We snuck into the stately manor house on Blair Estate quietly, dropped our bags in our lushly appointed room, then rushed into the bedroom opposite. “Surprise!” my husband Steve and I yelled as our friend Leah turned to look at us, her eyes popping out of her head. Dan, her husband, had rented a wing of the majestic old manor house half-hour’s drive outside Glasgow to celebrate Leah’s 60th birthday. She knew she was going to Scotland, but she didn’t know a few of her closest friends would join her for the holiday of a lifetime.
Dan had chosen Scotland because he and Leah live in the small town of Ayr, Ont., population 4,000. Blair Estate was in Ayrshire and a short drive to Ayr, Scotland, population 46,000. Comparing the two was of prime importance to them. For me, the goal was to enjoy Blair Estate’s landscaped 250 acres, and spend time exploring Glasgow and the nearby town of Kilmarnock, where my grandfather was born.
Our first dinner was at Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery, a Glaswegian institution. Sitting down, I surveyed our surroundings. Gleaming oak and mahogany, stained glass and tartan carpet – pure Scottish luxury. To start, we tucked into warm roasted cauliflower salad with crowdie (a soft cheese), honey roast hazelnuts and pickled beetroot. I had Catch of the Day, trout and Steve had seared Scottish sirloin, three onion mash and traditional Diane sauce. For dessert we ordered one malted chocolate cheesecake with salted toffee caramel sauce and the brandy basket with duo of ice creams. Our dreams that night back at Blair Estate were sweet, indeed.
The next morning we took a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city to get our bearings, getting off at a number of stops including Glasgow Cathedral with its fascinating Museum of Religious Life and Art, and spooky necropolis in the basement.
Another captivating stop was Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, a massive structure built in 1901. A local Glaswegian guide named Patricia walked us through. “Glasgow was built on the tobacco and sugar trades. When she lost the colonies, the economy switched to coal mining,” she told us. One of the top 15 most visited museums in the world, it is easy to get lost in Kelvingrove’s 22 galleries including natural history, arms and armour and art with Old Master and Impressionist works. We walked by a hanging Spitfire plane, Sir Roger (a taxidermy African elephant who was part of a menagerie in the late 1800s), and one of the world’s largest collection of swords and armor. Patricia filled us in on the background of many exhibits, including that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an architect and artist famous for his Art Nouveau creations and known for designing the Willow Tearooms in Glasgow.
Later, another impressive building we toured in the city was Pollok House, once home to Sir William Stirling Maxwell. He was one of the founders of the National Trust for Scotland, a conservation charity dedicated to preserving historic buildings and monuments. Instead of the usual tour of treasures upstairs, we opted for the Servants Tour, which took us into the bowels of the building. “In 1905, the house had 48 servants,” said Jill, our guide, as she led us down the white-tiled corridor that led to the butler’s room. “The men lived in the basement, the women in the attic. The butler was known as a “bottleman” and was in charge of the wine. He also kept the family’s finest silver and glass under lock and key down here. He was the highest paid of all the servants.” Looking around the tidy room I spied what looked like an iron. “What do you think that was for?” asked Jill, lifting the heavy, cast-iron implement. It wasn’t for clothing. “The butler ironed the newspaper each day before giving it to the master of the house. This helped to set the ink so he wouldn’t get his hands dirty.” Jill was full of tidbits about Edwardian manor house customs. “The housekeeper was paid a third less than the butler, but she had her own servant, plus two rooms for her quarters. She was always called Mrs., even if she wasn’t married. The parlor maid was always called “Emma” and the footmen were called John and James and had to match in height and looks. The house had 40 fireplaces, and a half-ton of coke was hoisted upstairs daily to feed them.” We popped into the china storage room and Jill told us, “there was a china maid to look after this. If she broke something, she’d have to pay for it from her salary. It could take years.” In the large servant’s hall, we learned this is where they gathered for their meals. “The butler said grace and the head footman said a toast to the health of the master and mistress before they ate. They were well fed and had no expenses, so a job here was much desired,” Jill explained.
After the tour, we headed upstairs to poke about the grand house on our own. The Maxwell family had lived on the site for six centuries, but the main part of the present house was built in the mid-18th century. Walking through the elegant rooms, I felt like I was in a Jane Austen novel. The top two floors of the house were not open to the public because members of the Maxwell family still lived there.
You can’t visit Scotland and not learn about scotch. At Clydeside Distillery, built on the banks of the River Clyde and opened in 2017, not only did we learn how the precious amber liquid is made, we sampled a variety of different brands and educated our palates. “The Morrison family built this distillery to demonstrate scotch whiskey distilling in general,” said Ronnie Grant, our guide. Many of the big name brands you see in liquor stores today originated in Glasgow in the late 1800s. Distilling was originally done in small grocery stores where the owners would blend whisky, at first illegally. “Surgical barbers and grocers were the first to make their own blends. Johnny Walker was a grocer from Kilmarnock who first blended teas, then whiskey,” noted Ronnie. Other grocers turned whiskey barons included men with last names including Harvey, Dewars, Teacher and Buchanan. Originally, all whiskey was blended, unlike today where many brands pride themselves on being single malts. Ronnie explained the difference. “Blends contain a mix of barrel-aged malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries, while single malts are a product of just one distillery.” Peering into vats of grains, we got a close-up view of the process. “The grain we use here is barley. It is steeped in warm water, germinates and releases starch and turns to sugar. Then it is dried and deactivated. Next steps are mashing, fermentation, distillation and finally maturation in oak casks. Here, the scotch spends a minimum of three years in the casks,” explained Ronnie.
Back at Blair Estate, it was time to celebrate Leah’s birthday and we headed to nearby Braidwoods Restaurant (a Michelin one star) for a sublime meal matched with excellent wines. After toasting the birthday girl, we toasted Dan for coming up with such a fabulous plan. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate a landmark birthday than in a manor house from the 1600s, surrounded by close friends. It doesn’t get any better.
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