No borders, just horizons – only freedom.” These are the words written on a tall neon sign standing in the gardens at Mellerstain House, where George Baillie-Hamilton, the 14th Earl of Haddington, is furiously wrestling with a generator.
Except it’s not terribly luminous: it’s bright outside, and although in the Borders one can very much experience all four seasons in a day, it is very much “summer” right now. “Can you see it now?”
The words aren’t Lord Haddington’s – “it’s George” – but those of Amelia Earhart, the pilot. Nor is the sign his own, it’s part of artist Hilary Jack’s four-part installation currently on show at Mellerstain at the Borders Sculpture Park, which is now in its second year at the house. It has been a great success so far, says his mother Jane, Countess of Haddington.
The idea for a sculpture park of sorts had been brewing for a while. With her late husband, John, the Countess had visited all the sculpture parks in the UK, and decided that she would like to start her own.
This one is a little different: with just four pieces that will come down in the next month, and another artist to be displayed next year, it is ephemeral.
Both mother and son love having an exhibition in the grounds; George gently points visitors in the right direction as they explore the works. At 32, he is relatively new at being a landowner-cum-handyman-cum-tour guide, having inherited Mellerstain upon his father’s death two years ago.
After Eton, and then a degree in arts and media informatics at Glasgow, he moved to London in order to work as a freelance writer, working for a while for The Spectator’s agony aunt (and latterly Gogglebox star, alongside husband Giles Wood) Mary Killen.
When his father died, he decided the time had come to move back to Scotland: Mellerstain had come calling. “It’s a lovely problem to have. I can think of much worse.”
His father dedicated his life to the study of crop circles, as well as conservation. Taking on the estate hasn’t been a total shock, says George. “I’ve been involved generally with the place since I was 18. You pick up a lot by osmosis.”
Mellerstain has been in the Baillie family since 1642, when it was bought by one George Baillie, of Edinburgh. Upon his death, the estate was inherited by Robert Baillie, who became involved in the Rye House Plot of 1683 to bring down Charles II.
Although Robert was eventually executed for treason, his son George, who had found safety in Holland with the Baillies’ Borders neighbour Sir Patrick Hume, of Marchmont House, was able to return in 1688 – with William of Orange. Both Sir Patrick’s estate at Marchmont and George’s at Mellerstain were restored, and in 1691, George married Sir Patrick’s daughter Grisell, formally uniting the two houses forever.
Grisell Baillie, as she became, was Mellerstain’s premier matriarch – “a famously formidable woman,” says George. In 1725, a new house at Mellerstain was built, with two wings by Scottish architect William Adam; in 1770, a central block was added to connect the wings. Eight years later, the house was complete and, in 1910, Italianate terrace gardens were added by Sir Reginald Blomfield. The family have lived there ever since.
When Jane first visited Mellerstain in the Eighties, she was totally charmed by the place. “John was living here on his own, and I remember thinking, what an amazing place, and no grown-ups!” The couple married in 1984, and moved into a wing, where George and Jane live now. “It was just much more convenient to be in the wing,” she says. “We’d come along to the big house for parties.”
The late Lord Haddington’s parents didn’t live at Mellerstain, she explains, but at Tyninghame, the family’s other house, near Dunbar, which the family sold in 1987. Mellerstain was almost subject to sale, too. The businessman Wensley Haydon-Baillie “offered us quite a lot of money for it, but John preferred living in the Borders to East Lothian.” Haydon-Baillie went on to buy Wentworth Woodhouse, the country’s biggest stately home, from the Fitzwilliam family in 1989.
Standing in the woods at Mellerstain, around the corner from the house, it is totally silent. Outside on the lawn, only the chit-chatting of visitors interrupts the calm. The Borders is a busy place for the kind of country house tourism that George’s family has become engaged in. A map, produced last year, called “Big Houses in the Borders” earmarks nine of them; Mellerstain, nine miles from Kelso, and 28 from Berwick-upon-Tweed isn’t, he admits, the best located.
“I’ve often thought that if Mellerstain was called a castle instead of a house, we’d probably get more visitors. The main problem is that both Thirlestane and Floors have better transport links than us, and they’re closer to centres of populations.”
Nevertheless, he’s cheerful about it. “We just have to explain to people that this house is actually better.”
Hilary Jack: The Messenger is at the Borders Sculpture Park at Mellerstain House until Oct 1