Heritage consultant David Hicks brings us the stories behind some of East Lothian’s historic properties.

As garden features go, re-creating an active volcano is certainly a dramatic talking point. Of course, it needs a bit of imagination to bring to life, but you can see the remains of just such a building in the grounds of Newhailes House near Musselburgh.

The main building dates back to around 1686 but was substantially altered when the Dalrymple family bought it in 1709. It was Sir James Dalrymple who created the pleasure grounds to ‘suit the mansion’. These were to create an interesting rural-like setting for the main house but also to impress guests and show off the owner’s knowledge of antiquity. 

In the Georgian period, shell grottos were a common feature of grand estates, inspired by examples from Ancient Rome. The Newhailes example is built from large water-rounded stones and decorated with pieces of broken mirror, glass and ceramics. This gave the building a reflective sheen, perhaps resembling molten lava. The interior was decorated with seashells in geometric patterns.

Archaeological excavations have revealed just how spectacular the full effect would have been. Flues lined with quartz have been discovered running through the walls, with a fire pit at the back of the house and the remains of a large pond and waterfall. As guests approached the shell house, the decorated exterior would seem like glistening, smoking volcanic lava, with reflections in the water making it appear as if the building was melting into the pond.

A short walk from the grotto is the remains of a tea house, carefully planned along with the small bridge it sits on. They are designed according to strict ‘Palladian’ principles inspired by ancient architecture and a plan for a triumphal bridge across the Grand Canal in Venice. An inscription referencing the ancient poet Horace suggests this was to be a place of quiet contemplation, in contrast to the grandeur of the main house.

The two buildings make an interesting comparison, one all about drama and spectacle, the other a focus for calm reflection. Whatever the original intentions, though, today, they seem more like natural features, mysterious ruins to discover on a walk through the grounds.