Scottish History Online - Traquair House, The Borders, Scotland

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The History of Traquair House

A history of Traquair house, the oldest inhabited house in Scotland

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Tradition claims that the house was first known as a heather hut, about 950, deep in the Forest of Ettrick. When King Alexander I stayed here and granted a charter from Traquair in 1107 it must have already been a substantial building. His stay was the first of many by the Scottish Kings throughout the Middle Ages when it assumed the importance of a Royal Residence.

From here local justice was administered, and of course, royal pastimes indulged, Hunting, Hawking and Fishing. The Forest was known for its abundance of game and bears. Massive pillars surmounted by two carved stone bears holding the family coat of arms flank the famous closed gates at the end of the Avenue to the house.

With the death of Alexander III in 1286 the Golden Age of peace came to an end. By the end of the century Scotland was at war with England. Traquair was fortified to become part of the defence against an English invasion, but was occupied by English troops. Both King Edward I and II of England stayed here at this time, but with the accession of Robert the Bruce in 1306 the house was restored to the Scottish Crown.

During the next 150 years the house was owned by a number of families, reverting to the Crown at intervals, until James III gave Traquair and all its lands to his favourite, Robert Lord Boyd. Then a few years later to his "Master of Music" who in turn sold it on to the King's uncle the Earl of Buchan for the equivalent today of a few pounds. Buchan's second son, James Stuart, became the first Laird of Traquair in 1491, and it is from him that the present family is descended.

Described at this time as the "turris et fortalicis de Trakware", it stood with walls averaging nearly 6 foot thick, and can still be seen at the North West corner of the house.James Stuart had plans to extend the tower, but he fell with his King at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. In the Museum Room is a large mural painting dating from about 1530, the time of James Stuart's son William, the Second Laird. William's second son, John, the Fourth Laird, was knighted at the time of Mary Queen of Scott's marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley, and was appointed Captain of the Queen's Guard. In 1566 following the murder of Rizzio and the conspiracy against the Queen, he was responsible for her flight to safety to Dunbar from Hollyrood Palace in Edinburgh. Later that year Sir John was host to Mary and Darnley and their baby son at Traquair during a hunting expedition. During this time of religious conflict Mass had to be celebrated in secret. A hidden escape was made for priests in case the suspicious authorities searched the house. The present chapel dates from the middle of the 19th century when at last the Catholic Emancipation Act enabled the family to worship openly.

The Fourth Earl, Charles, married the beautiful daughter of the Fourth Earl of Nithsdale, Lady Mary Maxwell. She bore 17 children between 1695 an 1711. In the winter of 1715 her sister-in-law, Lady Nithsdale, rode to London where she successfully organised Charles's escape from the notorious Tower where he had been sentenced to death for his part in the Jacobite Rising. The two wings extending from either side of the front of the house date from his time, as does the wrought iron screen between them.

By tradition another loyal Jacobite, the Fifth Earl of Traquair, is associated with one of the most romantic episodes in the history of the house, the closing of the Bear Gates. He closed the gates one late autumn day in 1745 after wishing his guest, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, a safe journey, with a promise that they would not be opened until the Stuartís were restored to the throne. They have remained closed ever since. Having been involved in power and politics for some 700 years, Traquair has, more recently, experienced quieter times. Still very much a family home, it has remained largely unchanged in a landscape of ancient woodland, gardens, and forests of the Tweed valley.

After the last war, the 19th Laird and his wife began a programme of restoration and repairs, which has continued to this day. As the 20th Laird wrote; "We are happy to continue the work they started so that new generations of visitors will delight in and learn much from a house that has become a part of Scotland's history"

© John A. Duncan of  Sketraw, KCN, FSA Scot

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Traquair House, Borders, Scotland