History


 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Scotland was emerging from its insular existence to gain a place in the larger, industrial world. Roads and rails led to its southern neighbour, England, largely due to Queen Victoria’s affinity toward this northern landscape. She had acquired the 400 year-old Balmoral Castle in 1848 as a summer residence, where deer and game birds abounded among the Caledonian highlands.

  Trade with Russia had been developing throughout the previous century, and the North Sea route to Saint Petersburg was well-travelled by Scottish merchants and entrepreneurs. Two such men, Andrew Muir and Archibald Merrilees, built the first department store in Russia, M&M, which showcased imported products and introduced the concept of customer service to that part of the Asian Continent.

Archibald Merrilees had fourteen children, many of whom pursued their father’s penchant for world trade and high finance. One of the middle children, Archibald, though trained as an accountant, was more inclined to studies of nature and art than to ledger pages. He relished trips to the Scottish Highlands, frequently hiking up the peaks of the highest mountains. During one of these trips he noticed an isolated hill set outside the village of Nethy Bridge, and sought to build a holiday home among the Caledonian pines.

 
 Mr. Merrilees commissioned C.H.B. Quenell, a London architect and designer, to transform the twenty-five acre parcel. Quenell was best known for building lower-income housing that was not only durable but also stylish. He was one of the few notable architects of the Edwardian period of architecture, a twenty-year period between the Victorian and Georgian eras.

Edwardian architecture eschewed the closed-in, wood-clad reputation of Victorian architecture in favour of open and light-filled rooms and hallways. The main rooms at Aultmore were oriented to the south, where the lop-sided seasonal sun of a northern climate could advantage as much as possible the panoramic views of the Cairngorm mountains. “Modern” and innovative conveniences alike were designed, including a mahogany paneled lift, whole-house vacuuming and direct-current electricity. Water was supplied by a reservoir three miles away; propelled by gravity to the attic of the house the water was distributed through hundreds of metres of pipes to the individual rooms, and to two outdoor fountains. Each main room had its own distinctive pattern of plaster moulding and fireplace, and both native and imported materials were used in the detailing, including limestone, marble, brickwork and woods.

Construction began in 1911 with a stone bridge over the Aultmore Burn. By the time it was completed in 1914, the house and charming gatehouse was complete, as well as a walled garden with greenhouse, a kitchen garden with tennis court, a fountain garden and a “croquet” garden with summer house and archery range. There were follies and stone and limestone balustrades as well as wrought iron gates and stone sculptures. Quenell not only designed the buildings and gardens but chose the landscaping vegetation and features for the totality of the twenty-five acre property. At that time Aultmore was, and remains today, one of the finest properties in all of Scotland. Archibald Merrillees was to enjoy but one summer at Aultmore, for he died the following year. The Great War occurred, as well as the Russian Revolution, which caused the Merrillees disengagement from M&M and reversed somewhat the family fortune. The property was sold in 1922 to John Nivison.

 
 John Nivison was a London financier, later to become Lord Glendyne. Although the primary usage of Aultmore was to be a holiday hunting lodge, he soon added a nursery wing for his four children, with nine more bedrooms and two baths. More outbuildings were built, including an assembly hall/laundry, a garage and three cottages for housing staff. He planted apple trees in the walled garden; brass markers noting the dates and family members who planted them remain today. During the Second World War, Aultmore was consigned as a convalescent hospital. For military purposes, the forest surrounding Aultmore was virtually stripped of its ancient Caledonian pines to be replaced by Norwegian pines.

The family owned the property for fifty years; only Moira, his daughter, lived there on a permanent basis with her several dogs. When she died, Aultmore was purchased by Major Charles Hargreaves and his wife Dawn. Charles carried out James Bond-like operations for the British Government, and was captured and imprisoned for the last year of World War II. When he was freed, he continued his association with the British Government in assignments around the world. He married Dawn McKay, who was a mistress of an international school for young women in England in 1964. They moved their school to Aultmore and remained for seventeen years. Several owners followed the Hargreaves, though they appear to be transient and immaterial to its considerable history.

 
 The wonder of old homes must be the stories that emerge that touch more and more people the longer they stand. In spite of its colourful past and necessary updating, Aultmore has maintained most of its original stature as the day it was completed. The house and grounds, as well as the gatehouse, have a Grade A rating with Historical Scotland. The beauty that surrounds it, with its rarified air and pure water to complement, makes all who visit remark upon a constancy, a near perfection of design and an appreciation of history. This is Aultmore.