The hero of this tale began life in 1787 as Thomas Monteath. By the time he died in 1868 he had taken the name Douglas as a condition of an inheritance, advanced in the military ranks, and been knighted, thus ending his life as General Sir Thomas Monteath Douglas. He had plans to ensure that he would not quickly be forgotten, and had this extraordinary mausoleum constructed.
Driving north on the A68, The Folly Flâneuse had often noted what appeared to be a small summerhouse on a hill, just out of Jedburgh, but she had never found a moment to investigate. Arriving at last, the building turned out to be neither small, nor a summerhouse, but is instead the Monteath Mausoleum, and tucked into the hillside is a monumental entrance, invisible from the road.
The mausoleum was designed by J. Dick Peddie, of eminent Edinburgh architects Peddie and Kinnear, and a design of the ‘mausoleum now being erected’ was exhibited at the exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1865. But Monteath (as he shall be known for brevity) himself is said to have been closely involved in the design and construction, making changes as the build progressed. Having spent 4 decades in India, Monteath would have been familiar with the indigenous burial architecture and this must surely have been an influence on the design, particularly the pierced dome. But Monteath would also have been aware of such a roof much closer to home, for Peddie had recently won great acclaim for his design for a new banking hall for the Royal Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh. The design included an amazing dome lit by star shaped openings.
Work on the mausoleum began in 1864, and the local paper reported in March 1865 that ‘a curious and conspicuous addition to our local architecture’ was in the ‘course of erection’. At that date the central chamber, 16 feet wide, had been hollowed out of solid rock by the contractor, Mr Harkness of Hawick. Two months later the paper noted that the mausoleum was to be built 20 feet higher than originally intended.
The site at Gersit Law would have appealed to the soldier Monteath, for it overlooked the spot where the Battle of Ancrum Moor was fought in the 16th century. Along the ridge from the mausoleum is another curiosity which Monteath would have known – Lilliard’s Stone. Legend has it that Lilliard was a diminutive but determined female warrior who fought at the battle between the English and Scots armies:
Fair maiden Lilliard lies beneath this stane
Little was her stature, but muckle was her fame
Upon the English loon she laid monie thumps
And when her legs were cuttit off, she fought upon her stumps.
Monteath died in October 1868 and ‘the massive and handsome mausoleum’ was ready to receive ‘the remains of the distinguished soldier for whom it was erected.’ It was his ‘express wish’ that two lions should guard the entrance and two angels stand watch over his grave.
The building, which ‘commands one of the finest and most extensive views in the south of Scotland’ was already something of a tourist attraction, being a prominent landmark both from the main road and from the railway line. The poet Thomas Davidson gave voice to the late Monteath in ‘And There Will I be Buried’, which includes the lines:
I’ve been happy above ground;
I can ne’er be happy under
Out of gentle Teviot’s sound –
Part us not then, far asunder.
Lay me here where I may see
Teviot around his meadows flowing,
And around and over me
Winds and clouds forever going.
The locals were very proud of the mausoleum and took great offence when Sir George Douglas of Kelso, a writer and poet, criticised the building in an article in The Scotsman newspaper in 1920. Writing as ‘G.D.’, Douglas called the mausoleum a ‘strange barbaric structure’ and pontificated that ‘doubtless the old gentleman’s views on aesthetics were rudimentary.’ He also suggested that it had become known as ‘Monteath’s Aisle, or ‘Monteath’s Folly’.
A reader was quick to defend the ‘finely proportioned and well-executed structure’ and chastised Douglas for giving readers ‘the impression that … the mausoleum is a rather poor affair.’ ‘J.M.’ also dismissed the alternative names as nonsense (and indeed the names do not seem to have been used by anyone but Douglas).
Soon after this exchange trees were allowed to grow around the mausoleum, and it was largely forgotten. It was revealed anew in March 1946 when the timber was felled for the war effort, but although once again a landmark it continued to deteriorate and in 2009 it was placed on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland.
The rescue of the structure, under the auspices of The Friends of Monteath Mausoleum, started out in a rather casual manner but culminated in a magnificent restoration. In the organisation’s own words:
‘On a warm summers afternoon in 2014, a group of friends were walking along Lilliars Edge when they came across the derelict and ivy-covered building which had once been the magnificent mausoleum. With little expectation of success they set up a Friends group and campaigned for its restoration, finding to their surprise that everyone thought it was a great idea. The land owners, the local authority and many local and regional groups supported their efforts and, despite some setbacks, the funding was finally secured in 2018 and work began in October of that year. By the Spring of 2019 the building had been fully restored with new glazed stars in the roof, new oak doors and the whole building made fully watertight. Volunteers then took over to tidy the site, paint the 672 metal railings around the perimeter, and install new pathways to improve public access.’
The restored mausoleum was opened to the public on Sunday 7th July 2019. There are occasional open days when members of the Friends are on site to chat to visitors (move fast to be there on 28 & 29 September 10am-4pm). Or, for a small fee you can pick up the key locally and visit during Lothian Estates office hours. There’s more on the Friends and on access here http://friendsofthemonteathmausoleum.org.uk/index.html
The Monteath Mausoleum seems to have inspired another mausoleum, over the border in England. There will be more on that in these pages very soon.
This part of the Borders is rich in follies and curiosities. As well as the mausoleum and Lilliard’s Stone, there is also the Waterloo Monument at Peniel Heugh, also on Lothian Estates land and beautifully maintained, and the Baron’s Folly on Down Law, sadly currently on the Scottish Buildings at Risk Register.
The final word this week goes to Sir George Douglas, he who dared to criticise the Monteath Mausoleum. Although dismissive of the epithet folly as ‘vulgar’, he couldn’t help but wish there was ‘more of such high imaginative “folly” or impulse in the world and rather less of that wisdom which begins and ends with how many beans make five!’
For Peniel Heugh see https://www.lothianestates.co.uk/waterloo-monument
For Baron’s Folly see https://canmore.org.uk/site/56982/down-law-barons-folly
And for Lilliard’s Stone https://canmore.org.uk/site/57010/lilliards-stone-lilliards-edge
UPDATE 27 July 2020: the Friends of Monteath Mausoleum have launched an audio guide which you can download before a visit http://friendsofthemonteathmausoleum.org.uk/find-it/audio-guide.html