04 March 2010

Dead Close to Nature 5: Condie House Revisited

Safely ensconced in my new country pad (hidden behind Bridge of Allan on the Carse of Lecropt), I have already met my new neighbours. A small and fearless herd of deer who crop grass and watch me in the field opposite. A plethora of fat pheasants that dot the flat Carse and whirr off screeching as I zoom by on my bike. A lone hare that lopes off, nonchalant, as I pass him/her on my morning run. My friendly blue tits (think oiseaux here, people, not weirdly coloured and amiable boobies - also birds by the way) and their rather greedy bigger cousin the great tit, feast on nuts outside my window as I type this. My view from the back door is of the castle and the Wallace Monument and this hidden part of the Carse of Stirling seems to lie behind a veil, a time-altering curtain that begins at the Dunblane-end of Bridge of Allan and ends somewhere east of Doune. There is a sense of wilderness here, and despite being only miles away from the metropolis of Stirling the animals and I live slow-motion in silence. Bliss.

My next adventure will be to explore the ruins of Arnhall Castle (possibly a location for Monty Python's 'Holy Grail', but that has yet to be confirmed), which lies behind the deer field. But before that mission I'd like to conclude something I began months ago.

I received a missive from a certain Roddy Oliphant in reply to my blog on Condie, the ruined manor house Claudia Massie and I discovered near Forgandenny (I say 'discovered' - naturally a misnomer - but in many ways it has been and remains largely forgotten). My request for knowledge indeed drew interest - the very reason for this blog; blogs should be used as a forum rather than a platform, wherever possible, and it was great to hear from Roddy, not least becuase he hails from the family that once had an interest in the house at Condie. Also, via Claudia (and after talking to David Willington, one of Forgandenny's connoisseurs of the history of this area of Scotland), I got hold of a book by a certain Gregory Ross.

'Forgandenny: A Place in History' (Triuirdarach Publishing, 2007) is a monster tome and the book I was looking for all those months ago when researching the house at Condie. It researches the full history of Forgandenny and surrounding parishes from its time as a probable winter site for nomadic groups 6000 years ago, to the ninteenth century fire that destroyed Condie House (and beyond to the wars, but it is the final destruction of the house that interests the blog, and of course the mystery of the stabbing).

Firstly, here's Roddy's wonderfully brisk summation of the affair with the knife: "Actually it was not Sir George Oliphant, Bt. who stabbed his step-mother but his brother James. James found his step-mother in bed with a priest. The priest escaped by leaping over a gate in the garden which was from then on known as the Priest's Gate." I needn't add any more; but let your imaginations run wild.

On the 13th March 1866 the house appeared smoke-filled to an early-risen kitchen maid. By seven o' clock the house with "consumed in flames", although residents (including Lady Marianne and her daughters) escaped unharmed. Most of the house was destroyed, certainly all the relatively new manor house, and all belongings lost, thus we are left in 2010 with the ruins of Condie surrounded by hare-filled fields and echoing with ghosts. Greg Ross' book contains more information on all aspects of Forgandenny and I cannot say enough good things about it. It is truly an epic historical work, and important. Roddy writes a very informative foreword and is an expert on Oliphant family history himself.

An interesting footnote, amongst many I could make, concern Marianne and Laurence Oliphant of Condie's nephew, the writer Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888). He was described by the American ambassador Henry Adams thus: "his figure and bearing were sympathetic - almost pathetic-like with a grave and gentle charm, a pleasant smile and an interesting story. He seemed exceptionally sane and peculiarly suited to country houses" (Ross, 458). Splendid chap. Marianne was related to Lord Elgin, who became Viceroy and Governor General of India. Before this appointment (when Lord Elgin was Governor General of Canada), Laurence Oliphant was his private secretary - he travelled with him to China. Laurence was also a journalist, and his travels led him to write books on far-flung reaches of the world. He was fascinating, not only because he clearly spent much time at Condie House before the fire, but because of his connection with Thomas Harris, his "spiritual guide and mentor". Thomas Harris had set up a religious community in Santa Rosa where Laurence and his wife went to live. In order to help raise money for the commune, Laurence became involved in some financial ventures, notable joining the Direct United States Cable company which "was resonsible for beginning the laying of the Trans-Atlantic cabel" (Ross, 459) using the good ship Faraday, named, one presumes, after my illustrious forebear. How I love the weird symmetry of history.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:06 am

    Hi Andrew,

    Just to explain briefly, the chronology of the 'centres of the Oliphant's universe', the Oliphants first came to Strathearn in 1173, when they received land (Strageath) as a dowry when Sir Walter Olifard married Christian, the daughter of the Mormhair of Strathearn. In 1183 these lands were swapped for Aberdalgie (also in Starthearn). The Olifards however continued to make Bothwell their principal seat. Aberdalgie then went to a junior line, whilst the senior line subsequently died out.

    From 1173 until circa 1630, Aberdalgie (which merged with the Dupplin estate) was the principal seat of the Strathearn Oliphants (the Lords Oliphant, Aberdalgie and Dupplin).

    This senior line then had a succession of other houses, in different parts of Scotland but became successively poorer until the 10th Lord Oliphant who was utterly destitute. He died in 1748.

    During the 17th century, the most eminent branch of Oliphants (other than the Lords Oliphant) was one descended from the Oliphants of Kellie, who took up residence at Newton. There was first, Sir William Oliphant of Newton (Lord Newton) who was Lord Advocate and then his eldest son James who, in 1629 bought a Nova Scotian baronetcy. This family was not connected closely by blood, with any of the other branches of Oliphant in Strathearn.

    By the end of the third quarter of the 17th century, this family was on the wane. The senior line of the Gask Oliphants had been disinherited but returned to Gask in the early 18th century. From that time onwards, Gask became the focal point for the Oliphant family and atleast two Lords Oliphant stayed with the Oliphants of Gask. Overall, Gask is the estate which has been in Oliphant hands for the longest period of time (1317 to 1905 - nearly six hundred years). It also became the most iconic, as it not only was given to the Oliphants by King Robert the Bruce but, was owned by the Lords Oliphant; it was the home of the Jacobite Lairds of Gask and also of Lady Nairne. Bonnie Prince Charlie also stayed there. It towers over all other Oliphant homes in it's relevance and importance.

    In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Oliphants of Gask were sickly and did not play a big part in the affairs of Scotland or the Empire. It was about this time that the Condie Oliphants emerged on a national and international platform. Their home never eclipsed the fame or renown of the House of Gask. The Condie Oliphants fielded two MPs (including Laurence Oliphant, the author); they introduced tea to Ceylon; one of them was a famous (in his day but now no longer) lyricist, who wrote the words to "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly" and much, much more; a controversial chairman of the East India Company; an ambassador (who married Viscountess Churchill). The list goes on.

    To summarise, the houses/estates which epitomise the Oliphants would be first Aberdalgie and Dupplin, followed by Gask. I am not sure how I would categorise either Newton or Condie, as neither has captured the imagination in the same way. Indeed another house, Rossie also in Forgandenny is noteable. In St Andrews Square in Edinburgh are the statues of the 4th Earl of Hopetoun and Viscount Melville. The mother of the former was a Rossie Oliphant daughter, she was also the mother of the second wife of Viscount Melville. Her brother (Robert Oliphant of Rossie) was Postmaster General for Scotland).

    Yours aye,