s three children, who spend the afternoon running around the lines of tourists in the gardens, seem to be in on the plan.
Traquair hasn’t always been this peaceful, though. The house was originally built as a hunting lodge for the kings and queens of Scotland, before briefly being used as a defence tower against English invasion. Catherine’s family acquired the property in 1491, when James Stuart, the first Laird of Traquair, was granted the estate by his father, who was the half-uncle to the king of Scotland. The property has been extended since then, including two side wings and an upper floor, although significant parts of it have remained largely untouched since the 18th century.
It’s not just the house that is historically significant. Catherine’s ancestors have also been part of some of Scotland’s most famous events. Mary, Queen of Scots, accompanied by her husband Lord Darnley and their infant son, the future James VI, visited the captain of her bodyguard, the 4th Laird of Traquair, at the house in 1566.
The Stuart family, who were devoutly Catholic, even during the Reformation, were also linked to the Jacobite rebellions. “Growing up in this house, it certainly gives you good strong roots,” admits Catherine. “You certainly know who you are. Traquair always had a slight unconventionality about it though, I think. We’ve always been on the wrong side politically – we’ve never run with the Tory mould. From the Jacobites and being Catholics, it’s always been anti-establishment.”
Perhaps inevitably, Catherine and Mark are keeping up the defiant tradition at Traquair. Between them, the Muller Stuarts have run for the Labour Party at seven different elections, in the Liberal Democrat Borders of Scotland and in Conservative Windsor, where Mark grew up. Although they have yet to win any seat, the couple seem undeterred. “We’ve run for parliament between us seven times and failed,” says Catherine with a laugh. “I might do it one more time. We’re in a particularly concentrated Liberal area here, but it’s nice to keep the flag flying.”
While seven defeats at the ballot box isn’t exactly an impressive statistic, Catherine and Mark’s strong, anti-establishment political beliefs seem to fit quite well with the history of Traquair. Although it’s a little surprising to find a Lady Laird who is so staunchly socialist. “I’ve always come at it from being quite independently Labour,” says Catherine. “The Borders are quite independent anyway and so that’s what I wanted to play on, the fact that I’m Borders born and bred and that’s my key concern – this area.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that Catherine feels so protective of her local area. She might be the Lady Laird of Traquair House, but she is also an active member of the community and has been all her life. “I went to the high school in Peebles. I did go to a private school for a couple of years but otherwise I was at local state schools.”
The couple’s children also attend local state schools. “If you’re sent away to school you just don’t know anyone who lives here and completely lose contact with the area. It’s very funny because the people I was at school with are now the plumber or the electrician.”
Far from being the posh girl from the mansion house, Catherine says that her mother’s socialist beliefs (apparently she’s known as Red Flora in the area) meant that she grew up as, almost, just another girl from the Borders. “I was always accepted, I mean I was always the girl from the big house, but I didn’t play the girl from the big house because I’d always been at a local school, so I think people just kind of accepted me.”
Mark has a story about their early years at Traquair. At the time Catherine was living in a nearby property on the estate, rather than the main house. “When we started our romantic relationship Catherine was living in a cottage here and it was me who was saying, ‘I’m fed up with you going down to get the tokens to put in the electricity meter.’ But Catherine’s absolutely right, she was just totally integrated into the local community.”
Nowadays the couple live, as Catherine did as a child, in a small part of Traquair house away from the throngs of tourists. Although the public part of the house retains its 18th century decoration, the Muller Stuart’s apartment is home to a handsome modern kitchen and a cosy lounge with an open stone fireplace. “It’s quite a small house and actually the bit where we live is just right in the corner so we have a little patio garden and we can cut ourselves off from the visitors,” explains Catherine.
Although the Lady Laird, she has always enjoyed living in an unconventional home. “I was born in a house that was completely open to the public. It was originally my grandfather who opened the house. I always really enjoyed it though, we had loads of people to stay and the house came alive. If the house is not used then you’re rattling around in it. It would have been completely lonely without [making it public] and it’s now got a whole community of people, from the tea room to the shop. So it was nice growing up here, it was just great fun.”
Traquair also has a small crop of outhouses that are used as private workshops by craftsmen as well as its own brewery, which was discovered in the basement of the house by Catherine’s father. “He just found it one day. They had completely forgotten the brewery was there. All the vessels were still there, so it really started as an experiment to see if we could still do it and then as a hobby after that. Suddenly you got the campaign for real ale in the 1970s and it just sort of took off.”
The brewery now produces four different kinds of bottled ale, employs two brewers, exports all over the world and is particularly popular in America.
As for the future of Traquair, Catherine and Mark agree that it will be central to all of their plans. Mark hopes that the book festival will start an era of international events at the estate. “This is absolutely not about, ‘let’s just set up another festival and sell books.’ It’s about dialogue. It’s connected-up with mediation and creating more powerful networks. We’re launching the Beyond Borders Writers Residency Initiative at Borders, Books And Bikes. We want to make Traquair, and surrounding houses, centres for residency where writers from conflict areas can come together.”
Catherine, who will continue to run the estate, also has high hopes for the future. “We have these amazing archives which still have to be researched,” she says. “There are about 3,500 books – there’s phenomenal amounts of stuff here and it’s all really personal as it was collected by the family. The great thing about Traquair is that you just never stop learning about it.”
Borders, Books And Bikes takes place on August 14 and 15 at Traquair, near Innerleithen in the Borders. For information contact www.traquair.co.uk