DiCamillo Companion

Cairness House

  • Built / Designed For: Charles Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw

    House & Family History: Cairness House, although little known, is of remarkable architectural importance in terms of its advanced design and symbolic features, and is considered by many to be the finest Neoclassical house in Scotland. Built of granite ashlar over a brick skeleton, the house is very severe, with a superb, very strict Neoclassical front, which consists of two vertical wings on either side of a central block where the horizontal lines are greatly emphasized. There are seven bays with tripartite windows on each wing on the ground floor level. Attached to both sides of this front are lateral pavilions, from which springs a hemicycle of offices, creating a courtyard at the back in the shape of a demi-lune. Whereas many houses were designed with two pavilions emanating from the main block and united to it by curved passageways, this was inverted at Cairness, and the entrance to the courtyard where these quarter-circle passages meet is crowned by a bellcote. The semicircular courtyard is internally divided into two by the use of another semicircular wall, in the center of which stands a circular icehouse, internally in the shape of a honeycomb, thus creating a courtyard within a courtyard. The house is symmetrical inside, an enfilade of reception rooms along the front dominated by the centrally placed entrance hall, which is designed to simulate an inverted classical temple of channeled masonry and pilasters. The Egyptian Room, at the back of the entrance hall, is purportedly the first complete Egyptian room in Great Britain. Masonic motifs and stark neo-Grecian features predominate throughout the house, and it is thought that the Egyptian Room was designed as a Masonic temple for the fashionable Egyptian rites popularized at the time by Count Cagliostro. Cairness House was rebuilt in its current form by James Playfair (William Playfair's father) from 1789 for Charles Gordon of Buthlaw, who made his fortune from plantations in Jamaica and Georgia. Both Charles Gordon and Playfair died before completion of the house (Sir John Soane helped to complete drawings for Gordon's widow), and Cairness was inherited by General Thomas Gordon, who is celebrated for his important role in the Greek War of Independence. After the Gordons left in 1912, the house passed to Ethel, Countess of Southesk, who was the mother-in-law to Princess Maud of Fife (daughter of the Princess Royal). Badly maintained for a long period, Cairness was, until recently, being shoddily restored, a bad attempt being made to recreate the original interior schemes, with ludicrous results, and major structural problems neglected. The house was sympathetically restored in the early 21st century.

  • Garden & Outbuildings: The Grade A-listed entrance lodges were built in 19th century to Playfair's original design and feature two magnificent granite sphinxes perched on entrance walls. The park was designed by Thomas White in the 1790s, but was largely destroyed in a gale in the 1950s. The walled gardens and stables are older than the house.

  • Architect: Robert Burn

    Date: 1782-83
    Designed: House for Charles Gordon

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    Architect: John Soane

    Date: 1794-97
    Designed: Completed Playfair's designs

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    Architect: James Playfair the Elder

    Date: 1791-97
    Designed: Rebuilt House for Charles Gordon

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    Architect: Thomas White

    Date: 1790s
    Designed: Park

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  • Country Life: CXLIX, 184, 248, 1971.

  • Title: Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, A - HARDBACK
    Author: Colvin, Howard
    Year Published: 2008
    Reference: pgs. 183, 813, 968
    Publisher: New Haven: Yale University Press
    ISBN: 9780300125085
    Book Type: Hardback

  • House Listed: Category A

    Park Listed: Designated Garden & Designed Landscape

  • Past Seat / Home of: Charles Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw, 18th century; General Thomas Gordon, 19th century; Gordon family here until 1938. Princess Maud Alexandra Victoria Georgina Duff, Countess of Southesk, 1938-45. Patricia and Philip Miller, 1994-2000.

    Current Ownership Type: Individual / Family Trust

    Primary Current Ownership Use: Private Home

  • House Open to Public: No

    Phone: 01346-582-078

    Awards: In 2009 awarded the Georgian Group Architectural Awards prize for best Restoration of a Georgian country house in Britain.

    Historic Houses Member: No