Sunday, 4 September 2016

Viscount Melville his monument and the beauties of Dunira




Having recently moved  home  from Crieff to the picturesque  village of Comrie  some  seven miles  to the west, I am enjoying  a wide  variety  of different  walks with Bo my border terrier as well as exploring  a number of  new  places in and round the village . Comrie has an interesting heritage having played host over the centuries to Picts and Romans and a diversity of others. The name reveals its Highland and Gaelic origins meaning the confluence or  joining of  the rivers – the Earn, the Ruchill and Lednock .


Interestingly I have a regular encounter with one of the areas better known historical characters, namely Viscount Melville aka Baron Dunira or to go back to his  roots – Henry Dundas . Although he has long since departed this mortal coil, his memory and influence lives on in the spectacular obelisk that was erected in his memory atop Dun More, the steep crag lying immediately to the north of the village. It  dominates all around  and indeed, it is  the first  thing that catches  my eye  when I open  my door of a morn !


Who, then, was Melville? Born in 1742 to Robert Dundas, fourth Laird of Arniston in Midlothian and his second wife. His father was a powerful political figure in his own right, being appointed Solicitor General for Scotland in 1717 and Lord Advocate some three years later. Young Henry was  thrust into legal politics at an early  age on the  background  of his father’s  power  and influence and  became Solicitor  General  for  Scotland  when a  mere 24 years of age despite not having  qualified at the bar and being un elected politically ! It appears that politics of that day were more than a little into favours, intrigue and corruption! Dundas married into money and the estate of Melville Castle and became a Member of Parliament for Edinburgh. He became closely aligned with the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. His influence and power were considerable. As Lord Advocate of Scotland he had the right to determine which Scottish Peers should sit in the House of Lords and as a Tory grandee he was empowered to choose Tory candidates for election to the House of Commons. His abuse of power continued when he appointed himself as Lord Privy Seal with a salary of £4 000 per annum!

British politics  are complex  to understand and indeed interpret particularly in the 18th and  early 19th centuries . The “ United Kingdom” parliament  was  established in 1707 when the Parliaments of England and Scotland united to form  a combined Parliament based in Westminster . Up until then Scotland  had its own Parliament based  in Edinburgh and  comprising the “ Three Estates “ , that is representatives of the Burghs, the clergy and the nobility .It  was  unicameral , that is it  consisted of one chamber or house  unlike that of the English Parliaments  which was  by tradition bicameral that is two chambers or houses , namely the House of Commons  which was elected  and  the House of Lords  which was unelected . This latter institution comprised Peers of the Realm and Church of England (Anglican) Bishops. There was  considerable opposition  within Scotland  to the Union of 1707 fomented  by the passing  in 1705 in the English Parliament of  The Aliens Act  which threatened , failing  a Union  , to regard  all Scots  as alien and  to prevent Scotland trading  with England .The Scottish Parliament capitulated somewhat readily when it transpired  that a large  sum of  money would  be  paid  to Scotland  to compensate for their having  to absorb the English National Debt . In fact this  money , some £400 000 was paid  out  to members  of the Company of Scotland who had been shareholders in the Darien Scheme , Scotland’s  failed  attempt to establish a colony in Central America. Most of the members of the Scottish Parliament had been involved thus the pay back materially benefited them. This money in modern terms was equivalent to £60 million pounds sterling! The “ new “ Parliament  was  decidedly  lop sided  from  a Scottish view point having only 16 Scottish Peers elected   by their fellow Scots Peers to sit in the Lords and 45 elected Members of Parliament to sit in the Commons .

It was in this environment that Dundas managed to build a political power base. His close  relationship with Pitt , the Prime Minister  saw him achieve a variety of top posts  ranging from Secretary of State for War  to Treasurer of the Navy and First Lord of the Admiralty . In 1803 Dundas was created Baron Dunira and Viscount Melville. In Scotland  his power  and influence was such that  he was often referred  to as “King Henry the Ninth “ or the “ Uncrowned King of Scotland “ !

