of Cluny: the working life of an Aberdeenshire Castle
‘with this understanding, on my part, that you leave all notions of English Luxury and Comfort behind; for as my Castle is neither Finished nor Furnished, and as I am Roughing it in what is, ultimately, intended to be Accommodation for Servants, I cannot venture to promise you more than a Well Aired Room, badly furnished, some Good Home Fed Mutton, and a Hearty Welcome’ [19 November 1836, MS 3600/2/2/2/13].
Colonel John lived an active life and was close to his family, his four illegitimate children John, Charles, Susan and Mary. He began to restore Cluny to be a family home probably in the 1830s, and it is from that point that we start to have mention in the collection of staff at Cluny, stablemen (Colonel John was a keen horseman), dairymaids, butlers in charge of china, glass, bed and table linen as well as of Colonel John’s clothing (there are several inventories), and gardeners. Outdoor servants tended to change quite frequently, often because of drink problems. Each time a gardener left, an inventory was taken of the garden tools and signed by both the outgoing and the incoming gardener to guard against theft.
In these early records we can deduce something about the garden at Cluny. There is mention of ‘frames for mushroom spawn’, ‘sea kail pots with lids’, and thermometers, which probably indicate glasshouses, and hedge and grass edging shears suggest that the garden was at least partly ornamental. There were hot bed frames, perhaps for pineapples or other exotics (these were usually heated by surrounding them with fresh horse dung). A scribbled pencil note on the back of the inventory mentions savoy cabbage, onions, ‘sparrowgrass’ (asparagus), pink cabbage, carrots, artichokes, sea kale, strawberries, potatoes, turnips, spinach, and rhubarb. The garden would have been intended not only to supply Cluny’s kitchens but also to provide fresh and interesting fruit and vegetables for the Edinburgh house when Colonel Gordon was there. There were hives with bees, which seem to have come under the gardener’s care, for the better fertilisation of the plants and to supply honey. The gardener must have had a designated dwelling house, too, for the furniture included with it ran to four bedsteads, a press, a kitchen press, a cupboard, a kitchen table, and a grate.
Also amongst the servants at Cluny were the administrative staff required to carry out the paperwork connected with a large estate. Among the residents at Cluny Castle were Captain William Duguid of the Aberdeen Militia and John Fleming. Captain Duguid appears to have been the Colonel’s official representative on the estates, a social equal and friend who could take major decisions in the Colonel’s absence. Fleming, by contrast, was a clerk to whom the Colonel could issue orders and rebukes in equal measure. Fleming dealt with tradesmen and the basic tasks of rent collections, and accompanied Captain Duguid on inspections of the estates. As the more permanent resident at Cluny, he also oversaw the minutiae of the restoration project, communicating with the architect, William Smith, and receiving technical instructions from him.
He had some degree of standing within the household, for Susan Gordon wrote to him relying on him to prepare Cluny for her father’s arrival. Only after Duguid’s sudden departure or death did Fleming rise to take his position at least in administration, but when Colonel John died in 1858 (reputedly the richest commoner in Scotland), his only surviving child and heir, Captain John Gordon, took over some of the more prominent restoration work himself. This lodge and gateway were the ones used in the film The Queen (2006) as the gateway of Balmoral.
Captain John Gordon died childless in 1878. His second wife, Emily Pringle, survived him and married again, to Sir Reginald Cathcart. From 1859 the estates were administered by Cluny Trust, set up at the death of Colonel John, and the Cathcarts mostly lived at their new house at Titness Park, Berkshire (Cluny had always had a reputation for being difficult to heat).
