King Alexander I signed a royal charter at Traquair in 1107, while William the Lion signed another in 1175, authorising Bishop Jocelyn to found a ‘Bishop’s Burg’, a small hamlet that was to become the city of Glasgow. It is not known exactly when the foundations of the present building were laid, but a substantial structure definitely existed at Traquair 900 years ago.
During the Wars of Independence of the late 1200s and early 1300s, Traquair became one of a series of tower houses set up along the Tweed to guard against English invasion, albeit with limited success. Traquair House was briefly occupied by English troops during the reigns of Edwards I and II.
James Stewart became the first laird in 1491 and the house has remained in the ownership of the family ever since. The fourth laird, John, was captain of the bodyguard to Mary Queen of Scots. During a royal visit he allegedly told her husband, the boorish Lord Darnley, that he should treat his wife with more respect.
After being granted an earldom by Charles I in 1628, the seventh laird, John, could afford to expand Traquair House and the estate. He added the top story, changed the arrangement of the windows and altered the course of the River Tweed, so it flowed further away from the house.
The second earl, named after his father, established Traquair’s Catholic tradition, which was a dangerous thing to do in post-Reformation Scotland. Masses were said in a small chamber on the top floor, complete with secret staircase in case the priest needed to make a hasty exit. The family’s Stuart links and Catholic faith made them natural supporters of the Jacobite cause.
In 1738 the fifth earl, Charles, installed the Bear Gates at the top of the avenue. Only six years later, according to legend, he wished Prince Charles Edward Stuart a successful journey to London and locked the gates, vowing they would only be opened for a Stuart king. They have remained locked every since.
Exploring Traquair House feels like peeking into someone’s home, a sensation enhanced by the sheer variety of artefacts on display. Precious possessions belonging to Mary Queen of Scots sit side-by-side with grocery receipts, while a hastily scrawled letter from a Stuart son to his concerned father proves just as interesting as a 1493 German edition of the Nuremburg Chronicle. The King’s Room, located in the oldest part of the house, still contains the cradle where the future James VI of Scotland and I of England was rocked when his parents visited Traquair.
Negotiating the 27-year-old maze is a great way to end the day, perhaps followed by a trip to the 18th-century brew house, which produces some excellent ale.
Don’t miss: an invention in the museum room, known as ‘Napier’s Bones’, by which any number less than 11,111 may be multiplied.
Traquair House, Innerleithen, Peeblesshire EH44 6PW
tel: 01896 830323