A supreme example of a property that has been fortunate enough to have been rescued and restored to its former glory
Tillycorthie is in the parish of Udney, three miles south of Pitmedden and about eleven miles north of Aberdeen. The house was built in 1911 for James Rollo Duncan, a local born entrepreneur, and is regarded as a fine example of a steel-reinforced concrete structure. Tillycorthie was built by James Scott and Son of Aberdeen, pioneers in this method of construction throughout England and the south of France. The house is now on the market at Savills with offers wanted over £1.5 million.
James Duncan (1860-1938) was born in the village of New Leeds, near Fraserburgh and had to earn his own living when he was only ten years of age. He became a herd boy, a farm worker, a herring fisherman, and later served his apprenticeship as a stonemason.
He had frequent periods of unemployment during the winter as a stonemason, and being an ambitious and enterprising youth, he went with a friend to Bolivia who had an uncle living there. He had no knowledge of mining but found work in a silver mine. He wasn’t content to be an employee working for someone else and started prospecting gold from a river bed. It wasn’t a profitable scheme and he had greater success as a building contractor where his practical experience as a stonemason proved invaluable.
Duncan could see that mining was the way forward and a prospecting expedition to the Andes was more successful. He struck rich tin deposits, and working at relatively low cost, was able to make money from the scheme. In 1900 he returned to Scotland but soon returned to Bolivia, carrying on at his old mine.
Steadily he developed his interests and remained for over 40 years. Adjoining mines were acquired, and Duncan soon became one of the country’s leading owners. He visited Scotland on several occasions, but it wasn’t until 1911 that he returned to take up permanent residence. Back in Bolivia, tin had once been practically worthless but had risen in value and was now a desirable commodity. Duncan spoke that at the end of a year’s working he paid back everything he owed, put the mine in good working order, and was still about £100,000 to the good.
For a time, Duncan rented the mansion house and estate of Tillery, alongside the Tillycorthie estate. While carrying on the farm at Tillery he found the house accommodation too limited and decided to have a new house built on lower more sheltered ground, about a quarter of a mile away. He hadn’t been the first to contemplate such a scheme, several years earlier Major Ross had considered building a house in the same place.
Duncan didn’t take part in public affairs, but nevertheless took great interest in the welfare of the county. He was the pioneer of the Kintore, Ellon and Ballater electricity schemes, and through Duncan’s Electricity Supply Company, the village of Udney was the first in the north east to have electricity.
He also built several properties including one as a wedding present for a daughter, the public hall and he made considerable use of the old Formartine and Buchan Railway, which his daughters used for getting to St Margaret’s school in Aberdeen. On occasion he was seen waving the train down from the side of the tracks on the rare occasion the girls were late. The line has long since been converted into a cycleway/footpath which winds its way through beautiful countryside.
Work started on Tillycorthie, situated beside a belt of woodland, in July 1911 and took just 12 months to complete, largely due to the nature of its construction. It was built in the style of a Spanish residence, from plans by John Cameron, an architect from Aberdeen.
Duncan wanted Tillycorthie to remind him of the Spanish-styling of his South American past. Hennebique’s British agent L.G. Mouchel published plans and a list of works in 1920, providing evidence that the hollow-walled construction is entirely in Mouchel-Hennebique ferro-concrete. With a lake of some two to three acres to the south-west, fringed with trees at the end furthest from the house, its picturesque situation added to its desirability as a country seat.
James Scott and Son, with a reputation of high-workmanship, were entrusted with the building of Scotland’s ‘first mansion house of reinforced concrete’. (It was not quite the first, Beachtower at Dundee, in 1874, and the Hydropathic at Melrose were earlier). Many tons of granite chips were secured from Stirlinghill quarry and were ground to the size required for making concrete. The material was taken to Tillycorthie and prepared using steel rods and compact, thick wire frames which formed an important part of the construction. The walls were practically double, with an air space between the outer and inner walls. In these cavities, enclosed in metal tubes, were the wires used for electric lighting.
In 1911, the use of so little woodwork in its construction was an innovation, and with electric wiring in its infancy, the risk of fire was reduced. The chief woodwork had been confined to the window frames, which were seasoned teak, strong, durable and neat in appearance.
In the central covered court, with a glass roof, a fountain played, and around it was a circular carriage drive and beds of flowers and evergreens. It is said that the central courtyard was originally chalked out from the turning circle of the Daimler motor car belonging to James Duncan’s wife, Isabella, with its huge South American teak glazed sliding doors providing shelter to the tropical plantings within.
