Cairness House is situated on a slight rise, and is also a prominent landmark in views across the plain. One single expanse of core parkland extends to the south-east of the house. It forms a key component of Thomas White's landscape design. Curving strips of mature broadleaf woodland at the north and east perimeter of the main park frame the house and contribute to the scenic value of the wider landscape. Simple, well-maintained lawns encircle Cairness House. They are studded with a very wide variety of young specimen broadleaf and coniferous trees, planted by the present owners from 2002-2006.
Type of Site
A small designed landscape centred on a prominent Georgian mansion with associated Thomas White landscape setting. This comprises a main park with roundels and plantations, (now re-planted), entrance drives, walled garden and home farm, together with a more recently established garden arboretum.
Location and Setting
Cairness is located close to the north Aberdeenshire coast, 5 miles (8km) to the south east of Fraserburgh. The wider setting is coastal farmland, characterised by a gently undulating landscape, scattered farms, and open views across fields delineated by fences, stone dykes and scrubby gorse boundaries. There is little tree-cover in this landscape, and the mature trees at Cairness contribute to both the scenic and nature conservation value of the local environment. Cairness House itself is situated on a slight rise, and is also a prominent landmark in views across the plain, particularly from the south and west. Views from the house, meanwhile, encompass both the immediate grounds and also much longer, panoramic views across the lowland terrain. The designed landscape boundary is formed by stone estate boundary walls to the south, the route of the canalised Ellie Burn to the west, and elsewhere, by the outer edge of plantation strips. This boundary encompasses a total of 100ha. (247ac.).
Cairness House is an outstanding example of neoclassical architecture, built 1791-7 to designs by James Playfair using the body of an existing mansion by Robert Burn. Constructed from finely-detailed granite ashlar, there is a central block with pedimented entrance, flanked by taller, 3-storey advanced wings. To the rear, a distinctive, 2-storey hemicycle of offices encloses a courtyard, at the centre of which is a circular ice-house. Playfair also designed the principal south entrance to the designed landscape, not built until a century later in 1891. It features two, square-plan, single-storey pavilion lodges, large gatepiers with sphinxes, and decorative, iron gates and railings. Eaves-height, stone boundary walls abut the two lodges. A single-storey north lodge, and a much-altered east lodge stand alongside the other, secondary entrances to the designed landscape. To the north-west of the house, Cairness Home Farm is a fine quadrangular steading of large, squared rubble blocks, thought to date from c.1780 with later alterations. To the south-west is a ruinous, two-storey rubble structure. This may have been the old laundry, as labelled on White's 1793 plan. To the south-east of the house is a large walled garden, also built c.1780s, and most likely associated with Robert Burn, architect of the earlier house at Cairness, and his mason, Adam Porter. It is notable for its unusual, irregular form, its prominent coped and coursed wall of random, snecked rubble, and the voussoired, segmental arched gateways in the south and east walls.
Drives and Approaches
The main entrance drive enters from the south via Playfair's distinctive lodges and gates, erected a hundred years after their design to mark the house's centenary in 1891. Skirting the main parkland, this drive traverses mainly open, flat ground before curving through mature trees to reach the house. While earlier plans, including Thomas White's 1793 landscape design, depict a slightly different entrance point, together with a further, alternative principal carriage drive sweeping straight through the parkland, these approaches were either never fully established or were removed early on. By the mid-19th century, the present arrangement of drives had been determined (1864-71 OS). Other, secondary drives lead from the east and north lodge via the Home Farm, but no longer provide access to Cairness House.
One single expanse of core parkland extends to the south-east of the house. It forms a key component of Thomas White's landscape design, conceived in 1793 as a simple but appropriate setting for Playfair's striking neoclassical mansion. Historical photos show a successful balance of mature timber and open grounds ' an effect unfortunately lost following the gale of 1953 and the destruction of much of the surrounding woods and park roundels. During recent years, however, most of the roundels and the trees around the main park have been replanted in accordance with the original plan. This far-sighted project involving over 150,000 trees will eventually bear fruit in the decades to come, and restore the intended landscape setting of the house.
