Gosford House, a seat of the Earl of Wemyss and March, is a stunning mansion which looks across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh. Designed by the eminent architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) shortly before his death, building work began in the 1790s. The house sits in the prettiest of grounds, with watercourses, ponds, summerhouses and a sublime mausoleum. In the following century one of the summerhouses was given a new use by the Aberlady Curling Club, which held matches there whenever the pond was suitably frozen.
The construction of the new house at Gosford (also known as Wemyss House at this date) for Francis Charteris, 6th earl of Wemyss (1723-1808), went on for almost two decades, and was beset with problems from the start. It was said to be built of local ‘sea stones which no art can every dry’, and in the 1820s and 1830s visitors believed it was ‘totally uninhabitable’, and that it would ‘shortly be pulled down’. The family continued to live in the old house, not far from the new site, and only a few rooms in the new mansion were used as a picture gallery. Happily the pessimistic predictions were wrong, and the house survives today, with rebuilt wings flanking Adam’s central block.
As the construction of the house dragged on, work continued to transform the demesne. Passing by in 1796 the Duke of Rutland couldn’t believe that Lord Wemyss would build a house in such an ‘objectionable’ situation in a ‘barren rabbit warren’, so clearly a landscape and garden had to be conjured out of nothing. The design of the pleasure grounds is attributed to James Ramsay (died 1820), a Scottish architect and landscaper, and the general design of ponds, walks and rides was decided by the time William Forrest surveyed Haddingtonshire for his map dated 1799. Sadly, this map, and Ainslie’s estate map of 1808, do not detail the smaller garden buildings (although the mighty mausoleum is shown) so their date remains uncertain, but by 1832 a visitor could describe the ‘labyrinth of groves and walks’ and the ‘grottoes of every kind of material’.
One of these ‘grottoes’ is the building at the head of the pond, which is marked as ‘summerhouse’ on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map, published in 1854. Originally thatched, the little rustic pavilion and its flanking walls are built out of tufa, and traces of its shell-work decoration survive. This is the building which became the base of the Aberlady Curling Club after it was formed in 1860: curling stones and brushes were stored inside, and the room also gave players warmth and shelter.
Curling had been an important sport in Scotland for centuries, but was very much in vogue in the 19th century, its popularity summed up in a newspaper article of 1896: ‘In the society of Scotsmen it is universally admitted that there is no winter amusement which excites more lively interest than a well-contested match on the ice’. And although our writer mentions the Scotsmen, the game was also popular with female players.
The pond at Gosford was considered perfect for the sport, as its sheltered situation ensured the ice was preserved for a long period. In 1886 Lord Wemyss, as patron of the club, was thanked for making the ponds available, and allowing the game to be played with ‘so much personal comfort’. Such is the local passion that when Lord Elcho, heir to the estate, celebrated his 21st birthday in 1933, the club presented him with commemorative curling stones. The present Earl of Wemyss and March is patron of the club today, and although matches have for many years been played in indoor rinks, there was a Grand Outdoor Event at Gosford when conditions allowed in 2010. If you’d like to see the club in action have a look at their Flickr album here https://www.flickr.com/photos/aberladycurling/albums/72157625562513200
In recent years a major project has seen the restoration of the pleasure grounds. The park is open daily and you can find out more here http://www.gosfordhouse.co.uk/house-tours-grounds/
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