Kincardine Castle & Downton Abbey
By Andrew Bradford
In 2013 B4 films made a series of ‘shoulder programmes’ for posh soap-opera Downton Abbey to show how some big houses and estates fare today. The first series features Dumfries House and an interview with HRH Prince Charles, Inveraray Castle with the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, Rosslyn with the Earl and Countess of Rosslyn and finally Kincardine and little old us. These 60-minute programmes are to be aired on PBS in the USA and some 30 other countries in the not-too-distant future and I hope you enjoy them. There are one or two items in the programme which should be taken 'with a pinch of salt' - I do not, for example, catch every salmon served to our guests - we actually release all salmon caught on our water in accordance with the Dee Conservation Code.
Meantime if you want to know a bit more about Kincardine’s history and find some fascinating parallels with fictional Downton – read on.
The Downton Abbey story started with a crisis – the only son and heir drowned in the 1912 Titanic disaster and this precipitated a crisis of succession – who on earth would succeed to the Earldom of Grantham?
At the same time, here at Kincardine, my great-grandmother, Mary Pickering, knew she was going to hand over her estate to her only son, Francis Pickering. Known as Frank, he’d been wounded in the Boer War in 1901 and returned home to convalesce. A great welcome was given him and at the West Lodge, specially decorated for the occasion, the horses of his carriage were unhitched and the menfolk of the estate pulled him up the drive while the many women and children all followed. I bet they regretted it by the time they got to the castle – 300 feet above the lodge. In 1912 when the Downton Abbey saga started, Frank was enjoying a society life in London. His future was secure. Nobody guessed that within a couple of years the carnage of the Great War would be unleashed.
Frank re-joined his unit, the famous Scots Greys, and served in Flanders in 1914, in Gallipoli in 1915 and as a Staff Officer in 1916. He became bored with the safety of a staff job and hankered after more action. He volunteered to command a battalion and in 1917 returned to the trenches. On 23rd December 1917 he was killed while commanding 9th Rifles at Passchendaele near Ypres. Suddenly Kincardine was catapulted into a similar crisis of succession as happened in fictional Downton Abbey. There was now no suitable male heir.
Not having an earldom meant that the Downton theme’s unthinkable separation of estate from title wasn’t an issue. Mary Pickering passed her estate over to Frank’s older sister Ursula, my grandmother, and the crisis was averted. That really isn’t the story-line of an enduring soap-opera.
Kincardine is a big house but it is not a Great House such as Highclere, used as the setting for Downton. Highclere has between 200 and 300 rooms while Kincardine has only about 75. On cold rainy days when our children were young we packed them off to count the room and they always returned with a different number but usually between 60 and 80. The dubiety comes from what exactly is the definition of a room. Despite the disparity in scale the usual rooms as seen in Downton exist at Kincardine. Thus, below stairs, at Kincardine we had all the essentials for a big house included a large kitchen with a huge coal-fired range, a separate scullery, several pantries, a brushing room, servants’ hall, butler’s pantry, silver room, beer safe, wine cellar and accommodation for many servants including visiting staff. Rather endearingly next to the Footman’s Room was the ‘Stranger Footman’s Room’ where a visiting footman would stay. Without boasting the old Servants’ Hall at Kincardine is a far nicer room than the miserable dingy set used for Downton. Light and airy with five large windows looking out onto the gardens and lawns it nowadays makes an ideal meeting room.
Above stairs the marble Entrance Hall, Great Hall, Dining Room, Drawing Room and Library all serve their original purpose. The Morning Room we have transformed into a Music Teaching room and the Billiard Room has become our main kitchen. The Smoking Room we now use as a small Dining Room and the Chapel is now my office where computers and filing cabinets are set off by the splendid oak panelling and large stained glass window. It must have been a fairly eccentric chapel as it also has a turret and a French window and balcony – no doubt for giving sermons to the crowds outside.
Downton Abbey was a convalescent hospital during the Great War and, in keeping with many large houses, so was Kincardine, as it was again during WW2. A fine cast bronze plaque commemorates the building’s use during the Great War. I’ve often wondered why something similar wasn’t issued for WW2 but there’s little to show for it except that the electric Air Raid Siren still operates and the All Clear is sounded from time to time just to check and as a demonstration for visitors. Our Dining Room, Drawing Room and Billiard Room were wards with around 10 beds in each. The Great Hall was the Common Room and we can see where the dart board was hung for no-one thought to protect our beautiful quarter-sawn oak panelling. We can see where they built a blast wall to protect what became the designated Air Raid Shelter and in our Gun Room is a noticeboard still carrying advice on what to do should war come. Well, you never know!
Still on the wartime theme, in Downton Abbey Lord Grantham, as Honorary Colonel of a local unit was, for reasons I fail to understand, in uniform throughout the Great War. By coincidence at Kincardine I am today the Honorary Colonel of Aberdeen Universities Officer Training Corps but I only wear uniform when visiting my unit.
There are other parallels with Downton in Kincardine Estate’s day to day management. For example we too focus on trying to put business to local companies and organisations. We provide a great deal of rented housing and most of this is leased at affordable rents in order to try to give local folk an opportunity to live close to their work.
