Tillypronie — ‘lying deep among the brown and purple moors’
Philip Astor looks back on 150 years of royals, politicians, artists and writers being hosted at Tillypronie, his family’s Scottish sporting estate. Illustrated with works from The Astor Collection offered online 4-18 December and in London, 15 December
There are many houses in Scotland that are grander than Tillypronie; but few, I would wager, that can compete with its majestic position and glorious views over the Dee valley; its wonderful gardens and fine collection of trees; the variety of sport it can offer; and its proud historical tradition and associations.
Furthermore, it is one of those houses that immediately conveys a sense of good cheer and contentment; certainly for me it was always the happiest of homes, both as a child, and after I inherited it when my father died — far too young — in 1984. My parents had bought the house and estate in 1951, and it was obviously a source of great sadness when the period of Astor stewardship came to an end earlier this year.
The house was originally built 150 years ago in 1867 by Sir John Clark, the diplomat son of Queen Victoria’s physician, Sir James Clark, who was himself the son of a butler from Banffshire. The Clark family had played a significant role in introducing the Royal Family to Deeside. For while the Queen was sailing up the west coast of Scotland, with Sir James in attendance, they were beset by constant rain. John Clark, in the meantime, was staying as a guest of a fellow diplomat who had rented the old castle of Balmoral, and wrote regularly to his father extolling both the weather and the beauty of the surrounding countryside.
In due course Balmoral was first leased and then bought by Prince Albert in 1852, and the castle was rebuilt in more substantial baronial style. Sir James Clark himself lived for a period at Birkhall near Balmoral, before buying what was then the small estate of Tillypronie some 15 miles away. Queen Victoria subsequently laid the foundation stone of the new house.
Queen Victoria continued to be a regular visitor to Tillypronie, often accompanied by her servant and confidant John Brown. Brown considered himself too superior to eat with the servants of the house; the Clarks on the other hand felt it inappropriate for him to eat with them. The compromise was that a wooden hut was built outside the front door where Brown would eat in solitary state. As a nod to this unusual dynamic, I was tickled some years ago to buy from Malcolm Innes a small watercolour painted by Queen Victoria, below, of a stag shot by John Brown.
Besides being pillars of the local community in Aberdeenshire, the Clarks had established a cosmopolitan assortment of friends who would come and stay at Tillypronie, including several American diplomats and men of letters, notably Henry James, who in 1878 wrote enthusiastically to his sister: ‘Behold me in Scotland and very well pleased to be here. I am staying with the Clarks, of whom you have heard me speak and than whom there could not be a more tenderly hospitable couple... It is a beautiful part of the country — the so-called Deeside — the mountains of Aberdeenshire — the region of Balmoral and Braemar. This supremely comfortable house — lying deep among the brown and purple moors — has the honour, I believe, of being the highest placed laird’s house in Scotland.’
Lady Clark was not just an exemplary hostess; she was also a highly accomplished cook. After her death in 1897, Sir John arranged for the thousands of recipes she had collected throughout her lifetime, and particularly during his diplomatic postings in Brussels, Paris and Turin, to be edited into a single volume which was published in 1909. Virginia Woolf gave the resulting book a glowing review in The Times Literary Supplement at the time.
The Tillypronie moors have seen more than their fair share of notable figures
Following Sir John Clark’s own death in 1910 Tillypronie went through various hands until it was bought in 1925 by Sir Thomas Royden, the chairman of Cunard White Star. This was the golden age of ocean travel, and during his chairmanship, Cunard built a magnificent liner which it was proposed should be called the Queen Victoria. It fell to Sir Thomas to ask King George V if he would approve the naming of the new ship after ‘England’s greatest queen’, to which the king replied that Queen Mary would be honoured and delighted. And so it was that, many years later, it was on the RMS Queen Mary that I celebrated my second birthday.
At Tillypronie the Roydens made several subtle improvements and additions to the house; and in the garden they laid out a series of terraces, as well as creating a rose garden, herbaceous borders and a water garden, all of which remain to this day. When my parents bought the estate following the death without issue of Lord Royden (as he had become), they proceeded to develop the garden yet further.
When my turn came, I too added some features to the garden, including a rockery created with weathered rocks brought down from our highest hill, Morven, and in 2002 a Golden Jubilee garden, in which the Queen herself graciously planted a Dawyck Gold beech. In 1960 she had planted a copper beech in front of the house, pictured above, when I was clearly a precocious infant.
Following our wedding in 2012, my wife Justine and I planted a large collection of acers and other trees and shrubs that had been given to us as wedding presents by friends, family members and many of those associated with the estate.
