Brodick Castle – A history in your hands

By Chitra Ramaswamy, visiting Brodick on the eve of the Castle’s reopening last month. First published in the NTS Magazine, Spring 2019.

Guarded by the rugged sentinel of Goat Fell, Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran is under­going its latest transformation in a history that spans eight centuries. Behind the doors of the Hamiltons’ ancestral seat, which is reopening this spring after being closed to visitors for two years, a major conservation project is almost complete. Walls have been repainted and some of the most significant paintings in Scotland are now rehung. Sealed white containers scrawled with the sparse poetry of heritage – ‘ceramics, 115, drawing room’ – lie in undressed rooms, ready to be opened.

Dodo wine ewer

Most of these objects, collected by an aristocratic family described by Daniel Defoe as ‘great possessors’, have been in storage on the mainland. While a £1.5 million refit to safeguard the castle from the threat of fire was taking place, its world-class contents have been enjoying an extended sleepover at nearby Trust properties such as Culzean Castle and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

Now one of the most important collections outside of Scotland’s national museums and galleries is slowly and quietly returning to Arran. Silverware, porcelain, paintings and objets d’art from all over the world are crossing the Firth of Clyde on the same route as the Calmac ferry from Ardrossan. As part of a major shake-up of the National Trust for Scotland’s entire collection, which encompasses 300,000 objects across 50 locations, Brodick Castle’s treasures will be showcased in a completely new way as it reopens this season. ‘We will highlight the stories of the residents of and visitors to Brodick Castle in an interactive way,’ explains operations manager Jared Bowers. ‘In the drawing room visitors will be able to try out Victorian fans – and we’ll provide magnifying glasses to examine pieces in the Beckford room.’


Susan Mills with writer Chitra

In the first phase of a five-year project pioneered here on Arran, the lives of five people who either lived at the castle or were closely associated with it will be recounted through the objects they loved. ‘It’s a hugely important collection,’ explains head guide Susan Mills, who tells me that as soon as she set foot on the estate 21 years ago she knew it was ‘the right place’ for her. ‘And as well as the Hamilton collection, we also have the Beckford collection.’ William Beckford, known as Britain’s greatest collector, is one of the five characters visitors to Brodick will be able to explore here. His extraordinary collection was inherited by the Hamiltons when his daughter married the 10th Duke. (When I ask Susan to describe her favourite object at Brodick she immediately picks an enamelled spoon that William Beckford designed to look like a piece of Renaissance jewellery.) But the man himself, who once described himself as ‘mad about porcelain’, was just as fascinating as his collection.

‘He was such an interesting character,’ agrees Susan. William was married and had two daughters, but even before his wife died in childbirth he had become entangled in a scandal, having been discovered with a 16-year-old boy. ‘The relationship with this young lord lasted for about a decade. He locked himself away on his Wiltshire estate with his collection and became a complete recluse.’

It’s important to recognise that a large part of the Beckford fortune was built on slavery. Generations of the great collector’s family had owned plantations in Jamaica. ‘Most of Beckford’s money went to his daughter when he died,’ says Jared. ‘which in turn likely contributed towards the expansion of the Victorian extension of the castle.’ The reinterpretation of the collection is also about viewing objects from our own point in time, which in turn means acknowledging the past.


Thanks to the work that has been done at Brodick, the other four characters we’ll be able to get to know better include William, the 11th Duke, his wife, Princess Marie Amélie of Baden, and their son, William Douglas-Hamilton, the 12th Duke. ‘The 11th Duke was said to be one of the most handsome men in Europe,’ Susan says. Later, in the ornate drawing room, she shows me his portrait just returned from storage and confirms that ‘it certainly seems to be the case’.

Princess Marie, his wife, was the creative force behind the formal Victorian gardens at Brodick, responsible for the pathways and four Bavarian summer houses, only one of which has survived. ‘She was Napoleon’s granddaughter,’ Susan continues. ‘It’s amazing to think of this young girl coming from Europe to a castle on a windblown Scottish island in 1843. I’ve always liked the sound of her.’

Her son, the 12th Duke, was ‘the colourful one’, renowned for his passion for horse-racing and yachts and his pursuit of pleasure. It was during his time that the famous auction – said to be the sale of the century – took place in 1882 at Hamilton Palace, the family home outside Glasgow. The demolition of that vast residence in the 1920s is regarded as one of the greatest losses to our national heritage.
‘The Brodick collection we have today is in fact the remnants of the collection sold in 1882,’ says Susan of the historic 17-day sale. It was attended by the Rothschilds, saw the acquisition of 11 paintings by the National Gallery, and kickstarted the fever for 18th-century French furniture. It saved the Hamiltons’ fortune.

We walk around the castle’s Victorian extension, reliving the stories of objects that have seen so much change since their collectors first took them home. A fender seat for weighing jockeys which the 12th Duke used as a jape to weigh his guests before and after feeding them a seven-course meal. A porcelain bonboniere said to be given to Princess Marie’s mother by Napoleon. A triptych of portraits on the first-floor landing of the 10th Duke, his wife (Beckford’s daughter), and their grandson, in which I now see so much more than just three dead aristocrats. They’re people, with quirks, foibles, scandals…

All of these stories will now come to life at Brodick; just one part of a radical overhaul of the National Trust’s approach to conservation that takes a huge amount of thought, expertise, work, and money. Without these collections, this precious and direct link to our shared heritage would be lost.

All images credited to: Euan Myles for NTS