25 Jun History of Cuil-an-Duin
Many of our guests ask about the history of Cuil-an-Duin – when it was built and who lived here. Cuil-an-Duin was built in 1925 as the private residence for Lord James Stewart-Murray, the future 9th Duke of Atholl. The house was originally owned by Atholl Estate but was sold just after WWII and it has been in private ownership since then. We were recently fortunate to meet with the Head Archivist of Atholl Estate at Blair Castle who gave us an opportunity to view the original Cuil-an-Duin visitors book, together with numerous photographs of Lord James and his many guests in the garden.
When the Duke commissioned the house, he was said to insist that it was built in a location affording him ‘the best view in Perthshire’. Cuil-an-Duin is built on a hill at the junction of the River Tay and the River Tummel overlooking the Tay Valley. While the trees have grown substantially over the past century, it is easy to see that the viewpoint at the western edge is spectacular and showcases many a wonderful sunset.
We believe that, in Scots language, Cuil-an-Duin means ‘fort on the hill’. Some historians maintain that there may have been an Iron Age Fort at the western perimeter (at the end of the paddock). The raised hillock surrounded by a trench is certainly in keeping with that idea and there are a number of ancient hill forts in the area.
The house was designed by the renowned Scottish architect Reginald Fairlie, who was a pupil of Sir Robert Lorimer. Fairlie designed many great private houses, churches and public buildings – the most well known of these is the beautiful National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Detailed biographical notes from the Dictionary of Scottish Architects are attached.
Cuil-an Duin has all the attention to detail and quality of finish for which Fairlie is admired. Fairlie’s designs are an inspirational blend of classical Renaissance architecture together with principles from the Arts & Crafts movement, of which he was a devotee. The house and grounds are Category B Listed on the basis of their architectural merit and significance.
The building of the house also attracted the attention of the Press as it was a substantial undertaking in the local area at the time.
Extract from local and national newspapers circa. 1925
There was a huge team of builders and master craftsmen employed on the house during the building phase. In one letter, it is mentioned that the Duke had a secret chamber made in one of the walls. In this is a sealed bottl with coins and documents including the names of all the tradesmen involved with the building of the house. We don’t know where in the house the secret hidey hole is -maybe we’ll come across it one day!
The team of builders and master craftsmen in 1925
During the war, Cuil-an-Duin was host to a number of evacuees (all boys) from one of the poorest areas in Glasgow. It was lovely to read the letters as by all accounts, the boys were thoroughly welcomed by the Duke and his staff and looked after well. The Duke appeared to be a kind man and many of his private letters refer to how he wished that he could do more for the evacuees.
The boys’ letters home refer to ‘playing in the woods and catching rabbits’, ‘we got lots of rides in his Lordship’s car’ and ‘cook is a lovely lady – she gives us as much to eat as we want. I’ve never seen so much food!’. It appears that the parlourmaid was rather less keen on the boys than the Duke was and she apparently insisted that all their clothes were burned and that they were all scrubbed with carbolic soap before they were even allowed inside the house!
The Duke’s car parked outside the house in the 1930’s
There are some lovely photographs of all the little boys playing on the steps. It’s good to know that the house was always warm and welcoming to guests – from the landed gentry to the little evacuees.
Letters sent home by evacuees in 1939
The Gardens & Grounds
The house and gardens were built on the edge of open moorland and ancient woodland. Over the years the trees and shrubs have grown and matured significantly and now the gardens and grounds at Cuil-an Duin are sheltered and full of character. The gardens provide colour and variety throughout the year but are particularly glorious in the late spring with fine displays of rhododendrons and azalea, and then again in the autumn when the many fine tree specimens are glorious in their autumn colours. We have a healthy population of native red squirrels who can be seen darting around. We also have a wonderful variety of birds in the garden including a number of woodpeckers, owls, goldfinches and siskins. In the winter, fieldfares and redstarts can also be seen.
View of the house from the pond
There is a summer house in the corner facing west across the pony paddock to the upper Tay valley and Schiehallion mountain beyond. The east garden is an informal wildlife garden with a pond and many types of wildflower. The woods beyond the east gardens have resident badgers, foxes, roe & fallow deer and pinemarten. Otters have occasionally been spotted in the burn which runs through the woods.
To the south, a gravelled path borders a retaining wall with a terraced rhododendron and azalea garden with a number of specimen Japanese maples. To the north of the house is the fruit orchard where our free range organic hens live a very happy life.
The house is surrounded by wonderful mature trees which are designated as ‘Ancient Woodland’ by Scottish Natural Heritage. There is a good mix of broadleaf and evergreen and some particularly fine specimens of beech, oak, scots pine, wellingtonia and douglas fir. Even in the winter, when many of the trees have shed their leaves, there is a magical quality to the woodland surrounding Cuil-an-Duin. The silver birches look particularly beautiful on a crisp winter’s day with a hard frost glistening on the branches.
Winter at Cuil-an-Duin, late 1920’s
Additional pictures of the building of Cuil-an-Duin 1924-25