From where I write I can see that every ten minutes or so a bus passes. When I started writing this post I had no idea that on the front of each bus was an insignia that linked each one to this country house located hundreds of miles away. The badge proudly says ‘Alexander’ and is a name celebrated by bus enthusiasts throughout the world.
The house in question is Solsgirth House, a desirable Grade B listed mansion set below the Ochil Hills, bordering Clackmannanshire, Fife and Perthshire. It was built about 1870 for William Connal, a member of an old Stirling family going back generations. He was born in Stown, Stirlingshire, the son of Patrick Connal, merchant and banker, who had the misfortune of having shares in the Stirling Bank when it crashed in 1826. He was ruined but had better fortune when he was appointed the first local agent for the National Bank of Scotland.¹
William Connal (1819-1898) – the pig-iron man
As a young man William Connal had entered his Uncle William’s firm which specialised in tea and sugar importing and the Virginia tobacco trade. In 1852 his pedigree allowed him to marry Emelia Jesse Campbell, the daughter of Colonel R.N. Campbell of Ormidale in Argyllshire. His uncle’s company prospered but William chose to practice his skills in an entirely different market. In the 1860s he set up a pig-iron business in Glasgow which became known as ‘Connal’s Store’. It was here that he collected pig-iron against warrants, the object being to keep the market from unduly fluctuating.² As a recognised storekeeper iron was brought into Connal’s yard and cashed in by iron merchants. Sometimes they were granted bank loans against the iron warrants. It proved a lucrative business and William quickly made his fortune expanding into Middlesbrough and opening the Cleveland Warrant Stores in 1864.
William’s main residence was at 19 Park Circus in Glasgow (but he would later own property at 87 St. Vincent Street). From his meaty earnings William commissioned the building of a country house in 1870. Solsgirth House was built as a weekend retreat but where he could also entertain local gentry and business associates. It was described as ‘broadly Scottish Domestic in style’. It began as a straightforward two-storey oblong with a south front of five bays.
A newspaper report from 1877 describes a happy occasion at Solsgirth. ‘A number of tenantry were entertained at dinner on the occasion of the marriage of Miss Helen Alexa, daughter of Mr William Connal to Mr Richard Niven, Dalnottar. About 50 guests adjourned to the dancing room, which was tastefully decorated for the occasion, where they were joined in a large party of young people. The ball was opened with a Scotch Reel, in which Mr and Mrs Connal and family took part. The proceedings terminated with ‘Auld Langsyne’.⁴
However, there were sad times ahead. In October, Emelia Jessie Connal died and William faced life alone at Solsgirth. He turned his attention towards the arts and became an avid collector of paintings by Edward Burne Jones, Edward Poynter, Frederick Sandys, Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Fernand Knopff and Adolphe Monticelli as well as a few Old Masters. He also owned James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in Silver and Grey. In 1877 he invited the artist Albert Joseph Moore to stay at Solsgirth House allowing him to recuperate after a serious illness. It was during this stopover that William commissioned Moore to paint his portrait, one of significance that shows him wearing a honeybee brooch, a personal emblem that he used on his personal stationary. The portrait now belongs to York Art Gallery.⁵
In later years William Connal handed over the running of his business to his son, also William, and spent more time at Solsgirth House. He had little time for public affairs but in 1887 was granted the Freedom of the Borough of Stirling. In return he gifted to Stirling a beautiful stained-glass window which was inserted into the west wall of the ancient High Kirk of Holy Rood Church.⁶
William died at Solsgirth House in July 1898 aged 80 leaving estate worth £202,200.⁷ A correspondent from the nearby village of Blairingone paid a handsome tribute to the man:-
“During his thirty years residence amongst us, Mr Connal had endeared himself to the hearts of the villagers by numberless acts of large hearted liberality. Blairingone had always a handy interest for him, and was the sphere wherein many of his benevolent deeds were done. The Sabbath scholars of past and present years long remember the fondness which annually found expression in the Sabbath School pennies and the Halloween treat. Yet too, he contributed to the comfort of the poor and aged by substantial gifts of coats in the winter season. He never seemed to grow weary planning for the benefit of the villagers and some years ago conferred a lasting good upon the village by bringing in a permanent supply of water which was led to the people’s very door. Far from the smoke and stir of city life he died on Thursday 14th July at the summer residence he loved so well, in the midst of the people whose lives he had done so much to brighten, and whose love he had so universally acquired. His remains were conveyed to Glasgow on Saturday last, where they were interred in the family burying ground at the Necropolis.”⁸
The Sutherlands and days of grandeur
Following William Connal’s death there was no desire for his family to remain at Solsgirth House. The house was put up for auction in November 1898 with the highest bidder being Mr Robert MacKay Sutherland (1849-1916) of Wallside who intended making it his principal property. The remaining contents of the house were removed and sent to auction in December.
