The Palace of Seton

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Historic view of the Palace of Seton
The Palace from Blaeu's Atlas c.1654.
© National Library of Scotland
Seton Palace, 1635.
Seton Palace and Forth Estuary by Alexander Keirincx, 1635.
© The National Gallery of Scotland
Queen Mary Stuart at a Game of Archery at Seton.
Mary, Queen of Scots at a game of archery at the Palace of Seton, 1560's.
The Seton Collection © 2005
The Seton Collegiate Church.
The remains of Seton Collegiate Church founded by George, 3rd Lord Seton.
The Seton Collection © 2005

A History of Seton House Castle

This is one of the most striking of Robert Adam's late houses in the castle style, and likely his last. The Castle is made up of various shaped towers around a curved wall enclosing the courtyard which is entered by a central archway, designed to reflect the old Palace which was the finest example of a courtyard-style residential palace.

Situated to the east of Longniddry, Seton Castle is built on the site of the Seton Palace which formerly belonged to the Lords Seton, Earls of Winton.  The estate of Winton included the barony and burgh of Tranent until the last Earl, George, 5th Earl of Winton lost his titles and estates for participating in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. Winton was condemned to death but managed to escape the Tower of London, living the rest of his life in Rome where he died in 1749 as a member of Chevaliers’ Cabinet.

The estates of the last Earl of Winton were forfeited to the Crown in 1716 on his attainder for the part which he took in the Jacobite rising of 1715. They were vested by Act of Parliament in the King for the public interest, and Commissioners were appointed for inquiring into their condition. Owing to the numerous obstacles thrown in their way, it was not until the autumn of 1719 that the Commissioners were ready to dispose of the forfeited lands. In a number of instances the forfeited estates were bought back for the family by their former proprietors, but none of the Setons appear to have been able to purchase the Winton property, as the main line was extinct.

On the 6th of October the Winton estate was put up for sale by auction, and, with a trifling exception, was purchased by the agent of the York Buildings Company for the sum of £50,300. It appears, from an official survey taken in the years 1716 and 1717, that the rental of the estate amounted at that time to £3,393. Of that sum only £266 7s. 9d. was payable in money; £876 18s. 4d. was payable in wheat valued at 10s. 5d. per boll, £1,019 12s. 2d. in barley, and £166 2s. 6d. in oats, both valued at the same price as the wheat. The salt-pans and coal-pits were reckoned at about £1,000; [The company attempted to work the coal-mines and salt-pans at Tranent.

The York Buildings Co. fitted up one of the new fire engines, the first of the kind in Scotland, and made a wooden railway between one and two miles long, connecting the pits with the salt-works at Preston and the harbour at Port Seton. After an expenditure of £3,500 they could not clear £500 a year from the coal-pits and salt-pans combined. They let them for £1000 a-year to a ‘competent person,’ but in no long time he gave up the lease, because he could not make sufficient to pay the rent. The company also tried glass-making, and set up a manufactory for that article at Port Seton; but, on balancing their accounts at Christmas, 1732, they found that they had lost £4,088 17s. 5d. by the experiment.] 749 capons at 16d. each, and 802 hens at 6 2/3d. each, amounted to £53 10s., and 504 thraves of straw, at 5d. per thrave, to £10 10s. 

The Company ultimately became bankrupt, and in 1779 the Winton estate was again exposed for sale. As the property was of great extent, it was thought that it would be difficult to find a person able to purchase the whole, and it was therefore, by authority of the Court of Session, put up in lots. The first two of these, including the famous old Seton House, the chief residence of the family, were purchased by the former Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Mackenzie, Writer to the Signet (W.S.), of the 21st Dragoons, eldest son of Alexander Mackenzie of Portmore, Peebleshire, who was common agent for the creditors of the company. [Mr. Mackenzie was succeeded as a common agent in 1789, on the nomination of the company, by Mr. Walter Scott, W.S., who at that time had as his apprentice his son, the great novelist and poet.]

No objection was made at the time to the legality of this purchase on the part either of the Court or of the creditors; but thirteen years afterwards an action of reduction was brought at the instance of the company. The Court of Session gave judgment in Mr. Mackenzie’s favour, but their decision was reversed on appeal to the House of Lords. The Company not only raised the general question that the purchase was a breach of trust on the part of the common agent, but they brought special and strong charges against Mr. Mackenzie’s conduct in the transaction.

