Kinneil House

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Kinneil House is an historic house to the west of Bo'ness in east-central Scotland. It was once the principal seat of the Hamilton family in the east of Scotland.

The house was saved from demolition in 1936 when 16th-century mural paintings were discovered, and it is now in the care of Historic Scotland. It sits within a public park, which also incorporates a section of the Roman Antonine Wall.

The house now consists of a symmetrical mansion built in 1677 on the remains of an earlier 16th- or 15th-century tower house, with two rows of gunloops for early cannon still visible. A smaller east wing, of the mid 16th century, contains the two painted rooms. The house is protected as a Category A listed building, and as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The lands of Kinneil with Larbert and Auldcathy were given to Walter Fitz Gilbert, an ancestor of the Hamilton family by Robert the Bruce in 1323. A charter of 1474 mentions a castle at "Craig Lyown", and the saltpans which added to the estate income. The Castle of Lyon was nearer the sea at Snab Brae, and remembered by the name of Castleloan housing estate.

Parts of an older castle, which replaced the castle at the Snab may be incorporated in the present building. James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Arran died at Kinneil in 1529, but wished to be buried at Hamilton.

The east wing of the surviving building, and perhaps the earlier tower with wide-mouthed gunloops, was built by James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran (c.1516–1575). He was the Governor or Regent of Scotland on the death of James V. Some payments were recorded in the royal treasurer's accounts. Coal was shipped from Kinneil to Leith for Edinburgh Castle, and timber for repairing Arran's chamber at 'Craig Lyon' came from Leith in May 1545. Timber for roofing, floors and panelling was sent by boat from Leith in 1549 and 1550 to complete one section.

The garden or "yaird" was improved for the Spring of 1553, by planting trees, hedges, marjoram and lettuce. In September 1553, Arran gave a gift of 44 shillings to masons laying the foundation stones of another part of the Palace. One of the masons was Thomas Bargany and at this time John Scrimgeour of Myres was Arran's master of work or architect.

The 16th century painted interior decoration and a stone armorial carry Arran's ducal coronet, and the collar of the Order of Saint Michael, French honours he received in 1548. The stone has the Hamilton motto, the woodsman's cry, "Through!", and the arms of his wife, Margaret Douglas, with her motto "Lock Sickar", meaning secure or steadfast. The armorial stone was formerly set on the north pavilion of the main block, and is now displayed with other carved stones in a cellar.

One of his painted rooms has decoration that evokes verdure tapestry and vignettes of Samson and Delilah, Abraham and Isaac, and David and Bathsheba and the The Temptation of St. Anthony; this vaulted room is now called the Arbour Room. The other room has scenes from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Lucretia, Saint Jerome and Mary Magdalene. The original use of this suite of rooms is unknown. The subjects of these paintings allude to the Power of Women, perhaps a political reference to Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots and the two Tudor Queens of England.

The house was empty on 4 February 1560 when French troops led by d'Oysel attacked and burnt it. On Easter Day 1562, the 3rd Earl of Arran, who suffered from mental ill health, escaped from his father and bedchamber at Kinneil using sheets as a rope. The drop was 30 fathoms. After the battle of Corrichie in October 1562, Arran was the reluctant keeper of George Gordon at Kinneil, the forfeited heir of the Earl of Huntly.

Regent Lennox damaged the house with gunpowder and spoiled the lands after the assassination of Regent Moray at Linlithgow by a Hamilton. James VI reduced the power of the Hamiltons by military force in 1579, and the Duke's wife, Margaret Douglas, and daughter Lady Jean Hamilton, Countess of Eglinton, were brought to Kinneil from Craignethan Castle. Margaret was the daughter of James Douglas, 3rd Earl of Morton and Katherine Stewart, the illegitimate daughter of James IV.  Margaret, and her sisters, Beatrix and Elizabeth, were at 'certayne tymes or the most part of the yere distempered with an unquiet humour' - i.e. mentally ill.