Robert MacKay Sutherland was a native of Falkirk and, as a boy, had entered the business of James Ross and Sons. This was a chemical manufacturing business established in 1845 on the Forth & Clyde Canal in Camelon. It had expanded by leasing land at Limewharf for tar distillation and the establishment of the Philipstoun Oil Works near Linlithgow. In 1879 the business was transferred to a partnership between Sutherland (manager of the Limewharf Works) and Robert Orr of Kinnaird who had also risen through the ranks. Their timing couldn’t have been better for this was the period when industry across Victorian Britain was reaching the height of prosperity.⁹
In early life Sutherland had married Alice D. Fleming, the daughter of James Fleming of Carmuirs in Falkirk. They had a family of two sons and three daughters and eventually resided at Wallside House, Falkirk, the former home of the firm’s founder James Ross.
Away from his principal business Robert Sutherland was also a trustee and manager of the Falkirk Savings Bank as well as being a supporter of the Falkirk Infirmary from its conception.
Wealth and prosperity allowed pioneering entrepreneurs to improve their social standing and the Sutherland’s move to Solsgirth was typical of the day. One of Robert’s first undertakings was to connect the courtyard buildings to the main body of the house. According to Pevsner – Perth and Kinross there was also ‘a sizeable extension added to the east, with crow stepped gables and oriel windows to the two-storeys south part and a single-storey billiard room wing, a mullioned and transomed four-light window in its gable, projecting boldly north’.
In what was probably Solsgirth’s greatest period it was followed with significant remodelling by the architect James Graham Fairley between 1910 and 1913. These modifications shaped the house that we see today.
The original house was remodelled and thickened to the north c.1910-13 by J Graham Fairley who gave this west part bracketed broad eaves and barge-boarded dormer windows. He heightened the south west corner as a French pavilion-roofed low tower containing the principal entrance in a segmental-pedimented surround of Jacobean inspiration. A much taller and ogee-roofed tower, also Neo-Jacobean, was built on the west side. At the same time he erected a Tuscan-columned screen in front of the low 1890s service range at the house’s east end. Interiors in a mixture of Jacobean and Frenchy manners but without panache, the principal room (the ballroom) apparently formed by Fairley throwing together two rooms of the 1890s.¹⁰
Robert Sutherland died following a long illness at Solsgirth House in August 1916. The estate passed to his son James Fleming Sutherland (1889-1932) who had also taken over the running of James Ross and Son. He married Edith Mary, daughter of Richard Fitzgerald Meredith of Barnabrow House, Cloyne, in County Cork, in 1918. They remained at Solsgirth House until the late 1920s when they moved to Knockbrex Castle, Kirkcudbright, as well as taking a London residence at 27 Egerton Gardens.
By 1929 the Solsgirth Estate consisted of the main house, a Home Farm, two farms at Newhall and Muirhead and about 100 acres of woodland providing shelter for pheasant, partridge and grouse shooting over Muirhead Moss. The house remained unoccupied and James Sutherland had put the estate up for auction in July but market conditions were against him. This wasn’t a good time to sell a large country estate and two years later, in July 1931, the estate was offered by Knight, Frank and Rutley for the ‘upset’ price of £6,000 at the Estate Room, Princess Street, Edinburgh.¹¹ This time James Sutherland could take consolation that there was a person willing to take Solsgirth House but he wouldn’t have known that he only had a short time left. Twelve months later he developed pneumonia and died suddenly at the age of 43.
Walter Alexander – the last of the Solsgirth entrepreneurs
The new owner of Solsgirth House turned out to be a man whose name is decorated on our buses today. At the time of the purchase Walter Alexander (1879-1959) was living with his wife, Isobel Daly Alexander, at The Manor in Camelon, Falkirk. For a scanty sum he had procured a magnificent mansion that will always be associated with him.
When he bought Solsgirth House he was at the height of his career and the rise of his firm was a romance of enterprise and industry. In 1902 Walter Alexander was working as a grate-fitter at Bonnybridge Foundry and in the evenings spent time with his two brothers repairing and selling bicycles. This was the era when the bicycle was a most popular form of transport and he had managed to save enough money to set up a bicycle shop of his own in Camelon.
