Restoring a ruined Grade A listed Highland mansion was always going to take nerve. But Wendy Matheson, the owner of Boath House, near Nairn, showed mettle greater than that of the most ardent renovator. Pregnant with her third child, she was halfway through laying a concrete floor when her waters broke.
“We were on a tight budget, and my husband, Don, and I realised that if we went to hospital right away, we would need to reset the whole thing,” Matheson, 59, says. “So we decided to finish off the floor first. I think the midwife was a bit shocked when we finally turned up.”
Such commitment characterises the relationship the Mathesons have had with exquisitely pretty Boath – the 1830 property has been described as Scotland’s most perfect Regency home – since they first viewed it in the early Nineties. Today, its polished ashlar facade, with its quartet of fluted ionic columns, and 10,800 sq ft of flowing, antique-filled living space, appears insouciantly pristine, but the couple’s restoration journey has been an arduous one.
Buckinghamshire-raised Matheson still wonders at the chance encounter that set them upon it. “We were based in Aberdeen, where Don, who was born in the Black Isle, was working with an engineering firm. We were living in a Victorian townhouse,” she says.
“On our way out west to visit Don’s parents one day, we saw a huge hand-painted sign advertising a mansion house for sale, with 20 acres. Of course, we just couldn’t resist taking a peek.”
Their detour up a long, densely overgrown driveway led them to what Matheson describes as a breathtakingly beautiful, almost luminous pale-stone building. “It was especially striking for an area filled with baronial hunting lodges,” she says. “The proportions were stunning, and we could see how the light would pour in through those huge sash windows. We immediately fell in love with it.”
Countless more viewings and midnight number-crunching sessions were to follow before they committed to buying the place. The property had lain empty for many years and had fallen into a parlous state – it was namechecked on an endangered buildings list, and a survey commissioned by the Mathesons ran to an unnerving 50 pages. Plus its history and Grade A listing meant an onerous responsibility for any purchaser.
Located on the site of an earlier “great stane house”, or possibly even a tower, built for Sir James Dunbar, this latest incarnation of Boath came with an impeccable architectural pedigree. It was designed by Greek revivalist Archibald Simpson, who, along with his rival John Smith, is credited for having given Aberdeen its character as the “granite city”; his masterworks include the Music Hall on Union Street. Boath’s parkland was also the site of a 17th-century battlefield.
“We knew it was going to be a money pit to get the place up and running, and nearly walked away,” says Matheson. “But we sent the survey to the agent, and managed to get the price down from £500,000 to about £162,000. Which still took everything we had.”
The couple went on to spend a further £1 million in their first six years of ownership, pulling back Boath from the brink of ruin to create a seven-bedroom house with four reception rooms with two luxurious one-bedroom cottages in the grounds. Its walls are now used to showcase contemporary Scottish art. To keep the budget down, they did as much of the work as possible themselves, only calling in master craftsmen for the finer details of the restoration.
Their first job had been to make the roof watertight. A lethal combination of towering 400-year-old trees surrounding the house and ancient, narrow guttering meant many of the rooms were sodden. The original staircase was, fortunately, in good condition, but the basement needed tanking out and the sash and case windows restored to their original elegance.
Gems were uncovered along the way, too. An elderly woman who had grown up in the house came to visit and recalled that a beautiful wooden parquet floor lay concealed under a pink carpet in one of the drawing rooms. “We pulled the carpet up as soon as she left, and there it was, absolutely perfect,” Matheson laughs.
All the stripped-pine furniture that had worked so well in their Aberdeen townhouse was never going to cut it. “In short order, we acquainted ourselves with the local antiques centre, Auldearn Antiques,” Matheson says. “Although we would have loved to have been able to afford more original Georgian furniture, let’s just say its dimensions might not always have suited those of our American visitors.”
Over the past two decades, the Mathesons have got the running of Boath as a guesthouse, as well as a family home, down to a fine art. While they and their three Gordonstoun-educated children – Jake, now 33, Sam, 31, and Tamsin, 23 – lived in a spacious suite of rooms on the lower-ground floor, the other bedrooms, many with antique four-poster beds, judicious tartan touches and roll-top baths, have played host to visitors from all over the world, drawn to the area to explore the Highlands’ heritage and the Moray coastline, just three miles away.
Their restaurant, run from the elegant oval dining room, has been so successful it was even awarded a Michelin star in 2009, something the Mathesons asked to be stripped of in 2017, saying they preferred to offer a more informal dining experience. It’s typical of their single-mindedness. “As with everything at Boath, we have always done everything to our own tastes, not just to please other people.”
But like all successful country houses, Boath has kept on evolving. Matheson took a landscape design course so she could revive the parkland, lake, and walled and kitchen gardens, where she grows all her own vegetables and herbs (she is a leading light in the Scottish Slow Food movement). Over the past five years, she has spent a further £675,000 creating a café, installing a pellet boiler and redecorating the entire home. In 2014, they even built a contemporary five-bedroom house in the grounds, the Wendy Hoose, in which the couple now live. Its clean Scandi lines, woodburning stove and typographical art are a counterpoise to the Georgian classicism of Boath itself.
With Don now in his mid-70s, however, the family have decided to sell up. Matheson’s most treasured memories, she says, are of the young family camping out, moving from room to room while they renovated, and of the long summers with the children home from school, running wild in the woodland, creating dens and camps among the weeping willows.
“We know Boath will go on without us, and will make a wonderful home for someone else,” she says. “I am not quite sure where in the UK we will end up. But I do know we won’t be taking on another big restoration project any time soon.”
Boath House is for sale with Knight Frank for offers over £1.975 million. The Wendy Hoose is for sale by separate negotiation