They alleged that the manner in which the previous rental was made up was not satisfactory, and that the knowledge which Mr. Mackenzie had obtained in his official capacity of the condition and details of the property had been of material advantage to him. They further averred that the sale had been hurried through in an irregular and improper manner. According to the custom of that time the sale was advertised to take place ‘between the hours of four and six afternoon,’ a latitude allowed for the ‘want of punctuality in the judge, the clerks, and the other persons immediately concerned,’ so that five o’clock came to be considered the proper and real hour. On this occasion, however, Lord Monboddo, the Ordinary, before whom the judicial sale was to take place, having received a hint to be punctual, arrived at the Parliament House and took his seat upon the bench exactly as the clock struck four.

Proceedings commenced immediately, and the first and second lots, having been put up successively, were knocked down to Mr. Mackenzie without waiting the outrunning of the half-hour sand-glass, as required by the Articles of sale. Several persons, including the Seton heirs, who had intended to offer for these lots found, to their great disappointment and chagrin, on their arrival at the Court that the sale was over. These allegations do not appear to have been taken into consideration by the House of Lords, since the illegality of the conduct of the agent was regarded as sufficient to vitiate the transaction.

Beginning in 1789, Mackenzie immediately designed to demolished the old Palace of Seton and build a more modern mansion in the new Scots-baronial style, which came into fashion under the German Hanoverian influence.  He was a devote follower of the Hanoverian-Dynasty, a loyal British soldier, and certainly ambitious, and in his quest to further his own ambitions and to rid the countryside of it's French influences, he hurried to erase the Seton history and their Palace.

It could be argued that as long as the Palace stood, the Seton's would remain as contenders, or as a threat, to the Title of the property.  The Seton's of Garleton had, until 1769, claimed both the Winton Honours and the Estate, if only generally as the rightful lineal heirs of the Seton line, with only the want of funds lacking in order to complete a restoration and as such presented a serious potential problem for Mr. Mackenzie.  With the wars between Hanoverian-Britain and France still present, and the Seton's long associations with the Stuart dynasty and with French-ties, and Mackenzie having been a soldier of those wars: the vast old courtyard house of the Palace was seen more as a relict of the enemy.

In the end, Robert Adam was commissioned to design Seton Castle in the summer of 1789. By December the design was at the stage of working drawings. The building contract was awarded to the builder Thomas Russell (later to build Airthrie Castle, another Adam design and now part of Stirling University campus). The Seton Castle building was constructed between 12 November 1789 and the summer of 1791.

John Patterson, Robert Adam's Clerk of Works in Scotland, later to become a competent architect in his own right, reported to Adam in a letter of 26 April 1790 that the old building had been demolished and cleared.

For a client one of the advantages of a building designed in the Castle Style was the reduced cost of constructing the stone walls which (as in this case) could be generally of undressed coursed or "drove" stone (with chisel marks on the surface). Dressed (smooth faced) and carved stone were only used for sting courses and the fine detailing, such as the bartizans and machiciolation at the battlements.

Of course the demolition of Seton Palace provided a ready suppy of stone and extensive use was made of this.  However, the building is in a fairly exposed location and in many areas the mortar joints would badly need repointing, but also much of the original stone was heavily weathered. One of the reasons for the degree of weathering may be that much of the stone, borrowed from Seton Palace, may have originally been cut centuries before the castle-house was built.

Robert Adam, on his last visit to Scotland before his death, dined with his client in the new house on 11 June 1791.

The destruction of the famous old castle of Seton was not the only act of Vandalism of which Mackenzie was guilty during the short time he possessed the property. A few hundred yards to the west of the castle stood the ancient village of Seton, which in 1791 was inhabited by eighty-six persons, mostly masons, weavers, tailors, and shoemakers, each family possessing a house and a small piece of ground. This industrious little community, which for centuries had thriven under the fostering care of the Seton family, was entirely broken up and dispersed by the unscrupulous lawyer who had illegally, if not fraudulently, obtained temporary possession of the estate.

When called upon by him to produce the title-deeds of their little properties, it was found that most of them had no titles to show, their houses and lands having been handed down from father to son through many generations. Those who were unable to produce their titles were at once turned out of their houses, while it is alleged that the few who possessed the requisite documents, and sent them to Mackenzie’s office in Edinburgh, never saw them again and were, like the others, shortly after compelled to remove from their ancient heritages without receiving any compensation. Only one of the villagers escaped eviction. He somehow learned that his property had been registered when it was purchased, and he was consequently enabled to set at defiance the attempts of the usurper to rob him of his patrimony.

