A study of aspiration and ambition
: the Scottish Treasury Commission and its impact upon the development of Scottish country house architecture 1667-1682

  • Charles Wemyss

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Until very recently the study of Scottish domestic architecture in the late seventeenth century has been treated only in a national context or as an adjunct to the development of domestic architecture in Britain. It has not been subjected to the scrutiny of European architectural historians. For many years Scottish historians have greeted the first classical country houses as evidence of a renaissance culture, while English historians have treated them as a diversion from the mainstream development of British architecture. In reality, the number of classical country houses that were built in Scotland in the aftermath of the Restoration was very limited. This was in complete contrast to the experience in England, where the Restoration encouraged a very significant number of compact classical houses, whose design was inspired by the architectural treatises of Palladio and Scamozzi. In attempting to place Scottish domestic architecture in a broader European context, historians have turned their attention to the pattern books of the sixteenth century French illustrator, Jacques Androuct du Cerceau, whose imaginary 'maisons des champs' bear a strong resemblance to many Scottish country houses of the seventeenth century. Unlike Palladio and Scamozzi, whose treatises drew inspiration from the architecture of the ancient Romans and Greeks, du Cerceau designed houses that were specifically suited to the characteristics of the French nobility. Their external appearance was governed by the silhouette of the roofline and not by the classical orders; their internal arrangement was dictated by the location of the escalier d'honneur rather than the central loggia. In an era governed by strict standards of decorum, it is very significant that the Scottish and French nobilities opted for the same distinctive silhouette, while the English preferred the uniform outline of the classical villa. This distinction suggests that their status was measured in different ways. The Scottish nobility shared similar aspirations to the French, but these were different to the ambitions of the English. By using the Italian interpretation of classicism as a yardstick for the development of Scottish country house architecture, historians have failed to compare like with like. A close analysis of the aspirations and the building works of the members of the Earl of Lauderdale's Treasury Commission between 1667 and 1682, confirms the important role that family lineage played as a measure of status in Scotland. There was a fundamental difference between the houses of the Treasury Commissioners, who were drawn from the ranks of the ancient nobility, and those of the Treasury Executives, whose fortunes had been recently acquired. The Commissioners, who were saddled with their families' lineage, reformed their existing houses, retaining significant elements of the original building; while the Executives, with no lineage to display, built new houses on their recently acquired estates. There was a division within the ranks of the Scottish nobility, as there was in France, between thenoblesse d'epee, whose status was measured by lineage, and the noblesse de robe, whose status was displayed by wealth In Scotland, where the economy was so weak, it was difficult to acquire sufficient wealth to join the ranks of the noblesse de robe. The administration of the king's revenues was jealously guarded by a tight nexus of Treasury Commissioners whose family history prevented them from building in the classical manner. It was only Sir William Bruce, the principal collector of customs, and Sir Thomas Moncreiffe, the chief clerk of the treasury, who amassed sufficient resources to build in an unfettered way. Like Nicolas Fouquet, the surintendant desfinances to Louis XIV, whose splendid chateau of Vaux le Vicomte inspired the envy of the king, William Bruce's ambitious new house of Kinross also led to his derogation. To display excessive wealth in Scotland or France, where family lineage was the principal measure of status, was considered wholly inappropriate. Although lineage proved the strongest deterrent to the advent of the classical country house, there were other factors that encouraged the Scottish nobility to follow the example of the French, rather than the English. Until James VI departed for London in 1603, the informal lifestyle of the Scottish nobility wasvery much closer to that of the French court than it was to the Tudor court in England. This affinity between the Scottish and French courts was reflected in the similarity of their domestic architecture: the Scottish country house not only resembled the chateau in its external appearance, but their internal arrangements and their basic structure were very alike. The traditional circulation and the physical division of Scottish and French country houses had evolved in a wholly different way to those of the English country house. Such longstanding customs were engrained in the national lifestyle and were very difficult to incorporate within the symmetrical plan of the compact villa. There is also evidence that cultural links between Scotland and France were maintained for a longer period than might be expected. Many members of the Scottish nobility continued to complete their education in France. This was not a phenomenon of the late seventeenth century, as it was in England, but a tradition that had existed in Scotland since the sixteenth century. According to English visitors, this system of education created a culture and a lifestyle that was different to their own. They wrote about the stateliness' and 'grandeur' of the Scottish nobility, and reported, as late as the early eighteenth century, that the 'young gentlemen' possessed 'french airs'. It seems that, however strong the inspiration of the English court, it may have been less influential than the traditional links between Scotland and France. To conclude, as many historians have, that the first classical country houses in Scotland provided evidence of a renaissance culture is misconceived. Their true significance lies in their limited number. There were very few people in Scotland, after the Restoration, who possessed the requisite aspirations to adopt the uniformity of classical architecture. Most members of the Scottish nobility shared the same characteristics as their French counterparts. They preferred to display the symbols of history and lineage, rather than wealth, and opted for the pattern books of du Cerceau, rather than Palladio and Scamozzi. To English visitors, the sight of towers and gunloops reflected a retrospective society: to the Scots and the French, they represented an indivisible link between family, place and status. Until Scottish domestic architecture of the seventeenth century is closely studied by French architectural historians, its significance will continue to be misconstrued.
    Date of Award2008
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorCharles McKean (Supervisor)


    • Treasury Commission
    • Scottish country house
    • Architecture

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