‘A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.’
Even locals may not have heard of Newliston House, eight miles west of Edinburgh. There’s little advertising, no brown road signs, no crowds. One might feel, ambling alone through Newliston’s bluebell woods, alongside its languid water courses and down its deserted paths, that you are the sole survivor of the human race rather than a tourist visiting an historic house during peak season.
We begin our walk down a grassy avenue past an enormous high-walled orchard. At the end of the avenue the path turns right and we are in the bluebell woods on a path that circuits the edge of the estate. No one else is around; we feel as though we have the place to ourselves. A slim roe deer bounds towards us, skids to an alarmed standstill at the impossible sight of a human being, about turns and is gone just as quickly.
I turn back to photograph the bluebells, and my sister, who cannot bear to wait for photographing, quickly disappears into the distance. She walks at the speed of an ostrich—one that’s realised it’s late for an appointment to collect its prize for the land speed record. Then, just as quickly, she’s back. She’s been exploring. ‘Let’s walk round the edge,’ she says. I thought we were already walking around the edge of the estate, but no, it turns out that beyond the thicket of Ilex bordering the estate there’s an outer outer path and a ha-ha with a ten-foot drop, beyond which are arable fields. ‘This used to look out on to an improving landscape,’ my sister informs me. She knows a great deal about Newliston, having researched the Robert Adam house and its estate for a paper that she presented at a Historic Scotland conference to an audience of like-minded architectural historians who use phrases like ‘improving landscape’. The gardens, once very formal, are crossed with a sort of Union Jack pattern of paths, and each path lines up with some significant landscape feature: the church at Kirkliston, Niddry Castle, Dundas Castle, Arthur’s seat. I point out that any straight line will eventually line up with something or other, but my sister is already off again, beating a path through untrod woodland, clambering barbed wire fences, striding into the wind like a valkyrie. Going for a walk with my sister often results in being on the wrong side of a fast-flowing river in the gathering dusk, so I begin to bleat about getting back to the ‘real’ garden and reluctantly she agrees.
Soon we’re standing by a long, formal canal, and then in the distance we hear a puffing and chuffing, a little parp-parp, and a tiny steam engine huffs into the valley, crosses a bridge and then disappears round a corner so quickly it might never have happened. Intrigued, we proceed up another of the innumerable long grassy paths to the centre of the park past an impressive statue of Hercules. Shortly, we meet a gentleman with three dogs who tells us he lives in the doocot yonder, a tiny converted dove house with a log pile and car parked outside it. Just when I think the garden couldn’t get any more random, we see the little steam engine reappear at the bottom of a long, wide grassy slope. My sister and I hasten down the slope like overgrown Railway Children; all we need are some pairs of red knickerbockers to complete the scene. There, at the bottom of the little valley is the miniature railway. Bridges, station clocks, signal boxes, points and sidings are all of Liliputian size. The station is a garden bench. Soon the train appears energetically along the track, and the wooden seats are full of adults. So, this is where all Newliston’s visitors are. The driver, who is wearing a hoody and jeans, calls, ‘You wanting on?’, and we clamber astride the wooden seats. A parp parp, and off we go round the track, the wind in our hair and smoke in our eyes.
My lasting impression of Newliston is a romantic, deserted, wistful place that embodies the graceful decline of the great country estate. Newliston remains the family home of descendants of the Hogg family who rebuilt the house in 1789, and the quiet dedication of its current owners to maintain such a large estate and keep it open for visitors is commendable.
Newliston House is open from 1st May to 4th June 2016 on Wednesdays to Sundays 2-6pm, or by appointment. Entrance is £4, or free to Historic Houses Association members and friends.