Curving strips of mature broadleaf woodland at the north and east perimeter of the main park frame the house and contribute to the scenic value of the wider landscape. These strips are the chief remnants of a much more wooded landscape decimated by the gale of 1953, and now only fully appreciated through photos, historical maps, written accounts, and a handful of surviving veterans and mature elms. These sources indicate that despite early teething problems with establishing tree-cover in the face of 'salt-laden' east winds during the late 18th century (Tait 1983: 325), the Cairness woods ultimately flourished in the 19th and early part of the 20th century, forming an integral element of the overall design. Smith wrote in 1874, for example, 'The Cairness woods comprehend almost every kind of forest tree, all mostly full grown, and very ornamental and valuable for shelter to the residence' (1874: 288). Replanting work in the first decade of the 21st century aims to recreate this effect. The value of the young plantations for wildlife conservation is already becoming apparent, with an increasing diversity of wild birds and mammals spotted within the policies (information courtesy of owners 2011).
Simple, well-maintained lawns encircle Cairness House. They are studded with a very wide variety of young specimen broadleaf and coniferous trees, planted by the present owners from 2002-2006. The collection is unusually diverse, and has been designed to achieve all-year interest in terms of different colour foliage, shapes and height. Oaks are especially well-represented, with 12 varieties of deciduous oaks, and four varieties of evergreen oaks planted (information courtesy of owners 2009). Giving a more formal touch to this garden display, meanwhile, are 14 English yews, all trained in pyramid form and spaced regularly along the outer edge of the gravel forecourts to the north and south of the house. As with the plantations beyond, the garden project has proved very successful in terms of attracting wildlife, with birds and mammals benefitting from the newly establishing habitats.
The large, late 18th-century walled garden has not been in traditional, horticultural use for decades, but is currently the subject of a long-term programme of renovation by the owners of Cairness House.
It was originally built in the 1780s, probably by Robert Burn and Adam Porter, the architect and mason who worked on the first Cairness House prior to Playfair's involvement. 'Hott houses' and 'Melon Pitts' were added in the 1790s (Walker and McWilliam 1971b: 248), and at some point, the garden also acquired an eastward extension. Today, the high wall remains a striking and important early component of the designed landscape, and is especially prominent from both the entrance drive, and the lane immediately to its east.
The 1st and 2nd edition OS maps show that during the 19th century, the northern third of the garden was planted with trees, while the southern two thirds were divided into compartments for the cultivation of kitchen produce (1864-71 OS 25'; 1899-1901 OS 25'). During the 20th century, horticultural production continued under the ownership of the Moirs, with fruit trees, soft-fruits, vegetables and flowers cultivated for sale in nearby Fraserburgh from the 1950s to the 1990s. Photographs from this era show well-ordered and productive beds, trees and gravel paths (information courtesy of owners 2011). Today, the interior features mown lawns bound by box-hedging and lines of fruit trees, while large yew trees grow in the northern third of the enclosure. The basic structure, however, remains identifiable to that depicted on the early edition OS maps.
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The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:
Reason for Inclusion
Tree planting in and around the main park aims to recreate the late 18th century landscape setting of Cairness House, as set out by landscape designer Thomas White (c.1793-1811). This unusual project will bear fruit in the coming decades and the new plantations, together with the existing mature timber will make a major contribution to the scenic value of this open, agricultural landscape. Playfair's neoclassical house, south lodges and gateway are of exceptional architectural merit.
Main Phases of Landscape Development
1770s-1800, 1891, 2000-2010
The designed landscape at Cairness dates from the late 18th century and is most associated with landowner, Charles Gordon of Buthlaw (1749-96), renowned architect James Playfair (1755-94), and the landscape designer Thomas White (c.1736-1811). Together, their investment, design and labour projects transformed the small core of the Cairness estate.
Although Cairness is known from maps and documents to have been in existence from at least the 16th century (e.g. Pont c.1583-96), it was not at this time associated with any particular grandeur or pleasure grounds. Roy's Military Survey map of 1747-55 depicts a modest residence and adjacent plot of enclosed grounds.
Charles Gordon inherited the estate from his uncle in 1775. Family wealth, land and profitable business interests in Jamaica combined to provide him with the status and financial wherewithal to commence improvements to Cairness in the years that followed. In 1777, tree-planting began. Then, following a successful trip to Jamaica in 1781 and the acquisition of a sugar plantation, Gordon returned to Cairness to commission a new, 3-storey mansion with wings. It was built to designs by Robert Burn in 1782-3, with the project overseen by Alexander Smith of Rathen and his mason Adam Porter. The construction of Cairness Home Farm and the walled garden almost certainly coincided with this busy period of investment and building.
