June 26, 2007. A group of charities led by the Prince of Wales is working on a deal to buy Dumfries House in Ayrshire. Around £45 million has been raised but time is running out. Some of the contents of the house, including fine examples of the work of Thomas Chippendale, have already been loaded onto trucks ready to head to England. Things could go either way.

But then, at two minutes past midnight on the morning of June 27 – the very last minute – there’s a phone call.

It’s from the lawyers of Johnny Dumfries, the aristocrat and racing driver who’s selling the house. Around a dozen private individuals – from the UK, Ireland and overseas – have been expressing an interest in buying the contents but in the last-minute call from the lawyers, they confirm that the Prince’s consortium has been successful. The house and contents is theirs.

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For the Prince of Wales and future King, who from the start was the driving force behind the bid to save the house, the sale was a significant achievement. Johnny Dumfries said he’d always wanted to sell the estate to the nation but talks with the National Trust had fallen through and it wasn’t looking good. And as the days ticked away, the Prince became concerned that the house and its contents could be sold in a private deal and divided up.

The fact that the Prince was able to intervene at the last minute and buy the house was down to a coalition of trusts and charities who put up most of the money. The Scottish Government also provided £5m and the Prince’s Charities Foundation guaranteed a further £20m, which meant the house, its contents and the 2,000-acre estate were safe.

The Herald: Head of gardens Melissa Simpson in The Queen Elizabeth Walled GardenHead of gardens Melissa Simpson in The Queen Elizabeth Walled Garden (Image: Iain Brown)

But what did they get for their £45m? There was the house itself of course, designed and built in the 1750s by the Adam brothers, Robert, John and James, for William Crichton-Dalrymple, Earl of Dumfries. But there were also the contents of the house, including one of the world’s most important collections of Chippendale furniture. The historical significance of the collection was one of the reasons the Prince of Wales wished to save it for the nation.

But it’s fair to say the house and the estate had seen better days. The last person to live there, until her death in 1993, had been Eileen, Dowager Marchioness of Bute, and many of the buildings and structures on the estate, including a gate house, coach house, and bridge designed by John Adam, were in poor condition. The five-acre walled garden, once a fine example of its type, was also a muddy quagmire strangled by weeds.

A few days after confirmation in that last-minute phone call that the estate had been saved for the nation, the Prince of Wales paid his first visit and his plans started to emerge.

As well as turning the house and contents into a visitor attraction, the Prince made clear that his intention was also to use the house as an engine for economic regeneration for the communities around the estate, including Auchinleck, Cumnock and New Cumnock, which had suffered for many years from the decline in mining. The plan, it was revealed, was to open the house to the public in 2008.

Exactly 15 years on from that hopeful reopening, it’s an ideal time to take a look at the transformation the estate has undergone.

The Herald Magazine has been given pictures of the house and estate then and now which have never been published before. We’ve also spoken to some of the key figures who work on the estate and have seen the transformation first-hand. All of them say the change has been remarkable, and all of them say there’s still change to come.

The walled garden

In many ways the best example of the dramatic transformation that’s taken place at Dumfries House, the five-acre walled garden wasn’t always the beautiful place it is now.

I’m meeting Melissa Simpson, head of gardens, in one of the glass houses and she tells me what it used to be like. “I was over at our archives recently,” she says, “and was looking at the OS plans from 1905 and at that time the garden was being used as a sheep pen so it had been out of action as a walled garden for quite a long time.”

The garden was also in a poor way when the estate was initially opened to the public 15 years ago. “It was just a big shed and a dumping ground,” says Melissa. It was also dominated by the dreaded Japanese knotweed.

The first job was to clear the space, which the gardeners did with the help of local volunteers, but the walls themselves also had to be restored. Originally built using bricks from the ruined tower house that once stood on the estate, by the time the restoration began in 2008, the scale of the job was clear. “The walls were all restored using 50,000-60,000 bricks, all made using traditional techniques,” says Simpson. She shows me one of the bricks, which are narrow and do not have the “frog” dip that modern builders fill with cement. “The walls were in a really dilapidated state,” she says.

The next stage was the serious landscaping work which wasn’t easy as the garden is on a steep 10-metre drop. With the encouragement of the then Prince of Wales, the gardeners also managed to preserve the 350-year-old sycamore which was still sitting at the top of the garden. Seven years on, the garden was opened by the Queen in 2014 and named the Queen Elizabeth Walled Garden.

Looking back at the pictures of the garden as it was – neglected, covered in weeds, forgotten – the scale of the transformation is remarkable.

Simpson and I walk along from the glass house to the summer house or belvedere which looks out over the garden. It’s a beautiful little building topped with sculpted wyverns and it’s one of the personal touches here, as it was designed by the Prince of Wales and built using traditional techniques.

“Everything is about the King’s philosophy,” says Simpson, and that includes the planting. The big glasshouse we visited features apricots, grapes, nectarines, melons, cucumbers and flowers at different times of the year.

The Herald: Collections manager Satinder KaurCollections manager Satinder Kaur (Image: Guy Hinks)

And the same variety applies outside: there’s fruit, vegetables, herbs, herbaceous borders, topiary, and the most stunning flowers, including the Van Cleef and Arpels Rose Garden, which opened in September.

“The philosophy is to inspire and educate,” says Simpson. Schoolchildren are brought in to the education building in the garden, locals are encouraged to take part and volunteer, and the gardeners are constantly developing the site, including a kilometre of new hedging every year. “Watching a kid unearthing a potato for the first time is a joy,” says Simpson.

“They’re blown away and it’s showing people what you can do.” She looks across the garden and out towards the estate. “And to think it was all on its way to be sold,” she says. “What a shame that would have been.”

