Location and Setting
Blairquhan is situated in upland country, some 5 miles (8km) south-east of the town of Maybole in Ayrshire. It lies to the west of the village of Straiton and is bordered by the B7045 to the north and the B741 to the south. The house stands on the southern escarpment of the Vale of the Water of Girvan which meanders through a wide valley. The surrounding landscape is largely agricultural with some afforestation on the hills, particularly to the north- east of Blairquhan. Good views to the north and east across the river valley are obtained from the house. The best views of the house and park are obtained from the north; to the south, the view is obscured by woods along the roadside. The designed landscape makes a significant contribution to the local scenery.
The policies today extend from the woods along the B741 in the south, across the Water of Girvan, and include the parkland and afforested knowes on the south face of the valley up to the B7045. Sclenteuch Moor, Specs and Littleton Glen plantations are also areas of afforestation outwith this boundary but important outlying features of the designed landscape.
At the north-west corner of the site, the estate has been extended in recent years to include the walled garden and additional policy land of Cloncaird Castle. The boundary of the designed landscape in this area is defined by the boundary of the woodlands on either side of the drive. The north drive is itself an important feature of the design and follows the route of the river Girvan for three miles, crossing it by the William Burn bridge some two miles downstream from the house. The designed landscape today includes some 1,132 acres (458ha).
The policies of Blairquhan were laid out by the Whitefoord family between 1623 and 1750 but were remodelled to the present form by David Hunter Blair in the first half of the 19th century to the design seen in the 1st edition OS plan of c.1850. His successors have continued to develop the estate within this framework.
The Old Castle of Blairquhan dated from a Tower House built in 1346 for the McWhirters. In 1576 a new front was added by the Kennedy family who had acquired the estate by marriage. In 1623 the Kennedys lost their estate to the Whitefoords who planted the estate in the form seen on General Roy's map of 1750. In 1760 Sir John Whitefoord let the house to the Macadams of Lagwyne, parents of the road improver J.L. Macadam. In 1798 the Hunter Blair family acquired the estate from the Whitefoords. The estate had been bought for David Hunter Blair, then a minor, by his trustees.
His father, James Hunter, had married Jean Blair of Dunskey in 1770 and they had 14 children. Her family name was added to that of Hunter when, in 1777, she inherited her father's estate. James Hunter died in 1787. David was the second son, but became the third baronet in 1800 when his elder brother John died. He designed the layout of the policies himself even diverting the river as part of the design, having discounted the plans by Thomas White Snr commissioned in 1803. Between 1803-14 he planted nearly half a million trees. A new house was commissioned to the designs of William Burn in a burst of activity following the death of his wife, Dorothea Hay MacKenzie, in 1820. He married Elizabeth Hay of Haystoun 5 years later and continued to work on the grounds until he died in 1857. Colonel Hunter Blair, whose monument stands on Craigengower Hill, was Sir David's eldest son, killed at Inkerman in the Crimean War. Sir David was succeeded by his son Edward, the 4th Baronet, who began the planting of the arboretum. This has been continued by his successors. The present owner, Mr James Hunter Blair, has recently carried out extensive refurbishment work on estate buildings and continued the tradition of planting on the estate.
The house was built by William Burn in 1820-24; it was one of his early commissions. Previous designs prepared by J. Gillespie Graham in 1814 and Robert Wallace in 1818 were not implemented. The house was built slightly to the south of an earlier fortified building and incorporates features of 1576 within the kitchen courtyard. It is listed A.
The stables were also designed by William Burn. They are listed B and have recently been converted into three holiday flats and a house for estate staff. The Ice House lies to the east of the stables. The kennels date from the late 18th century and are listed B. The Glasshouse, built in 1820, the Gardener's Cottage, Blairquhan, and Girvan lodges are also of architectural interest and have recently been refurbished.