The conservatory was filled with choice flowering plants at the south-east end of the house adjoining the drawing room. Brightness and beauty were the characteristics with views towards the south-west.
Adjoining the drawing room, along the east side of the house, were large bedrooms and adjoining bathrooms, taken from the Spanish custom of having the bathroom immediately adjoining the bedroom. The smoking room, sitting room, business room, morning room, and other accommodation formed the principal features of the east and north side of the building.
When Tillycorthie was built, much was made of the ventilation; the open spaces between the walls were carried up from the cellars, allowing a current of air to pass between the walls, as well as beneath the house. A deep trench was dug, extending around three sides of the house, where it was possible for people to walk, with drainage pipes underneath carrying off any water that found its way into the foundations. A current of air passed beneath the house, the entrance through a protected opening beneath the drawing room window giving ingress and egress from the east, and a similar opening to the other side of the house providing a similar function.
During construction, the Aberdeen Press and Journal described all the rooms as being lofty, with no stinting of air-space or light in any of the rooms, except to the south-west of the basement, where a somewhat extensive, low, comparatively dark space, could be utilised for the growing of mushrooms – ‘an ideal place for such a purpose when the conditions for the successful cultivation of this delicacy can be so well obtained’.
The people of Tillycorthie were somewhat surprised at the mention of a lake. Duncan had chosen a low-lying field and transformed it into a lake of several acres. A foundation of 5,000 old railway sleepers, bought from the North British Railway Company, was laid to a depth of two to three feet from the surface of the water. The lake was filled from an artesian well sunk near to the top of rising ground to the east. (This was also used to supply water for the house). Duncan, from his South American experience, valued water for power, and arranged for the generating of electricity from an overflow in the lake.
A few hundred yards from the house, a bowling green, lawn tennis court and croquet ground were built, sheltered on the north-east side by a belt of trees.
A carriage drive was built from the Udny turnpike road by Mr W. Tawse, a contractor from Aberdeen. He laid a granite foundation 9 inches deep, used by contractors during the building of Tillycorthie, and when finished the drive was finished with a coating of road metal and a surface of tarmacadam.
In 1913, James Duncan turned his attention to the interior of the house. He employed a team of highly skilled workers and decorative artists from Paris, who spent six months on the drawing-room. The aim was to re-produce a faithful copy of the designs of the artist Sir William Chambers from the 1760s. This period had created new styles and gave a rich harvest of the daintiest decoration ever executed and adapted to English homes. Some of Chambers’ work had existed at Carrington House, Whitehall, long disappeared.
To achieve this, the subbase was panelled out of yellow pine and richly carved. In the door the fluting and the patres in the moulds were balanced with delicate Carton Pierre ornament in the panels, while the walls above the architrave were panelled out and the frieze and cornice richly embellished. A dozen coats of paint left the soft surfaces, rich in tone, colour and finish, and formed a background for the figures and cupids painted onto it. The fireplace, with an inlay of antique French gilt, was chased with the same ornament, surrounded with sky-loss marble slips.
James Duncan devoted himself to the various estates he acquired. His practical knowledge of farming was valuable, and he carried on commercial agriculture with success, improving and building up all kinds of crops and livestock. He was a staunch supporter of several agricultural societies and organisations and was a prominent exhibitor at shows in the district.
Isabella survived her husband by 15 years, passing away in 1953, but with no male heir to take over the formidable business interest and farms, the estate was broken up and by the year end Tillycorthie farm and the Mansion House had been acquired by Aberdeen University. While the farm flourished, the Mansion fell into some disrepair until the early 1980s, when a developer managed to acquire the Estate in its current form and proceeded to divide the property into three separate dwellings.
Gordon and Cynthia MacGregor acquired all three dwellings over a three-year period, and by 1998, took down the final wall that separated the property. They have lavished much energy, passion and expense to ensure that Tillycorthie has been reinstated to its former glory. The many ornate fireplaces all have open chimneys and are fully functional. Moulded ceilings, cornice work and ceiling roses are in abundance. Grooved door frames, deep skirting boards, panelled doors and original oak parquet flooring have been lovingly waxed and polished.
According to Savills, the 18-acre gated, and walled estate includes a 4-acre lake with boat house, and within the grounds, there are three properties which have long since been sympathetically converted into detached executive homes, along with a further three lodges at the West and North entrances to the estate. A brick chimney (the ‘sair thoom’) rises in the adjacent field, evidence of a failed plan to have the smoke taken from the basement’s coke fuelled boilers.