The Temple gatehouse

The pictures of the Temple gatehouse before its restoration show just how dilapidated parts of the estate had become by 2008. Originally planned as the main entrance to the grounds, the Temple was never used as a gatehouse because the owner of the neighbouring land at the time wouldn’t give the necessary permission, but it was still one of the finest buildings on the estate and worth saving.

The Herald: Restoring the Temple Gatehouse using traditional paintRestoring the Temple Gatehouse using traditional paint (Image: Dumfries House)

Michael Goodger, who joined Dumfries House five years ago as built environment education manager, says restoring the gatehouse raised particular problems.

“There are challenges with an existing structure where you’re dismantling something to reassemble it,” he says. “There’s a risk of further damage so it needs to be carefully considered and a slower process where you’re recording everything that you move and putting it back where it was before.”

The idea with the gatehouse was to preserve as much of what was there and, using historical records and images, replace what wasn’t using traditional techniques. “You’re using the original stone as much as possible and where that isn’t possible, you need new pieces. A lot of the repairs involved building new elements of masonry which would have involved banker masonry which is cutting and shaping new stone and fixing masonry which, is fixing the stone in place and pointing and lime plastering.”

To complete the project, the project managers used students from the traditional craft training programmes which are run on the estate. For the last two years, Goodger and the students have also been decorating the two interior spaces in the gatehouse. “The students designed the decoration, created the stencils, and used traditional paint to apply the images. They are really beautiful spaces with great views down the avenue and across the estate.”

Goodger says one of the most remarkable aspects of the change the estate has seen is that it’s still happening, with a new farm training centre and bird-hide being built and plans for further buildings and developments. One of the other joys for Goodger is that the students who work on the projects also go out and work on other projects across the UK. “We’re trying to embed the skills as much as possible,” he says, “and there are millions of buildings out there that need maintenance and repair.”

The house

Satinder Kaur is definitely the right person to talk about the transformation to the interior of Dumfries House because for the last five years or so, she has spent almost every day there as collections manager, making sure the furniture, objects and paintings are cared for and protected. The collection includes four huge 18th-century Flemish tapestries, a stunning mechanical model of the solar system, and what is generally considered to be the masterpiece of the collection: a rosewood bookcase designed for the house by Thomas Chippendale.

The Herald: Dumfries House Dumfries House (Image: Damian Shields)

“The transformation has been huge,” says Kaur. “I always say that the house wasn’t abandoned after Lady Eileen died, there was ‘benign neglect’ as the Bute family called it. The house was empty except for a housekeeper and her husband rattling around who took care of things.”

Since 2008, the house has been pretty much completely restored and conserved. “The idea was to make things as authentic as we could to when the Georgians lived here,” says Kaur, “but also as contemporary as we could to make it look warm and accessible. We’ve looked back to look forward.”

Kaur says looking back at pictures of the house and estate as it used to be is always a bit of a shock because of how much has changed. One of the most remarkable changes, she says, has been at the front of the house where there’s now a beautiful pergola designed by William Pye. Other buildings on the estate have also been transformed, including the old coach-house which is now a café, and the bridge that leads up to the house, which had been neglected and vandalised but has now been fully restored.

However, Kaur says she’s seen another change too, which is to the people who work on the estate, or visit it, or take part in the training programmes. The whole idea, she says, is that it can provide regeneration directly and indirectly to a community that needed help.

“The house is used as the tool to provide the inspiration for the regeneration,” she says, “and it works because the first thing that happened is it opened.

“They were saying ‘we haven’t just bought it to be a posh private closed-off house, everyone can come’ and the house opened within a year. We’re the starting point, then you learn more and take it out into the world.”

The Herald: New Cumnock Town HallNew Cumnock Town Hall (Image: Iain Brown)

The town hall

Like its bigger, posher relation Dumfries House, in 2008 the town hall in New Cumnock had seen better days.

The council had moved most of its activities up to the bigger town of Cumnock nearby and the town hall had lain empty for 20 years. There was also the distinct possibility that the building might be demolished and lost for good.

However, sitting in one of the smaller, cosier rooms at Dumfries House, Louise McClounie, the estate co-ordinator and a long-time resident of New Cumnock, tells me how the town hall became part of the wider Dumfries House restoration project.

“New Cumnock was in quite a sorry state to be honest,” she says.

“There used to be a population of 12,000 which had gone down to 2,500. So there was lots of ex-council housing, lots of properties that had been vacated by businesses, and the town hall which had been sitting empty for 20 years.”

However, after the sale of Dumfries House, a group of New Cumnock residents approached the trust, later to become The Prince’s Foundation and now The King's Foundation, and asked if it could help and the Prince of Wales came to visit. “It was very low-key, just a few members of the community,” says McClounie.

“He just turned up, had a walk through and a chat with the members of the group and from there the ball kept rolling.”

The visit was also the spark for another restoration project when a member of the community, Gette Fulton, waited outside the town hall to catch the Prince’s attention.

The Herald: The Walled GardenThe Walled Garden (Image: Dumfries House)

As he was leaving, she said, ‘Sir, would you like to come over and see our swimming pool’”, by which she meant the village’s open-air pool which was also in need of restoration.

The Prince agreed to take a look, the trust took it on and it was refurbished and reopened in 2017.

As estate co-ordinator, McClounie now organises the town hall and pool on behalf of the community and says the buildings, and Dumfries House itself, have been instrumental in the ongoing regeneration and revival of the local community.

There are now 60 local groups that use the town hall and the visitors’ book at the pool has names from all over the world.

“There’s still lots of work to be done,” says McClounie, “but Dumfries House was the spark that was needed.”