Auchinleck House: Holiday in James Boswell's home

Once home to James Boswell, the biographer of Dr Johnson, the magnificent Auchinleck House in Ayrshire is now available to rent. Matthew Bell finds out how he lived
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The Independent Travel

James Boswell is a rare example of a nobleman who became famous for what he did, not who he was born as. He is a household name because of his diaries, his career as a lawyer, and for The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., which was hailed by the American literary critic Harold Bloom as the best biography in history. Less well known are his toff credentials: he was the heir to 20,000 acres of Ayrshire, and at 41, on the death of his father, became the ninth Laird of Auchinleck in 1782.

The centrepiece of this estate was Auchinleck House, which his father built between 1755 and 1760 to replace a derelict castle. It was a mini-mansion: one-third of the size of the neighbouring Dumfries House, which has been in the news in recent years following its rescue and restoration by Prince Charles. But the style was the same: Italianate, after Palladio, with a central portico, sweeping steps, and all the features of fashionable 18th-century architecture, such as large sash windows. It was the perfect retreat for an Edinburgh lawyer.

The house passed through various Boswells until the Second World War, after which it entered a period of decline. By the 1960s, it was uninhabited. When it was finally bought by the Landmark Trust in 1999, it had lost all the pomp and swagger you would expect of a house belonging to Boswell. Today, after a thorough restoration, it is available to rent, and is the ideal venue for a family get- together or Peter's Friends-style weekend.

Our house party consisted of friends and family, many with a Boswellian theme – one was a brainbox barrister with an aptitude for making a lethal gin and tonic; another was a historian who had spent four years in Edinburgh. And all over the house, there were little reminders that this was Boswell's home: a whole section of the first-floor library is dedicated to his works, and prints of his portrait hang in unlikely places, such as above the loo. Given that the house was a bare shell when acquired by the Landmark Trust, it's impressive how far it has gone in recreating how the house might have looked. Many items have been donated by Boswell enthusiasts – who knew that there were so many of them, and that they were so active? – such as the Yale Editions of the Boswell Papers, and some reproductions of family portraits.

A clever alteration to the layout has been to create a large and well-equipped kitchen at the heart of it all. In Boswell's day, there would have been a staff of scullery maids and pastry chefs scurrying about the basement. These days, everyone lives in the kitchen, so it makes sense to have it on the ground floor, in a large room, formerly the parlour, next to the dining room. This also frees up the basement for vitally important functions, such as table tennis.

The lack of staff is the most noticeable difference between now and Boswell's day. It makes the layout somewhat eccentric: you enter not by the front door but by a side courtyard into the basement. The main thinking here is to keep cars out of sight, as the parkland is open to the public. But it can give you an identity crisis: "Am I staff or nobleman?" you ask yourself, as you struggle up the back stairs laden with supermarket bags. The front door is worth using at least once for its singular 18th-century design: the top half opens up like a sash window, while the bottom folds inwards, like a gate. The idea is that, from the park, it looks like a window, not a door. Other idiosyncrasies are more understandable, such as the location of the bathrooms. Rather than partition off original rooms, they have been put in strange places: the most luxurious one is weirdly located halfway down the back stairs.

The curious thing about Auchinleck is how it manages to be grand and intimate at the same time. There are seven bedrooms, sleeping 13 people, and of the six double rooms, two have double beds, and four have twin beds, meaning it is ideal for a group of friends, or two large families. But when you're all sitting round the kitchen table, you could just as well be in Islington or North Oxford, not a Scottish stately home.

There are advantages to being in Ayrshire, not Islington. There is plenty of good walking within the grounds: down to the old ruined castle, across a stone bridge, and into the clammy shades of the woods, where an ice house is carved into the rock. The countryside around here is gently undulating, and typical of Ayrshire. Do not expect dramatic crags or big glassy lochs; think 18th-century pastoral, with artfully arranged cattle in every vista. Further afield, Ayr is half-an-hour's drive west, and has a famous racecourse and a good beach, though the town feels like it has seen better days.

Dumfries House is only 10 minutes down the road, and is well worth a visit. It is a time-warp example of a Robert Adam house, with all its original Chippendale furniture still in place. We were there a couple of days before the Queen was due to arrive, and it was like a scene from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with men charging up and down ladders touching up paint and dusting down picture frames. Here, too, the layout is eccentric by modern standards: the state bedroom adjoins the drawing room, and it was apparently quite normal to entertain visitors from your bed. If you ask me, this is a tradition that needs reviving.

One of the highlights of Dumfries House was the moment we left, knowing that we were going home to our own neighbouring stately home. True, Prince Charles's house is bigger, and more original; but while there, we could only gawp at the handsome furniture and marble fireplaces, whereas at Auchinleck we could light actual fires and sprawl on the sofas. We could sleep in the beds, lounge in the baths, and have raucous banquets around the dining-room table, which can seat 20, yet is dwarfed by the scale of the room. Admittedly, none of us read much Boswell while we were there, as we were too busy playing bridge and drinking gins and tonics. But if his home is anything to go by, I can vouch that Boswell was a thoroughly civilised man.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Getting there

Auchinleck House is in Ochiltree, Ayrshire, 35 miles south-west of Glasgow.

The nearest station is Auchinleck, six miles away (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk)

Staying there

Auchinleck House is owned by the Landmark Trust (01628 825925; landmarktrust.org.uk), a charity which rescues and restores historic properties and lets them out for holidays. The house sleeps up to 13 people in seven rooms. Four nights cost from £665

More information

VisitScotland.com

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