It was just  after his after his elevation to the peerage that Dundas aka Melville ran into stormy waters . He was accused of misusing  a million pounds  when he was Treasurer  to the Navy . It transpired that it had been in fact the money  had  been misappropriated  by someone  he had  appointed but it was his  signature  was on the  paper . The  money in fact had  been  used   for speculative purposes and actually been returned to the Navy Office . Dundas  however  carried the can . Subsequent investigations  revealed that confidential papers  concerning  the use of the  money had  been  deliberately  destroyed .He was impeached  in 1806  before the House of Lords  but with  the  strong support of the Tory Peers , many of whom owed him favours , he was acquitted , never  again , however to hold high office.


Although Dundas / Melville had his roots in the Lothians he apparently was a regular visitor to Strathearn. According to the late David McNaughton in his superbly detailed book” Upper Strathearn: From Earliest Times to Today “ {Jamieson & Munro: Stirling: } Melville would stay at Ochtertyre near Crieff as a guest of Sir Patrick Murray who was “his confidant and  adviser on agricultural affairs “ . More interestingly was the fact that in 1778, Dundas, as he was then, met with the Drummond family whose Earldom of Perth with its extensive lands had been forfeited after the 1745 Uprising. “ The family were in debt and Dundas  came to its assistance , behaving with a delicacy which made him  appear ‘to receive an obligation , in place of  conferring one ‘ .His motives  were , perhaps , not wholly altruistic . Among the Drummond  possessions  was the Estate of Dunira ,and Dundas’s acquisition of this delightful place later , seems  to have been bound up with the Drummond family’s indebtedness to him., and with the restoration  of the forfeited  estates, in which his interest was now revived  and which  he was instrumental  in affecting four years later “ .


Dundas had  earlier leased  Dunira house and its shooting rights  from the Commissioners of the Forfeited Estates  and in 1787 he raised a motion  in Parliament that the post ’45 forfeited  estates  be  restored to their original families . This not only saw  him acquire  Dunira  but enhanced  his  reputation  amongst an influential sector of Scot’s society .
Dundas  died in 1811 and  although his  reputation had  been somewhat tarnished  by his impeachment by Parliament , there were more than a few positive attributes which  more than offset his political follies . His pattern of improvements including extensive  drainage works to Dunira and the subsequent purchase  of  additional land in and  around the estate  were notable . Interestingly Dundas  built  a new  house  for himself in the grounds . In 1852  the new owner, Sir David Dundas of Beechwood demolished this and built a grand replacement . Designed  by William Burn in the Scottish Baronial style it  was an impressive structure . In 1919 the estate was sold to a wealthy Glasgow ship owner Alexander Macbeth who later gifted it to his son William .




Dunira House about 1910


What had  been regarded  as something unique about Dunira  was the garden laid out around the house . This had been commissioned  by William and constructed to a design  by the noted landscape architect Thomas Mawson in the 1920s . It took some three years  to complete  at a reputed cost of some £3000 which in those  days  was a considerable sum .  During World War 2 the house was used as a military convalescent home. In 1947  there  were   still some patients in residence but the Macbeth family were already preparing to move back in . A fire ravaged   the building at this  time and  shortly afterwards in 1948 William Macbeth died . His widow  sold the property in 1950 . It was finally demolished in 2006. Sadly  with  the  destruction of the  house  , the gardens  slumped into decline  reverting sadly to grass. Interestingly Channel 4 Television in the UK ran a  series  entitled  “ Lost Gardens “ featuring  some  eight gardens  which had  vanished from view  and Dunira  was  included amongst them .Sadly  the rose garden which had been recreated  for the programme  has not  been maintained  and allowed  to retreat back to the unkempt . An acquaintance of mine , author  David Robertson ,also included Dunira in his  recent publication “ Lost Gardens of Perthshire “.
                                            All that remains of the gardens

Dunira  has  been split up into a  variety  of  smaller plots and sites  with a well-established  community in residence . It  is  not quite  however that place of the  past – that place  that Viscount Melville  chose to settle in all those  many years ago !








































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