The agent from around 1860 was Ranald Macdonald. He was born in Benbecula (part of the Cluny Estates) around 1835 and came to Cluny as secretary to Colonel John in 1852. He married the daughter of the then agent, William Birnie, and succeeded him in the post. It was his job to collect information about all the Cluny estates (the Gordon properties included the southern half of the Western Isles, a large part of Aberdeenshire (including Midmar and Slains), Buckie, Kinsteary in Nairn, three estates on Tobago and a section of Manitoba) and keep the Captain or later the Trust informed. Sir Reginald Cathcart brought Killochan in Ayrshire into the estates, though it was always administered separately. Macdonald travelled almost endlessly, constantly writing to Lady Cathcart, to the Estates Office (now established in Union Terrace, Aberdeen) and to Skene, Edwards and Garson, W.S., the lawyers for the Trustees in Edinburgh. He also saw to his own estates of Ormiclate and Bornish in the Western Isles and shared Lady Cathcart’s enthusiasm for the breeding of shorthorn cattle, accompanying representatives of the Cluny Herd to cattle shows and sales all over the United Kingdom. He represented Lady Cathcart on the committees of various local charities, councils and boards, and political bodies.
He dealt with rent collections and with staff problems in consultation with Lady Cathcart, as when a maid at Killochan became pregnant (he consulted with her parents, reached a settlement regarding her departure, and employed her sister in her place) or when a replacement gardener was required. This produced rather more paperwork than the inventories of 1837. First, a note was taken of the current gardener’s conditions:
MS 3600/1/1/4/17 Memorandum of gardener’s wages and garden expenses, 1901
The gardener was to be paid mostly in cash and partly in kind, and had two journeymen and an apprentice under him. When the conditions were established, an agency was approached, a garden supplier who also acted as go-between for gardeners and employers. They suggested Andrew McLeod, then working in Cults, who was looking for a change of position. He completed an application form and then wrote directly to the estate. After some consultation with Lady Cathcart, which mostly consisted of his advising her, Macdonald appointed the new gardener.
Macdonald seems to have had an office at Cluny Castle, and latterly he lived at Prospect Cottage, Sauchen, a few minutes’ walk from the castle. McLeod also lived on the premises in the gardener’s house, but his garden staff had to share a bothy.
Macdonald, like his predecessors, had to deal with restoration and repairs, and in 1902 these included garden buildings – whether this was connected with the departure of the previous gardener is not clear! He also had a major change to oversee at the Castle.
However, he did not interfere in matters of taste: as with Captain John and the gatehouse in 1859, the contractors communicated directly with Lady Cathcart as regards the décor.
Macdonald died in 1903, still in post, and was succeeded by his only son, Ranald R. Macdonald. He also had four daughters, two of whom married clergy and one of whom, Clementina, married George Esslemont, member of the famous Aberdeen political and merchant family, and went on to become OBE, JP and LL.D. and the mother of Dr. Mary Esslemont (see MS 3179). It is not clear when Ranald R. Macdonald left the estate office: he was succeeded by John B. Hosie, who had worked in the office for some time and moved into Prospect Cottage.
It was Hosie’s bad luck to be in post when the worst disaster of its history struck Cluny Castle: luckily it struck in the early evening, but the alarm was not raised promptly and though the main part of the castle was saved, two wings and the chapel were gutted.
Aberdeen architect George Bennett Mitchell was consulted, and produced designs for all the fixtures and fittings for the chapel as well as for the staff bedrooms damaged by the fire.
It may be significant that Mitchell was the architect chosen by the Church of Scotland in 1929 to do a full survey of all the churches in Aberdeen – he already had some experience of church architecture.
Lady Cathcart died in 1932 and the estate passed to Charles Arthur Linzee, a second cousin of Captain John Gordon, who added the surname Gordon to his own. He was welcomed enthusiastically by the staff and tenants when he arrived to live at Cluny.
Sadly he only survived five years, dying at Cluny in 1937. His snowy funeral was featured extensively in the local press, with pipers and a horse-drawn hearse.
Charles was succeeded by his daughter Beatrice, who in 1939 married Herbert Claeson. She revived interest in the shorthorn herd and was lauded as a significant lady farmer in the North East. She was proud of Cluny.
Cluny is still very much the heart of a working estate even after the death of Mrs. Claeson-Gordon in 1990, just short of her 99th birthday. It is still administered by the Cluny Trust.
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