A Laird’s house surrounded by wildlife
Ascog House once belonged to a branch of the Stewarts and is a typical 17th-century Laird’s house. Seen from the front, the main rooms are on the first floor, reached by a wide turnpike stair. Go round behind and the rise of the ground brings them level with the garden. Over breakfast at the kitchen table you can often see deer at the end of the garden, and if you take a short walk to the nearby beach you can watch the seals dozing on the sand.
The Isle of Bute
Bute has been called the Scottish Isle of Wight and certainly Rothesay, its capital with its Winter Garden and decorative ironwork, is reminiscent of the South Coast. Ascog lies on the sheltered east coast of the island. Trees (especially beech) and shrubs (Charles Rennie Mackintosh drew fuchsias here) grow lushly in its mild climate. It has been gently developed as a superior resort since the 1840s, with a scattering of respectable houses above the bay. Building on the shoreline was wisely forbidden.
‘Loved everything – especially the swings, snowdrops, the moonlit sea, mountains and palm trees.’
From the logbook
Ascog given to the Bute family by Robert the Bruce
In 1312 Robert the Bruce is said to have given Ascog to the Bute family of Glass. In 1594 the estate, including a mill, Loch Ascog and Nether and Over Ascog, was bought by John Stewart of Kilchattan, a distant kinsman of the Stewarts of Bute who later became Earls and later Marquesses of Bute.
John Stewart may have built the first house at Ascog, replacing an older tower. Despite the date of 1678 above one of the dormer windows, the original Ascog House was earlier than that. With its stair tower and cap-house, it is of a type commonly built around 1600. Moreover, in the wall of the present kitchen is part of a grand chimneypiece. This belonged to a great hall whose floor and ceiling were both at a higher level than today. In 1673 John Stewart of Ascog, grandson of the first John Stewart, married Margaret Cunningharn and it is their initials that are engraved on the house. They must have carried out a major reconstruction, lowering the floors to create two main storeys, and adding the dormer windows. John Stewart was rich enough to lend the Earl of Bute £9,385 to help re-build Rothesay Castle after damage in the Civil War. He was also crowner or coroner of Bute from 1666-98.
During the 18th century, the original mullion windows of Ascog House were enlarged and fitted with sash and casement frames. In 1773 another John Stewart, who had no children, made a complicated will intended to ensure that Ascog would always be owned by a Stewart. His heir, a cousin named Archibald McArthur, had therefore to change his name. Archibald Stewart was said to be both mean and eccentric – he kept pigs in his drawing room in Edinburgh – but he helped pay for a road from Rothesay to Ascog in 1813. He too had no children. The next heir was a distant American cousin, Frederick Campbell. He tried to sell Ascog but the terms of the old will defeated him. His brother Ferdinand, a professor of mathematics in Virginia, succeeded where he had failed and sold Ascog in 1831 to the eminent engineer Robert Thom.
Ascog passed through various hands until in 1939 when it was bought by the Earl of Dumfries, later 5th Marquess of Bute. Meikle Ascog was lived in by Lord Rhidian Crichton Stuart, then let to a Mr Collins and finally to Patrick Crichton, who left in 1988. Ascog House was divided into several dwellings for estate employees, but structural problems began to appear and the house gradually emptied. To secure its future the late Lord Bute approached the Landmark Trust, as a charity which rescues and cares for historic buildings. In 1989 Ascog House, its gardens and the nearby Meikle Ascog were placed in Landmark’s care.
Gutted by fire
When the Landmark Trust acquired the Ascog demesne in 1989, Ascog House needed complete restoration. This was done under the supervision of Stewart Tod and Partners of Edinburgh, architects with long experience of working for the Landmark Trust. The builders were A. Robertson and Co. of Greenock. Work started in 1990 but tragically, when it was nearly completed in June 1991, an unexplained fire gutted the house. After inevitable delays, work started again and Ascog House was finally furnished in June 1993.
Ascog House now looks as it should, the house of a Scottish gentleman of the 17th century, a typical laird's house with steep roof and crow stepped gables. What is fortunately not now obvious is that the house was greatly and badly enlarged in the mid 19th century. Servants' quarters were tacked onto the back, almost doubling the size of the house. Then in about 1900 a drawing room and staircase were added to the right of the front door. With these additions the house was far too big for modern use. Moreover, to build on at the back, the ground had been dug away behind the house, exposing the foundations and leaving the back wall extremely insecure. The ground had been lowered in front too, to make what had been a half-basement into a full ground floor. If the building was to survive, the ground would have to go back to its original level. All the additions were therefore removed by the Landmark Trust except for the staircase that remains, as a tower, separate from the main house.
The walls of the old house were reinforced and later windows and doors blocked for the same reason. The old door into the stair turret was reopened, with the ground level outside it restored. The walls were then harled with a mixture of lime and sand in the traditional manner. Inside, everything you see is new apart from the stone treads of the turnpike stair and the stone fireplace surrounds, which survived the fire. The new work, however, and particularly the joinery, is based on clues found in the building and evokes the appearance of the house in the eighteenth century.
If the appearance of Ascog House has changed dramatically since 1989, so too has that of the garden in front of it. This was entirely overgrown, but Mr Ian Chisholm, the gardener, gradually cleared it, reclaiming paths and steps from the tangle of undergrowth. It is now possible to see the late Victorian layout, but the character of a wild woodland garden remains. Mr Chisholm also worked on the water garden, discovering the old pipes for the ponds and water works with the help of water-diviner's rods. The water comes from Loch Ascog and drains away into the sea. The wheels operating the six inch valves had not been turned for fifty years or more and were entirely rusted up, but they were all carefully cleaned and in 1993 there was a dramatic moment when the fountain spouted again.
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