The history of Durn House and to delve into its story is to connect with the most exciting periods in Scotland’s history in a very immediate and exciting way.
The earliest evidence that can easily be seen of the house is behind the Stable Block opposite the house where one can see the 17th Century Doocot, where the estate’s pigeons would have been housed. There is also a pretty arched bridge of the same period which spans the burn and still supports the Durn Road above.
The present Durn House was built by Sir James Dunbar of Durn after 1770; a smaller and brighter home than the larger Baronial style mansion which was previously on the site. It was built out of ashlar and slate in the fashionable Neoclassical style, with large Palladian windows arranged symmetrically around the pediment-topped central section. Whilst other local stately homes incorporated the Baroque elements of the Adams style, the architect of Durn House opted for a more elegant and restrained Palladianism throughout. Many original features remain inside: the Georgian ceiling rose in the Grand Hall; the beautiful cantilevered stone staircase; and, of course, the Portsoy Marble fireplace in the Durn Suite, which is still in use today.
The architecture of the house reflected the contemporaneous Scottish Enlightenment. One of Durn House’s most famous residents was Enlightenment-era astronomer and artist James Ferguson (1710-1776). Ferguson came from a rural family and received very little formal education, rather being self-taught and encouraged by a succession of employers and patrons. He lived at Durn for several years in the 1720s after being first brought in to repair the clock and was encouraged in his scientific and artistic pursuits by family and friends of the Dunbars. Most notably by Lady Dipple, who eventually sponsored him to go to Edinburgh to further his career, and William Baird, who taught him how to paint miniatures. Ferguson eventually found fame as an author and inventor; he also took lectures and is possibly depicted in the above painting, Wright of Derby’s A Philospoher Lecturing on the Orrery (c. 1766). Certainly he invented a new sort of model of the Solar System (Orrery).
Other notable residents of Durn House include Sir Nicolas Dunbar of Durn, the Banff Sheriff who sentenced the notable and posthumously romanticised freebooter James McPherson to death in 1710, and Sir William Dunbar of Durn III. Sir William Dunbar became involved in Scotland’s national history, departing his home to join with Bonnie Prince Charlie at Holyrood in the Jacobite cause. Soon after, the Hanoverian troops, commanded by the Duke of Cumberland, passed through Portsoy on their way infamous Battle of Culloden, destroying the local Kirk (church) en route.
Some items were recovered from the sacking of the church, including the keystone which can be seen today where the Dunbars had it built into the structure of Durn House to be visible immediately upon entering the house via the side entrance. It bears the date “1603” which refers to the unification of Scotland and England in the 17th century.
Step inside and step into Scotland’s history.