The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

 The cloud was down at zero when I left for Ceres, but as we neared Pitscottie the mirk lifted and black clouds rolled in but came to nothing. I was a little early so had to wait for the rest of the party to arrive. The guided tour was very much shepherded around with a guide for each section, being deaf, I heard little of what was being said, so had time to examine in detail the craftsmanship of around the place. An Edwardian house will have large floor to ceiling windows, designed that way to bring in as much light as possible into the rooms. To stop sunshine streaming into Hill of Tarvit, the NTS has installed fine mesh over all the windows to stop sunlight fading the fabric of the building so it is a bit gloomy inside making it difficult to see any real detail and certainly the paintings are only wall decoration now, the subject matter obscured in darkness.

Again like Falkland Palace there were many large tapestries, and like the palace much of the colour had been bleached out of them.

The plasterwork of the ceilings was first class, with domed centres in the larger rooms to amplify the sound and cast it around the around the room. Apart for the private collection of porcelain, bronze and ivory, housed in specially constructed display cases, the trapping of the house were modest, all the clutter that we associate with Victorian homes has been swept away and replaced with a much more simple elegance of design. I would have loved to be able to wander freely through the building without the tour guild shuffling you along, from room to room and out the door.

Still the tour of this fine house was a joy, the luxurious apartments of the Sharp family, is no money spared personified. Truly breathtaking, is the craftsmanship on display here.

I did manage to dilly dally and take a few pictures in the bedrooms, but this would be impossible in other parts of the house. So lots of bedrooms and toilets shots only. But you get the feel of that simple elegance that I was talking about earlier.

I

Same room
My lady’s chamber

Yet another bedroom
The height of luxury for its time.
“Hey, someone’s put two dummies in here”.

I set off for home, back the way I had come. As I entered Ceres the rain came down heavy so I quickly pulled on my cycling cape. The rain eased on the way down into Pitscottie and by the time I reached Morton of Blebo the roads were bone dry, if I had left 15 minutes either side of the time I did leave, I would have been home in the dry all the way.

Hill of Tarvit takes its name from the hill on which it sits, and is owned and operated by the National Trust for Scotland. This Edwardian style home is set high on the south-facing side of Hill of Tarvit which itself lies just south of the town of Cupar, and near to the little village of Ceres. The grounds in which it sits are made up of 40 acres of garden and 279 acres of open estate, which includes woodland, parkland and farmland. A walk to the summit of Hill of Tarvit (behind the house) will reward you with a spectacular view in every direction and well worth the short walk to the top, for this alone. However, the site dates back to at least the Iron Age. The remains of a homestead were excavated in 1946–1947 at the top of Tarvit Hill. During the excavation, an elaborate circular wooden house of about 17 m in diameter was found, it was within an oval bank which enclosed an area of 33×27m. The house is thought to have been occupied between 200 BC and AD 200 and rebuilt at least twice in that period

In 1905 and 1906 the house and gardens had a makeover by the renowned Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. His design for the house incorporated furnisher in the style of Chippendale and French furnisher then in vogue at that time. The paintings and fine porcelain were collected by F B Sharp.

Frederick Bower Sharp make his fortune in the jute industry, having large factories in Dundee just over the river Tay from his home in Fife. He was reputed to have sold sandbags to both sides in the American Civil War. Sharp added venture capital and rail transport to his business empire. Frederick, needed a home close to his factory in Dundee but also to St Andrews golf club, golf being a passion of his. He also required accommodation for his extensive collection of porcelain, paintings and tapestries. Sharp chose Wemyss Hall, (renamed Hill of Tarvit) of modest size and did not suit Frederick’s requirements, so he engaged the architect Sir Robert Lorimer (a name you will hear again later when I visit Kelly Castle, for it was Lorimer that did extensive work there) to rebuild it, in the form we see today. Replacing the main block of the house but retaining the service wings. No expense was spared, including electricity, an internal telephone system, and central heating. In 1924 Sharp added the 9-hole golf course to the south of the house, and still in use today.

Frederick’s wife Beatrice White was born in 1864 at Castle Huntly, she was the fifth child of James Farquhar White, who amassed his fortune, trading with America in jute, linen and other ‘dry goods’. They married in 1896, so late in life. Beatrice’s sister (Eleanor) had already married Frederick’s older brother, John Sharp, in 1886. Beatrice’s elder brother, Martin White became a liberal MP. The families kept their money well protected by keeping it in the family and the families were clearly not short of a bob or two.

Martin along with his father had installed electricity at their house, Balruddery, in 1881, possibly the first house in Scotland and second in Britain after Cragside to have a domestic electrical generating plant (though Lord Kelvin at Largs had installed electricity earlier using batteries). Beatrice was thus well-equipped to partner Frederick in the modernisation of Hill of Tarvit and her house-keeping and hospitality was always considered exemplary.

It amused me to think that all newcomers to the house were taken on an excursion of the generating plant (whether they wished it or not). Sorry, just the way my mind works.

Hugh Sharp (born 1897), Frederick and Beatrice’s first child and only son, inherited the house on his father’s death in 1932. Hugh served with distinction during the 1914 -1918 war.

His particular interests were rare books, and botanical specimens (many of which can still be seen in the gardens). In 1937, Hugh was travelling by rail to meet his fiancée Mabel Hogarth in Glasgow. He was one of 35 people killed when the Glasgow-Edinburgh express collided with a stationary train at Castlecary. His mother Beatrice continued to live at Hill of Tarvit until her death in 1946. Two years later, on the death of his sister Elizabeth, born 1909, (died young what would she be 39) the house and the family’s collection was left to the National Trust for Scotland, with a sizeable endowment for upkeep. Hugh’s book collection was presented to the National Library of Scotland.

(The National Trust for Scotland were offered many stately homes and castles in Scotland but would only take them on if they came with a large endowment for their upkeep.)

Stay safe.

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