Blairquhan Bridge, listed B, was also designed by William Burn. The Old Bridge of Blairquhan, at the east entrance of the estate, is a single arch, stone, hump-back bridge, possibly 18th century, and listed B. The New Bridge, on the straightened section of road to Straiton, was built in 1820.
Colonel Hunter Blair's monument on Craigengower Hill is listed B. There are two sundials: one in the flower garden which is mounted on a high pedestal and another in the walled garden.
The parkland today extends from the inner edge of the woods on the southern boundary, across the west drive, down to the Water of Girvan and across to King's Hill. To the west, it extends to the enclosure of Laigh Garphar Wood and includes the loch made by Sir David Hunter Blair (and used for fishing) and to the east along the edge of the river. The parks are grazed, with wooden fenced protection for trees.
General Roy's map of c.1750 shows an extensive area of woodland with diagonal rides running through it. A few remaining parkland trees and the Lime Avenue along the west drive to the house are remnants of this old woodland.
The majority of the park trees date from c.1820. Replanting of sycamore and oak has been carried out by Sir James Hunter Blair and by his son. A large clump has been planted in the park to the south of the house with beech, Scots pine, European larch and shrubs.
Trees in the woodlands date mainly from c.1900 onwards with some of the deciduous trees planted in the time of the Whitefoord family (1623-1798) dispersed throughout, in particular the avenue on the north drive.
The woods of Blairquhan are a major feature in the designed landscape. Within the parkland, the woods are replanted with a view to amenity, using trees such as oak, beech, larch, Scots pine and the less usual softwoods such as Grand and Noble fir. The higher estate woodlands are nowadays planted mainly with Sitka and Norway spruce.
This garden to the west of the house was originally laid out at the time the house was built but the present planting was carried out by Mr James Hunter Blair's mother. It is an extremely exposed site and commands excellent views to the parks around the house. A sundial stands in the centre of the garden.
Enclosed by walls on all but its south side, the walled garden is sited on a dip which runs west to east. The north and south areas of the garden slope towards this axis, enabling a total view of the garden from any high point. It was laid out by John Tweedie in 1816.
The north-west part of the garden is used as a tree nursery but flowers and vegetables are also grown. Laburnum and rose walks have recently been planted by Mr Hunter Blair along the west-east axis on the site of an original walk. Herbaceous borders run on either side of the north/south axial path. The paths used to be gravel but were converted to grass by Mr Hunter Blair's mother. The greenhouse was built about 1820; in the course of the present century, the original glazing has been replaced with larger panes but the building has otherwise remained in its original form. It commands the central position on the south-facing wall of the garden and is well stocked with a range of plants including Leptospermum and bottlebrush (Callistemon). Underground rooms below the glasshouse are thought to have been used for mushroom culture. The walled garden at Cloncaird Castle is now part of Blairquhan estate and is used for growing conifers.
The arboretum was begun by the present owner's great grandfather, Sir Edward, in 1858 on the site of the old orchard to the north of the walled garden and has been added to by successive generations since. It contains a fine and varied collection, mainly of conifers, most of which have been measured in 1931, 1954, 1970 & 1984, and the records have been compiled recently by Alan Mitchell.
A famous tree at Blairquhan is the 'Dool' tree, a large sycamore sited on the lawn to the east of the house; it appears on the 1st edition OS map and was used for execution by hanging after trial by the laird.
The pond, to the north of the arboretum, was put in by Sir David. Recent clearing of the Rhododendron understorey beneath the conifers has helped to make it more of a feature. A collection of hollies has been established by Mr Hunter Blair at the east end of the walled garden.
A. Rowan, CL, April 19th & 26th 1973
T. Hannan, Famous Scottish Houses, 1928
A.Millar,Castles & Mansions of Renfrewshire, 1889
Ayrshire Gazette, 1985
Letters between William Burn & Sir David Hunter Blair, NMRS
G.A. Little 1981
A. Mitchell, Tree Survey 1931, 1954, 1970 & 1984