THESE days the grey harled front is more suggestive of 60s council house than aristocratic country pile. In fact, Colstoun House looks as if the 900-year history of its family is weighing it down and the burden of being grand in the 21st century is just too much to bear.
But not for much longer – in a tale worthy of a Monarch of the Glen meets Country House Rescue plot, the once neglected house and the 2000-acre estate surrounding it are slowly being transformed. Estate cottages are now self-catering holiday homes, the estate is marketed as a wedding venue and for stalking and shooting breaks.
There are plans to grow organic food and flowers. And the latest addition is a cookery school, launched this week by the two young entrepreneurs behind the new ventures – one the nephew of the current laird – who have poured their own money into what’s become a labour of love.
And it is their own money – because the nephew, 23-year-old Freddy Macnamara, isn’t his uncle’s heir. In a Downton Abbey-style twist, the man who will inherit the estate just south of Haddington is a distant cousin – the ancient rules of the estate mean the laird must be a blood Broun – meaning both Freddie and his fellow businessman, Cameron Sinclair-Parry, could end up out on their ears, despite their hard graft.
But then the Colstoun estate has never had an exactly run-of-the-mill history. The Le Brun family came over to Britain with the Norman Conquest of Britain and settled in what was then Haddingstonshire. Since then the family history has included a wizard, a magic pear, drownings, a Governor-General of India, the entire house being gutted by fire in 1907 and the contents of the walled garden washed away by a flood in 1948.
In more recent years, the current laird, Ludovic Broun-Lindsay, has suffered more than his fair share of tragedy. His wife, Frances Macnamara, Freddy’s aunt, died in 2006 from asbestosis, his sister Christian had already passed away in 2004 – and his mother, Beatrice Broun-Lindsay died in 2008, leaving him alone in the 26-bedroomed mansion.
But by that point, Freddy was studying biology at Edinburgh University, with an ambition to work in finance. And he came to visit his uncle regularly – bringing along up to 25 university pals, an idea which would have most householders fainting in horror but which Freddy insists Ludovic adored. “We rather injected some vibrancy into the house. Ludovic absolutely loved it, he was entertained by it all.”
What they found, though, was a house which had not been painted since 1910. Its forbidding grey harled exterior was not enhanced by the patchwork of repairs. A Victorian wing had been demolished in 1990 and, while much of the furniture had been sold at Sotheby’s, the remaining rooms and corridors were jammed full with tables, wardrobes and armchairs. There were 26 bedrooms and only ten radiators.
“It was completely rundown but amazing,” remembers Cameron. But perhaps more worryingly, it was proving a money pit. “The estate wasn’t making money. In fact, it was losing quite a lot of money,” explains Freddy.
So Freddy abandoned the idea of a career in the City and instead headed for the sticks. Cameron, a divinity student, came on board after temping in a “horrible” office in Edinburgh.
That was in 2009. Now all the bedrooms and bathrooms have been updated and decorated, and restoration of the exterior has begun. Game shooting and roe deer stalking breaks are on offer as well as weddings. The West Lawn has been restored and work has begun on the Walled Garden to provide fruit and veg for the cookery school.
The new cookery school offers day courses for recreational cooks and short courses for those wanting to manage Scottish lodges or Alpine chalets. They put great store in employing local people whenever possible.
All this when the next owner of Colstoun is going to be one Major Harry Fullerton. Freddy admits they won’t have a legal leg to stand on then but says: “If you believe in something it doesn’t matter.”
More practically, Cameron, 25, adds: “We would enter into negotiations with Major Fullerton as to a fair rent so that we can continue operating. Owning Colstoun is a financial burden, and Ludovic has worked very hard to keep the estate functioning. Since arriving at Colstoun we have started to make money as a company which is then used to pay for the running of the house. Our hope is that we can show Major Fullerton that it is wiser to keep us here.”
Still, it’s a huge leap of faith for the pair, who have financed the schemes with their own money and personal loans, but then they admit there is far more to this than making money. Cameron, his brother, Freddy and Ludovic all live at the house and have become like family. “Ludovic has come to be my adopted uncle,” adds Cameron. “We are awfully fond of the estate. We are all very much linked in what we are doing, emotionally, financially and sentimentally.”
* For more information, visit www.colstoun.co.uk