The 11th Earl of Buchan, seldom mentioned without the qualifier ‘eccentric’, bought the Dryburgh estate towards the end of the 18th century. He built a new house and improved the grounds, creating a landscape which featured as its centrepiece that ultimate in garden ornaments: a ruined abbey. Further embellishments included this pretty rotunda on a hillock overlooking the Tweed, and a ‘colossal statue’.
David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829), was fascinated by Scottish history and founded the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1780. He was a man of great imagination, and a patriot who loved his country’s history and its heroes, and although his eccentricity was exaggerated after his death, there is no denying that he decorated the environs of Dryburgh Abbey ‘in his peculiar whimsical way’.
Although Buchan was an admirer of Scotland’s most revered poet, Robert Burns, he was particularly in awe of James Thomson, ‘the Bard of Ednam’ (Ednam being the nearby village where the poet was born). Thomson (1700-1748) was a poet and playwright, whose most famous work The Four Seasons, was published in 1730. There’s no explanation for what was practically an obsession on the part of Buchan, but he lobbied for monuments and memorials to Thomson in Scotland and London as well as building his own tribute – the Temple of the Muses.
In Greek mythology the muses lived with Apollo on Mount Parnassus and were patrons of poets, encouraging their creative calling. So in naming his rotunda the Temple of the Muses, and topping it with a statue of the poet, Buchan made himself clear – Thomson’s work was of the highest order, inspired by the goddesses. The story of Apollo and the Muses was a favourite of Buchan, and on one occasion he created a tableau in his Edinburgh drawing room. Nine ladies ‘of the first rank’ were dressed as the muses, and of course Buchan himself was Apollo. All that was needed to complete the scene was Cupid, so to the ‘astonishment’ of his assembled guests Buchan recruited a ‘blooming boy of ten or twelve’ who made a dramatic entrance, naked except for his bow and quiver.
No architect is mentioned in connection with the ‘fanciful erection’, and it seems likely the temple was the work of Buchan himself, working with his favoured mason, John Smith of Darnick, who also worked for Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford.
A grand fete took place at Dryburgh in August 1812 at which the new temple took centre stage. Guests processed from Dryburgh Abbey in the wake of the members of the Masonic Lodge of Newstead – of which Smith the stonemason was Grand Master – and assembled at the temple. Reports of this event include a description of the temple, probably provided by Buchan. The ‘Temple of the Muses’ had nine columns, and on the capital of each was the name of one of the nine muses, inscribed in metallic characters: Clio, Euterpe, Thalie, Melpomene, Terpischore, Erato, Polyhymnie, Uranie and Caliope, the ‘elegant relievo letters’ being the work of John Ruthven of Edinburgh. On top of the dome a ‘beautiful imitation, in stone, of the lyre of Terpischore, found in the ruins of Herculaneum, is surmounted by a bust of Thomson, also cut in stone’.
The celebrations continued at Dryburgh Abbey where a grand feast was served, and then in the early hours the party returned to the temple. Along the way they passed a group dressed in the character of the four seasons, and then marvelled at a large illuminated transparency which Buchan had erected on the opposite side of the river Tweed. After speeches and toasts, and a rousing chorus of ‘Thomson’s grand national song’ (ie Rule Britannia for which the poet had composed the words) there was a ‘brilliant’ display of fireworks.
The newspaper report described the interior as ‘unfinished’, and it would be another 7 years before the central focus was installed. This was a statue of the Apollo Belvedere standing on a ‘circular pedestal with the 9 muses modelled in the die, enriched with laurel leaves’. This impressive piece was supplied by Mrs Coade’s artificial stone manufactory in Lambeth in 1819, at a cost of £119 4s 0d. Sir David Erskine recorded the statue in his sketch book in 1821.
The newly-completed temple (actually an artist’s impression thereof, as it was incomplete) had appeared on the title-page of a volume of Buchan’s writings, published in 1812. The book suggests that at that date the temple was to be dedicated to Thomson and Robert Burns. Buchan is known to have discussed a statue of Burns with his mason (is that the poet sitting in the temple in this image?) but none is recorded in situ and Apollo eventually took his place.
Opinion was divided as to whether Lord Buchan’s landscape was a triumph or a travesty. A visitor in 1823 praised the earl’s ‘refined and classic taste’ and described the grounds as a ‘little Elysium’. But a year later a lady dismissed the ‘several odious enormities… and sundry other fooleries.’ Each to their own.
By the second half of the century the temple was dismissed as ‘a very commonplace building’ and one visitor thought it would soon be lost. At date unknown the statue and plinth were removed, and the metallic names of the muses have been spirited away too, and there is but faint trace of them today. The temple survived simply because it became so engulfed in foliage that it was largely forgotten. In 2002, following some remedial work (detail is hard to find), a new bronze statue, representing the Four Seasons, was commissioned from Siobhan O’Hehir (born 1966).
The mason Smith was also responsible for the ‘colossal statue’ (as Buchan himself called it) on the ridge above the temple. It represents Sir William Wallace, the Scottish knight and soldier, who was another of Buchan’s heroes. It was unveiled in 1814, and the striking monument is all the more remarkable as Smith was remembered as ‘a common Stone Mason who had never been taught sculpture’.
For Dryburgh Abbey see https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/dryburgh-abbey/history/
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