In November 1917 a newspaper advertisement in The Scotsman announced the pending auction of the Loaningdale Estate, near Biggar, Lanarkshire. It was offered at the ‘low upset price’ of £3,500 in an attempt to be rid of the property. The newspaper described Loaningdale House as a ‘very desirable residential estate with its mansion-house containing four public rooms, twelve bedrooms and dressing rooms, servants’ accommodation, stables, coach-house and good gardens’. Britain was at war and it wasn’t the best time to be selling; every day country mansions were being offered for sale and, for those still able to afford it, there were numerous properties to choose from. At December’s auction Loaningdale House failed to find a buyer (as it had done in 1908) and its owner, Gavin William Ralston (1862-1924), was resigned to keeping the house.
Loaningdale House went back onto the rental market, as it had been since the death of Ralston’s father, Gavin Ralston (1827-1894), but the succession of tenants came at a price. In 1901, the property was described by one tenant as being in “a dirty and unhealthy condition with bad smells.”
However, Loaningdale House had enjoyed much better days. It had been built in the early 18th century for Nicol Sommerville on the site of an old farmstead called Sunnyside. It was enlarged by Dr Black and, in 1855, was bought by Walter Scott Lorraine, a Glasgow merchant, who remodelled and enlarged the house three years later to the designs of architect Thomas McGuffie and changed the name to Loaningdale. It was described in 1867 as ‘a spacious and elegant building, somewhat in the Elizabethan style of architecture’.
After his death in 1871 the property was bought by Gavin Ralston, a writer and a Master of Arts at Glasgow University. He died in 1894 and Loaningdale passed to his wife, Christina Ballantine Walker, who lived in Edinburgh but had been inclined to rent the house out.
After she died in 1908 it became the property of their eldest son, Gavin William Ralston, a barrister who practised at Dr Johnson’s Buildings at Temple. After failing to sell Loaningdale in 1917 he finally sold the house in 1921, probably to a Mr and Mrs Baird, but gained national headlines when he married Countess Makharoff in 1924. He had met his wife when touring Russia and she was just a girl of 15. It seems the first seeds of their romance were sown and when she fled the country after the Russian Revolution of 1917 (shooting two Bolsheviks in the process) she eventually arrived in England. Just 11 days into their honeymoon Ralston died of a heart-attack while walking down a country lane at Worth Matravers, near Swanage in Dorset.
In 1963 Loaningdale House became an Approved School for Boys but nearly suffered closure in 1967 when the body of a 15-year-old local girl was discovered in a nearby churchyard. She had been hit over the head with a heavy object and strangled from behind. The police began taking dental casts, including boys from the school, and it was determined that the murderer was 17-year-old Gordon Hay, a resident at Loaningdale. He became the first person in Britain to be convicted based on evidence from forensic dentistry. The school finally closed in the 1980’s and in recent times the house has been used as an outdoor education centre. The core of the house remains but has been spoilt by a 1960’s accommodation block and outbuildings to the east.
Biggar, South Lanarkshire, ML12 6LX