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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.