Gelston Castle

Who We Are >> Gelston Castle

The history of the castle begins with the story of the man who built it.

Sir William Douglas

He is said to have started out as a pedlar in the late 18th century, and clearly had a sharp nose for trade - rather too sharp, in fact: he entered into the "American trade" in Virginia and thereabouts, where he (and his two brothers) amassed an astonishing fortune in a suspiciously short time. He owned plantations, but was reputedly also involved in privateering, and probably worse. By 1789 he had started (with his brothers) buying up vast lands in the Castle Douglas area: the village of Gelston was bought to house estate workers; then came his over-ambitious town project in the shape of Castle Douglas (story on that page).

This William Douglas was a previously unknown member of clan Douglas (nothing at all is known of his birth), and he is quite unrelated to the various noble Douglases of the area: the Earls of Douglas and Lords of Galloway, known in the 14th & 15th centuries as the Black Douglases. But through buying up land next to Threave Castle, the ancient seat of the Black Douglases, and by immodestly naming the town of Castle Douglas (adjacent to Threave) after himself, he cleverly created a pseudo-link between himself and the noble Douglases. He was made a Baronet in 1796, and around that time started to build his own castle at Gelston.

The building of the castle

Sir William was unmarried - he only had time for making money - and Gelston Castle is a monument to his immense wealth and vanity. Whilst being a big house for a bachelor, its actual living space is (doubtless for that reason) smaller than the facade suggests: the anachronistic castellated parapets and round corner towers with arrow slits combine to create an illusion of grandeur befitting the man. The combination of such elements with an Adam-style facade is an uneasy pastiche, as any proper architect will quietly admit. On the basis of the Adam element, the design is attributed to Richard Crichton of Edinburgh (architect of the Bank of Scotland building there), who was a pupil of Robert Adam. The finely tooled red sandstone masonry (forming the outer "skin") is of the finest quality. The building is thought to have been completed c. 1805, on the basis of its stylistic attribution to Richard Crichton, but historical factors suggest a slightly earlier date.

Subsequent history

Sir William died without heir in 1809. He had few years to enjoy his "folly", and no heir other than his youngest niece, who married a Maitland (a rambling local family still very much present in the area) - it's a salutary tale that recalls verses in the bible's book of Eccesiastes! You can see his extraordinary mausoleum next to Kelton church (to its credit the church is said to have refused him burial in the kirkyard!) on the way to Castle Douglas, the last monument to a vain man: a bizarre mix of styles incorporating neo-classical and Egyptian elements, inter alia, quite probably with Masonic references.

Thereafter the estate passed to increasingly remote relatives, finally ending up in the hands of an English family called Galliers-Pratt who kept it purely for pheasant shooting. The Scott family bought it from them in 1973.

Removal of the castle roof

During the 2nd World War the castle was requisitioned as a safe home away from home to 40 or 50 handicapped boys from Glasgow who were unable to fit into rural home billets as normal children could. Glasgow Corporation sent them here under the care of their own teachers (see footnote). It must have been a memorable experience for these inner city children, and it marks perhaps the only proud chapter in the castle's history. At the end of the war it needed money spent on it, as it had never been modernised by the installation of electricity etc., but of course nobody had any money after the war, so the roof was removed in order to avoid having to pay rates. With the internal structure consisting merely of brick and rubble walls, decay was swift and irrecoverable. By the time my parents bought the estate in 1973 it was already well past the point of economic repair.

The stable courtyard

The courtyard buildings date from the same time as the castle. If you examine one of the windows in the master bedroom of House 2, you will see that it still has some clouded panes of the original "wavy" glass, and one of these has engraved on it:

Samuel Hendry, Gardener, 1831

Originally only what are now Houses 1 & 2 were dwellings, for gardeners et al. The rest of the courtyard was converted from derelict stables and stores in 1973/74.

Next in this section

  1. Estate Outline - how the estate ticks today.

Footnote: for the wartime history I am indebted to the nephew of Oliver Barr, the head teacher who was in charge of the boys evacuated to Gelston Castle, and whose brother was with a similar group at Airds House about 10 miles away.

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