Secrets of the big red house

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Deedee Cuddihy hears ghost stories and roams the hidden passages ofMount Stuart on Bute

Mount Stuart, on the island of Bute, is always referred to as a house. But with 117 rooms, a full-size chapel and a marble swimming pool, it's really a Victorian Gothic palace. A spectacular red sandstone building in the greenery of the 300-acre estate, it is only five miles from Rothesay, a seaside town best known for its ice-cream and fish and chips.

Still the home of the Crichton-Stuart family and the seventh Marquess of Bute, Mount Stuart was opened to the public in 1995. For the past two years children have been visiting from Rothesay school.Primary 4 classes come to explore the estate with countryside ranger Billy Shields, as part of their studies on growing things. P6s visit to complement their work on Edwardians, with a guided tour followed by a workshop.

Head guide Jean Patterson is showing the older pupils around this year. She has worked at Mount Stuart for seven years.

Ms Patterson promises the class that, if they are well-behaved, later they can look at a hidden staircase normally off-limits to the public.

The tour starts in the marble hall, which took a team of craftsmen 20 years to complete. The children look out for the birds and animals woven into a pair of huge tapestries commissioned by the fourth Marquess of Bute. In 1912 he founded what is now the Edinburgh Tapestry Company.

The class is impressed by the glittering dining room chandeliers. There they also search for the beetles, moths, birds and mice carved into the decorative woodwork.

Before moving upstairs, Ms Patterson treats them to a ghostly tale. Just two weeks earlier an elderly lady in a long dress was spotted sitting in a chair in the marble hall. She just as mysteriously vanished.

From the first floor gallery, the children take a closer look at the stunning night sky ceiling and the stained glass windows depicting the signs of the horoscope.

The third Marquess's bedroom has its own en suite conservatory. A bagpipe-playing badger is carved on one of the wooden bedposts. A chamber pot is hidden away in a special cabinet. The class is shown the fabulous Edwardian bathrooms, polished blue marble shot through with fossilised fish and shells, and a bed cover that had belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.

At last they reach the secret staircase through the back of a cupboard.

"Is this cool or is this cool?" cries one boy.

Class teacher Linda Murning is impressed too: "A very good tour. No one has lost interest. It is pitched right at their level."

Mount Stuart archivist Andrew McLean has been at the house for four years. He keeps the workshop on the Edwardians relaxed and low-key, giving each pupil a four-page workbook and a Mount Stuart rubber and pencil. The exercise centres on the lavish 21st birthday celebrations on the estate of the fourth Marquess of Bute in June 1902.

The children put their names on photocopies of the invitation, read a newspaper article about the event that appeared in the local paper and discuss aspects of the celebrations, including the menu.

Mr McLean shows them an example of the kind of lavishly illustrated, commemorative books that the Marquess's tenants would have given him to mark such a special occasion. "These were very expensive gifts," he points out, "and it seems strange today that they were given to a very wealthy man by people who were relatively poor."

After the trip, the pupils agree: "It was brilliant and interesting!" Since July, the completion of a new visitor centre with an audio-visual room, an improved adventure playground and other facilities has made the property even more attractive as a venue for school groups. They can explore the gardens, grounds and the seashore.

ContactMount Stuart, Isle of Bute PA20 9LR. Tel: 01700 503877 Email: donna@mountstuart.com

Web: www.mountstuart.com

House and gardens open May-September, school groups welcome at most times.

Admission pound;5 children, pound;6.50 adults, reduced rates for school groups, accompanying teachers free. Ranger service under review but available to March, pound;5 per hour, group maximum 25. Teachers' information pack with worksheets available online. Ferry: Wemyss Bay-Rothesay or Colintraive-Rhubodach Tel : 01475 650100 Rothesay-Mount Stuart bus, pound;1 children, pound;2 adults.

Other island attractions: St Blane's chapel, Rothesay Castle and Bute Museum. Web: www.isle-of-bute.com

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