Charles Gordon's aspirations, however, outgrew the project at Cairness. His marriage in 1783, and the financial success of his Jamaica plantation probably led to a sense that his new house no longer measured up. By 1784, a new and larger design had been commissioned (Walker and McWilliam 1971a: 184). This was not pursued, however, and Gordon instead sought the services of the successful and busy architect, James Playfair, in 1789. Although neither patron nor architect survived to enjoy its final completion, the new house was a success. Rebuilt and remodelled in 1791-7 from Burn's original house, Cairness House is now regarded as Playfair's finest and best known work (Hussey 2004), and an exemplar of the neoclassical style at the height of its popularity in Aberdeenshire (Tait 1983: 321).
The house, of course, could not stand in isolation and while building work progressed during the 1790s, Gordon invested in other aspects of his estate. In 1793, he summoned Thomas White, the well-known landscape designer, to make a plan for the surrounding grounds. White's inked and coloured plan of 1793 survives, and is of historic value in understanding both the landscape history of Cairness, and the design ethic of this well-known practitioner. Although White did not enjoy ubiquitous, nor enduring popularity (Tait 1980: 146-8), his style fitted the rigorous geometry of the neoclassical house. Apart from a couple of features of his plan which appear not to have been enacted, (a small lake to the south of the park, and an entrance drive sweeping through the park), White's design is otherwise recognisable as that established at Cairness, and which endured into the 20th century (White 1793; undated estate plan; 1864-71 OS; 1899-1901 OS).
During the 19th century, the Cairness estate passed directly down the Gordon line. For Charles' son, Thomas Gordon (1788-1841), the soldier, historian and Philhellene, Cairness was a place of 'long restful holidays' (Kasdagli 1994: 110) and eventual retirement. By this period, the landscape had matured and while contemporary accounts tend to focus on the elegance of the mansion (e.g. Stat. Acc 1792: 634), some commentators also remarked upon the 'abundance of wood' (Board of Agriculture 1811: 124), appreciated for both its ornamental and practical value (Smith 1874: 288). James Wilkinson Gordon inherited in 1841, and was himself followed by his own son, Charles Thomas Gordon. Charles, like his great-grandfather and namesake, invested heavily in Cairness. In building Playfair's 1790 design for the gate and lodges in 1891, he completed the grand design in its entirety.
As with many other country estates, the 20th century was an era of abrupt change. The Gordon family sold the estate during the interwar years, and the house was subsequently requisitioned for War Office use. By far the most devastating event for the historic landscape, however, was the severe storm of 31 January 1953, a natural disaster that left over 300 dead along the east coast of England (Baxter 2005: 1293) and which caused the wind-throw of over 45 million cubic feet of woodlands and forestry in the north-east of Scotland (Anderson 1953: 97). In 24 hours, Cairness lost most of the thick plantations and roundels that had been so admired up to this point, and acquired a much bleaker aspect which persists down to the present day. During this period, Cairness House, the Home Farm and the grounds were in the ownership of the Moir family. Despite the set-back of the disastrous gale, their ownership was marked by the successful resurrection of the farm business (which continues today), projects to fix the storm-damage, and the cultivation of the walled garden on a commercial basis (information courtesy of owners 2011).
In more recent years, the house and landscape have undergone significant restoration work. In 1996, the Moirs at Cairness Home Farm planted a great number of trees in and around the main park. Now growing within the lines of the historic design, as established from the 1790s, the young timber will eventually form thick perimeter woodlands and roundels, and go a long way in recreating the intended landscape setting of Cairness. The present owners of the house, lawns and walled garden, meanwhile, have also planted many specimen trees, and their efforts with Cairness House have been recognised at national level with the Georgian Group Architectural Award prize, awarded in 2009 for the best restored Georgian country house in Britain (www.georgiangroup.org.uk 2010). It remains a private home, occasionally let out for accommodation, wedding and corporate events (www.cairnesshouse.com 2010).
- Late 18th Century
- 18th Century
- Associated People
- Features & Designations
Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland
- Key Information
Late 18th Century