In 1581 the king gave their estates and titles to James Stewart. The new Earl often resided at Kinneil until after his own fall in the autumn of 1585, when he remained at Kinneil under house-arrest, and for a time Kinneil was called Arran House.

James VI of Scotland stayed in May 1582, to receive an envoy, Signor Paul, sent by the Duke of Guise with a gift of horses and gunpowder. The visit was controversial because Paul was known to have been involved in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. (Some sources say Paul was received at Dalkeith Palace) After the Raid of Ruthven, the Earl of Arran was confined at Kinneil. When the Ruthven regime collapsed, James VI came to banquet at Kinneil with Arran on 13 November 1583. The next day, Ludovic Stewart son of the King's favourite Esmé Stewart arrived from France at Leith and was taken to Kinneil to meet the King.

James VI held court at Kinneil again at Christmas-time in 1588 as the guest of John Hamilton, Commendator of Arbroath. He played at the "maye" (probably the card-game "maw" now called "Forty-fives") with his English courtier, Roger Aston, and told him that the more he did to please Elizabeth the less regard she had of him. The Earl of Huntly, the Earl of Crawford and the Chancellor, John Maitland, were present.

The Arbour Room was redecorated c.1620 for James Hamilton, 2nd Marquess of Hamilton and his wife Ann Cunningham and the "shakefork" of Cunningham heraldry can still be seen. This painting was almost certainly the work of Valentine Jenkins, Englishman and burgess of Glasgow, and painter of the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle. When Anne died in 1644, she left Kinneil with its new tapestries and the furnishings she had made to her son, James, 1st Duke of Hamilton. She had laboured to make the coal mines and salt pans profitable and urged him to employ faithful servants and never put it out of his own hand.

The main house was rebuilt by William Douglas, 3rd Duke of Hamilton in 1677 with a uniform facade and a pair of stone staircases at the ends. He sent his plans to help William Douglas, 1st Duke of Queensberry with his building works, which included Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfriesshire and Queensberry House in Edinburgh. An inventory of 1688 gives the names of rooms in the now gutted main house. The front door opened into a Laich Hall, and a grand stair to the south led to the dining room above. The same arrangement can still be seen at the contemporary Argyll's Lodging, Stirling.

But family use of the house declined, as income from the mines and port increased. In the late 18th century, Dr John Roebuck, founder of the Carron Iron Works lived at Kinneil House, during which time the engineer James Watt worked at perfecting his steam engine, in a cottage adjacent to the house. Between 1809 and 1828 the 9th Duke gave the philosopher Dugald Stewart use of the house.

By 1936 the Hamiltons had abandoned the house, and Bo'ness Town Council were demolishing it when Stanley Cursitor, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, heard that new wall paintings had been discovered. The Ministry of Works quickly secured the wing with the paintings, and recovered the oak ribbed ceiling of the Parable Room. The paintings were restored, and the whole building is now in the care of Historic Scotland.

The former parish church is to the west of the palace and is a roofless ruin. The west gable survives. One of its bells, now preserved in the nearby Kinneil Museum, has the inscription "-EN KATHARINA VOCOR UT PER ME VIRGINIS ALME -," (I AM CALLED KATHARINE, AND THROUGH ME, OF THE VIRGIN MARY, ARE -) It has been suggested the inscription was completed on a second bell. A large stone cross from the church is kept with the palace.

The house is reportedly haunted by a White Lady, believed to be the ghost of Lady Alice who killed herself by leaping from the building in the 17th Century to escape her cruel husband. Lady Alice or Ailie was traditionally supposed to haunt the nearby glen of the Gil Burn.




Sources for this article include:

• "Kinneil House, Listed Building Report". Historic Scotland.
• "The Monument known as Kinneil House". Historic Scotland.
• Historic Scotland magazine, Spring 2017

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Last modified: Tuesday, 01 February 2022