The difference between Downton and Kincardine is that the former is, albeit well-informed, fiction. Here at Kincardine we have to make our way in the real world. We have to hope that our ‘script writers’ are less intent on creating cliff-hanging tension and disaster for us; however, with some members of the Scottish Government seemingly intent on fragmenting estates such as Kincardine in order to redress the perceived injustices of centuries ago, a move which will greatly hinder our ability to continue to provide community benefits such as affordable housing and cheap low-cost shop and workshop premises (a political example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face) it looks as though in real life interesting times lie ahead of us.
How does life at Kincardine differ from Downton Abbey? Well the obvious thing is that we’re living in the second decade of the 21st Century – some 80 years after the fiction of the fourth series of Downton. Inevitably society has changed enormously during that period and we either have to project Downton forward and wait for series 23, or go back to Kincardine in the 1930s to make the comparison. Back then my widowed grandmother was in residence and as her two daughters reached adulthood and ‘came out’ into society they started filling the place with guests and having jolly parties – not Dame Nelly Melba, but for Kincardine it was ballet stars Anton Dolin and Wendy Toye. Dolin was a principal dancer at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes from 1924 before moving to the Vic-Wells Ballet in the 1930s where he danced with Alicia Markova. They founded the Markova-Dolin Ballet Company and Wendy Toye was one of their dancers. Toye had a glittering career as a stage performer, where she first performed at the age of 3, choreographer and film actress.
My grandmother (shades here of the Dowager Lady Grantham) rapidly got fed up with the social whirl created by her daughters and, guess what, she disapproved. She retaliated in typically robust style by selling all the furniture from the upper bedroom floor and thus greatly reducing the capacity of Kincardine to provide accommodation. Half a century was to pass before most of those rooms became usable as bedrooms once more.
After WW2 a little of the grandeur of former years returned when, for a number of years, Kincardine held dances and house parties at which the daughters of the King and Queen, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, were guests of honour. It was at Kincardine that they really mastered their Scottish country dancing. In 1948 the Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh came to dance the new reel invented in their honour, The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh; a rare eponymous occasion in Scottish country dancing. That all ended when Princess Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1951. Kincardine was passed down to my mother in 1952 and there began a period of gentle decline.
Anyone who lived through the first few decades after WW2 will understand. The generation brought up with numerous servants (à la Downton) gradually had to make do with decades of retrenchment. By the early 1980s tax rates had peaked at 98%, inflation was well into double figures and it was hard to see where it would all end up. In the mid 1970s we even discussed demolition but the family decided that wasn’t affordable. So the decline continued and rooms which became too damp were simply abandoned.
I took up the reins of managing the estate in 1979 and Kincardine five years later. Both needed a great deal of attention as the estate was in a financial black hole and Kincardine needed rescuing. Timing and location were both on our side. Investment in the many houses and cottages on the estate was a priority which gradually yielded a better stream of rental income. That was reinvested in providing more housing – also mostly leased at low affordable rents – and the estate’s finances were slowly brought back into a manageable state.
Meantime we started providing corporate and private entertainment at Kincardine. Our first effort came about by accident. To help out some friends we agreed to have a group of six French to stay for 10 days. It was only when they arrived on the doorstep that we discovered they didn’t speak any English and at dinner that first night we found out the principals were joint proprietors of a well-known brasserie in Paris with Michelin stars. Talk about deep-ends, we were well over our wellies. However we quickly found that we were enjoying ourselves, our French improved rapidly and we parted as great friends. They returned several times.
By 1990 we started work to add bathrooms and today, the addition of 14 bathrooms later, we have 16 comfortable guest bedrooms each with its own bathroom. While we don’t strive to emulate the high servant ratio of Downton we do enjoy seeing our grand rooms full of guests, drinking champagne and generally getting to see the place functioning as it was intended. I’ve described Kincardine as ‘an entertaining machine’ and it is our excellent staff that acts as the oil to make that machine run smoothly. Dinner parties are as grand as ever they were – if our guests want to dress for dinner that is. When one American guest queried the expression ‘dressing for dinner’ I explained about black tie, white tie and so on. “Oh”, she exclaimed in sudden understanding, “you mean tits-and-diamonds?” Spot on – that’s just another way of putting it.
One area which seems to be completely absent in Downton but very evident in real life is maintenance of the building which is a pretty good constant in our lives. It isn’t made any easier that the gutters are 65 feet above the ground and yours truly has to don a safety harness from time to time to clamber out onto the roof to sort something out.
In opening up for corporate and private entertainment Kincardine, dormant for a while, has come back to life. Our visitors love the warm and homely atmosphere of Kincardine and luckily we love entertaining. A group visit to stay at Kincardine Castle is something we love hosting and an experience which, judging from the testimonials, our guests adore - so I shall close with a couple of them. You’d be most welcome.
“We shall never forget the extraordinary warmth of your welcome at Kincardine. You two are wonderful hosts and you spoilt us rotten. You have a very special house, and you have the great gift of being able to share it with people you’ve never met before, treat them as friends and make them feel completely at home”.
“Fabulous hospitality. We had so much fun that this should be illegal”.
Finally, a very well-traveled guest took me aside when he was staying. At first I thought he had a complaint but he simply told me that he'd stayed in some of the world's best places and that he'd like me to know "“This is World Class hospitality”.
We hope you can get a group of six or more to come and stay too.