Mackenzie was a young man, in his early twenties, when he commissioned the design from Adam, though he would not live long to enjoy his new house. According to a local tradition he had evicted an old woman who lived in a cottage on the estate near Seton Palace. She laid a curse on him and prophesied, as her house was demolished, that the new Seton Castle would never become his family home.  Mackenzie died five years later in 1796.

After the death of Mr. Mackenzie in 1796, the lands in question were again exposed for sale and were at last purchased by the Earl of Wemyss (a descendant in the female-line of the Seton's of Winton), in 1798 at three times the price that had been paid by Mr. Mackenzie. The decision of the House of Lords unfortunately came too late to save from destruction the fine old castle or Palace of Seton, as it was called, owing to its having been frequently the residence of royalty.

The Castle has had several  tenants since it's acquisition by the Wemyss estate, most notable would be: During the 19th century it had been leased by the Dunlop family; it was used for a time as a boarding school; and it's longest lease was kept by the Stevenson family, of nearby Prestonfield House Hotel fame, for most the 20th century.  During their occupancy with little or no maintenance or renovations, the Castle gradually deteriorated whereby it was finally put up for sale by the Earl of Wemyss in the 1990's, the Stevenson's unable to purchase it.

In a new chapter in it's history, the Seton House Castle was purchased from the Earl of Wemyss by a local  property developer, Mary McMillan, and was restored to it's original condition during the first year of her occupancy.  The Castle was sold by the Wemyss' on the condition that it remain a family home, and which condition, to her credit, Mrs. McMillan has honoured.  The Seton Castle is still a private family home, though once again for sale...

The Seton Castle now has 14 bedrooms and approximately 20 acres of land. The current owner, Mary McMillan, bought the castle for £1.3m in December 2003 when it was in a dilapidated state and completely refurbished it over 18 months.  The castle’s previous owner, the Earl of Wemyss, had put the house on the market for the first time ever, inviting offers over £750,000.
In Mary's words: "I also had to convince the Earl, who’s in his 90s, that I was really serious ...and that I’d lovingly look after the house and be responsible for gradual restoration where needed.  I promised I’d give it every respect. He was genuinely delighted that Seton Castle was going to function as a family home.  I remember walking down the drive when the castle was up for sale and I fell in love with it, I knew that I had to buy it, even though it was in a dreadful state," she said. "The walls were crumbling and there was a musty smell throughout the building. The lawns were completely overgrown, but I could see the potential. It’s been a whirlwind renovation programme, which is now almost complete. I used the very best people in Scotland, and so many of them offered their time for free because this castle is part of Scotland’s heritage".

Mrs McMillan began the refurbishment which included rebuilding brickwork in the courtyard, and transforming the dark and dingy cellar into a basement - complete with kitchen, billiard room, wine cellar, and a playroom for the children which is Mrs McMillan’s favourite room.  The open spaces in the house are all painted red, while each room has a unique silk wallpaper design. On the ground floor, the house has a large reception hall, as well as a drawing room, dining room, morning room, and butler’s pantry. Upstairs, the first-floor contains a 440 square feet master bedroom, a hall, two smaller bedrooms and a dressing room. On the second floor, there are three en-suite bedrooms, a library, a study, gallery, and two more guest rooms.

All of the interior decorating, which is different in each room, was completed by Malcolm Duffin. As one of Scotland’s top interior designers working for Whytock & Reid, Mr Duffin also designed fabrics and furnishings for the Royal Family, before the 199-year-old Edinburgh company went into liquidation earlier this year. Mrs McMillan said she was "forever grateful" to Mr Duffin and all the other workers who had spent 18 months refurbishing the castle. In particular, she praised cabinetmaker Michael Hart, artist Rachel Bell, plumber Tom Knight, Thomas Maxwell of Maxwell Flowers and painter Mark Hunter.  Her husband, David, a retired property developer, was also closely involved in the project.
About Mary McMillan

Mary McMillan made her fortune buying and selling "everything from furniture to property", and became a millionairess and mother of six.  Her father died when she was eight and she was brought up by her mother in a miner’s cottage in Loanhead, Midlothian. She left her local comprehensive, Lasswade High, at 16, with no qualifications.

She sold her six-bedroom home in Brunstane, Edinburgh, in 2002 for more than £1 million to help fund the purchase of the castle, and currently three of her daughters, Velvet, 11, Mercedes, 8, and Porsche, 3, attend Loretto, one of Scotland’s top fee-paying schools, near Musselburgh, East Lothian. Her other children are all adults. John, 26, lives in an annexed cottage in the west wing of Seton Castle. The family butler also lives in the castle.

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