News. Join an informative tour of the Estate
28th of March, 2017
Must-tells, should-tells and could-tells. This is the Tour Guide’s mantra at Dumfries House, as outlined by Curator Emeritus Charlotte Rostek and implemented on the intensive, three-day training course for successful applicants. “The stories of the House, the build and the family, these are the core elements, the must-tells,” says Alex MacDonald Head Guide and volunteer co-ordinator.
Then it’s up to the rookie Guide to decide what element of the House drives them to craft their own tales about the House’s story, and these become the should-tells. Finally, the Guides really need to do their homework and finesse their story with unique details, to become the could-tells. “We often say the best way for a guide to learn is by osmosis,” says Alex. After the course you work as a Visitor Service Assistant, a shepherd at the back of each tour. It’s the perfect way to gain knowledge from veteran Guides. “You just soak it up,” explains Alex.
Inspiration is easily found in the House’s inter-woven stories. For longest-serving Guides Gail Gilchrist and Roger Read, the art and the furniture hold a particular fascination. Visitor Services Co-ordinator Carol Drummond is enthralled by the family saga. For MacDonald, his particular joy is regaling his guests with stories of the honey trap, the raison d’être of Dumfries House: a widowed, heirless 5th Earl’s lavish interior decoration was designed to woo a prospective bride if his portrait, hung in the Pink Dining Room, didn’t immediately seduce. “I always mention that at the start and leave my guests dangling until the mid point of the tour, when I ask ‘Do you think it worked? Was there a second wife?’,” chuckles Macdonald. “Most folk think they’d have succumbed to all of the House’s charms.”
Dumfries House opens its doors to the public from March to December, welcoming up to 24,000 guests a year. In September – peak season – the House can accommodate up to 11 groups a day, both public and bespoke. Historic societies, art enthusiasts and women’s clubs are brought in by the coachload, enjoying evening or curator-led events, Chippendale- or clock-based tours, refreshed with anything from tea and cake to a three-course meal in the Library.
Historic homes are big business. Monetising an estate has been popular since the last century, when death duties threatened the upkeep of stately piles. From Highclere to Chatsworth, Blenheim to Goodwood, aristocratic homes now have visitor centres, restaurants, wedding venues and outdoor events from dog shows to jousting. Dumfries House has all of these elements, but its dimensions are modest in comparison to other castles and homes in the UK: 3, 622 sq ft to Highclere’s 120,000. So how does it charm its visitors?
The interior alone makes the House unique: it is home to the largest collection of Chippendale furniture in the world. His delicately carved pieces are often flanked by those of Alexander Peter, William Mathie and Francis Brodie, the most celebrated wrights (cabinet makers) of the period. Axminster carpets cover floors and a Murano Glass chandelier cascades from the ceiling, while Henry Raeburns and a rare Constable painting adorn the walls. It’s a living collection, with many pieces occupying the same space now as they did in 1760.
The 3rd Marquess of Bute fondly recalled that “Of all of the houses in my possession, Dumfries House was the homeliest”. This sentiment is kept alive. Visitors are guests; as you walk from room to room, you’re unfettered by velvet ropes and able to enjoy the many charms of the House as if you were invited by the Marquess himself.
In recent years the House was a private residence, its existence widely unknown among locals. With the opening of its doors, it’s now part of the community; no less in part to the comprehensive business plan designed to revive the local area. With unemployment running through three generations in the surrounding areas, the opening of the House as a commercial venture has been significant. The Estate now employs more than 140 staff from the local community.
And the grounds have been designed with particular thought paid to the needs of the area: woodland walks, education and play areas for children, it’s free of charge and open to all.
This new chapter in the House’s story is integral to the Tour Guide’s narrative. Explains Drummond: “ We always round up the tour detailing our success stories and how we are working with the community.” For Gail Gilchrist, becoming a Guide has been a lifeline, providing a much-loved job after she closed her local knitwear design business. “It’s a project that centres around connecting people and giving them self-worth, inspiration and joy,” she enthuses. Rich history interwoven with social regeneration and a decent pot of tea. Where else can you get that on a day out?