Throughout all these years, Tillypronie has been at its heart a sporting estate, with a grouse moor that during the 1960s and ’70s would regularly boast a seasonal average of 2,000 brace. Besides such worthies as Henry James, who I suspect was something of a non-striker, the Tillypronie moors have seen more than their fair share of notable figures. During my parents’ time, for example, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who was a neighbour of theirs in the south, stayed on several occasions.
On his first visit in August 1952, Macmillan made the following vivid observations in his diary: ‘A week’s shooting is a wonderful rest. All thought of politics, business, family troubles and all the rest is put aside... I shot fairly well on the whole; at some drives very badly, at others almost brilliantly. Down wind the birds flew at tremendous speeds; I shot the highest and fastest I have ever killed...’
A previous Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was a regular guest of the Roydens. In 1933 he too, besides waxing lyrical about the beauty of the views and the changing colours of the landscape, couldn’t resist providing his wife with a commentary of his performance: ‘We had a lovely day yesterday. It was a bit cold in places, but when the sun shone & one was in a sheltered place it was deliciously hot. I was shooting pretty well, and though the birds persistently avoided my butts I found at the end of the day I had only got 2 less than the average bag per gun.’
During my own period of stewardship I have done my best to sustain the grouse moors, and I am proud, too, to have developed a pretty spectacular pheasant shoot. The variety of wildlife on the estate (by no means only gamebirds, of course) is astonishing, and is very largely attributable, I would say, to the fact that we have historically managed the estate as a sporting concern.
Against that background, it is no coincidence that during both my father’s ownership and mine, the collection of pictures in the house has concentrated so much on sporting and wildlife subjects. My father built up a remarkable collection of pictures by Archibald Thorburn and George Lodge during the 1950s and early 1960s, establishing a particularly close association with Aylmer Tryon of the Tryon and Moorland Galleries.
There were times when my father clearly got so carried away, adding yet another peerless representation of a covey of grouse, say, that my mother suggested he was creating almost singlehandedly the market for Thorburn’s work. They not only proved to be eminently prudent purchases, but suited perfectly the Victorian and Edwardian milieu of Tillypronie House.
The only concession my father made to a new generation of sporting artists was when in 1977, on Aylmer Tryon’s recommendation, he invited a young painter called Rodger McPhail to stay for his first such commission. Unfortunately, Rodger’s visit coincided with an east wind which invariably brought in a heavy mist that would linger for days on end, so he wasn’t able to see the full glory of the place. That said, he captured some evocative scenes on the hill, and for me personally he painted some charming sketches in my game book. Even then, Rodger’s priorities were always clear, so it was no coincidence that he managed to complete these timeless images between tea and drink time.
Later that evening, at the end of dinner, when my father suggested that the gentlemen should leave the port and go and rejoin the ladies (yes, that was still very much the practice in those days), a distinctive Lancastrian voice piped up, ‘Well, I wouldn’t say no to another brandy’.
Not content merely with inheriting my father’s inimitable collection, I took it upon myself to expand and diversify the collection with the addition of works by the likes of Audubon (whose dramatic illustrations I regard as having been years ahead of their time), Philip Rickman (whose sketches I have always favoured over his fully worked-up paintings), and the underrated Talbot Kelly.
I too used to enjoy inviting up-and-coming painters to stay in the house or a cottage on the estate, perhaps in return for a little sketchbook. Young Darren Woodhead, for example, who is unquestionably one of our leading field artists, would even bed down in our lunch hut up on Morven so that he could sketch ptarmigan on the high tops at dawn. And I was thrilled to persuade the hugely talented Claire Harkess, who has painted birds and wildlife all around the world, but had never been on a grouse moor, to try to capture the essence and speed of grouse in fight.
I used to be a frequent visitor to the Wildlife Art Gallery at Lavenham in Suffolk, and I still attend the annual show of the Society of Wildlife Artists at the Mall Galleries in London. I would regularly participate in the sporting and bird sales at Christie’s (and sundry other auction houses too).
I remember bidding, many years ago, on a little picture by Lodge, which the eagle-eyed and late-lamented Brian Booth of the Tryon Gallery was also interested in. I decided to let him have it, but went shortly afterwards to the gallery where the picture was already on sale with a thumping mark-up. I suggested that as I had been the under-bidder and knew what a saving I had treated him to, we might be able to come to an agreement. ‘We’re not a bazaar, you know,’ said Brian, although I managed to knock him down in the end.
Well, in the most elegant and professional sense of the term, Christie’s really is, I guess, something of a bazaar. My curatorial role has now come to an end: I hope that appreciative new homes will be found for these prized possessions which, like Tillypronie itself, have given such pleasure to me and countless others over so many years.