It was while he was working here that Walter visualised the possibilities of road transport. He had a motor lorry which he used for haulage work, but on the two weekend nights fitted wooden forms, put a hood over it, fitted bicycle lamps inside, and transported people between Falkirk, Bonnybridge and Denny for the price of a penny. In 1913 he launched Alexander’s Motor Service and acquired his first bus in 1919, which was regarded as a luxury vehicle at the time because it had glass windows on its sides. The bus had softer seats than the hard wooden forms, but had solid tyres. The bus ran between Falkirk and Kilsyth and was driven by his son, also called Walter, and who remained with the company for the rest of his life. On the occasion of a football match between Airdrie and Falkirk this bus was switched to take ‘fans’ from Falkirk to Airdrie and back. Packed to the door, with passengers on the roof, the vehicle made this trip on one memorable occasion, and the conductress brought back an unheard of sum of money which was never equalled for a journey of similar distance by a single-decker. By 1925 the firm was thoroughly established, had started building buses, and by this time the fleet of vehicles numbered 40. Then came the introduction of pneumatic or ‘balloon’ tyres, and the firm never looked back.¹²
Express services were started from Falkirk to Glasgow, while there were developments in other directions. On 1st January, 1927, Mr Alexander acquired running rights to Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen, and on that day a through service from Glasgow to Aberdeen and vice-versa was also inaugurated.
Possibly the greatest achievement for Walter Alexander was the introduction of the famous ‘Bluebird’ coaches, an idea conceived by his son shortly after they arrived at Solsgirth House. In 1934 he launched the smart blue and cream vehicles (produced at the Alexander works) with the ‘flying bird’ symbol that revolutionised motor coach travel comfort with the absolute luxury provided. A further important development took place in 1928 when there was a consolidation of bus services after the government allowed railway companies to provide bus services. The London, Midland & Scottish (LMS) and the London and North Eastern (LNER) Railways, bought a large stake in the Edinburgh based Scottish Motor Traction Company (SMT) and acquired a controlling interest in Walter Alexander & Sons. The group comprised of SMT Edinburgh; W. Alexander & Sons Ltd, Falkirk; Western SMT, Kilmarnock; and Central SMT., Motherwell. They, with smaller operators provided a network that many believed ‘couldn’t be bettered by any other country in the world’.
It was arguably with the money received from the SMT that Walter Alexander was able to buy Solsgirth House.
In 1945 bus operations were nationalised by the Attlee government and the coachbuilding assets were transferred to a separate company called Walter Alexander and Co (Coachbuilders) Limited in 1947.¹³
Isobel Daly Alexander died in June 1935 and Walter commissioned a chapel to be built at the east of the property. He refurbished much of the interior making use of the original wallpaper in the dining room, redressed the library with French walnut woodwork, built an ornate stone loggia with tiled floor and remodelled the drawing room and ballroom as well as providing en-suites to the bedrooms.
Walter Alexander remained at Solsgirth House until his death in 1959.
His coachbuilding company, now run by his son Walter Alexander Jnr, prospered while the bus operations were eventually absorbed into three companies, Fife Scottish, Midland Scottish and Northern Scottish.
The coachbuilding operations eventually moved back to Camelon in Falkirk and, by the 1960s, they were also building buses in Belfast. Their buses were exported worldwide and in 1983 the company was named as the largest supplier of double-deck bus bodies in the world. In 1990 the Alexander family finally relinquished the business and it survived through various owners. Today it is known as Alexander Dennis (comprising three famous names – Alexander, Dennis and Plaxton) employing about 2,000 people in the United Kingdom, continental Asia and North America.
The hotel years and uncertain future
After the departure of the Alexander family Solsgirth House remained in private hands. In 1996 it was bought by Bernie and Denise Burgin who used it as a family home for 15 years. In 2010 the estate was bought by a modern-day entrepreneur who rose from the humble beginnings of Stirling’s Raploch housing estate.
According to The Scotsman Steven MacLeod’s first foray into business was at the age of 10, washing cars and selling tablet and macaroon bars door to door. By 14 he was washing dishes in a hotel and by the time he was 29 had bought Airth Castle Hotel in Stirlingshire. In time he added Melville Castle in Edinburgh, Glenbervie House Hotel, Larbert and the Hotel Colessio in Stirling, all operating as part of the Aurora Hotel Collection.
However, recent events don’t make happy reading for Solsgirth House. In January 2017 newspapers reported the hotel had closed down leaving many couples who had booked weddings looking for alternative venues. Steven Macleod accused Perth and Kinross Council of “bullying” the venue after it emerged that the council’s building control and licensing department had raised concerns over the hotel. Concerns had been raised by Scottish Fire and Rescue and building standards representatives and a number occasional (alcohol) licenses had been refused on the basis that the premises were ‘unsuitable for use for the sale of alcohol’. It had regularly hosted receptions of up to 400 guests.
Stephen MacLeod claimed his company had planned a significant investment in Solsgirth House and that he had been in advanced discussions with the local planning department. “However, the group’s plans were thwarted by the onerous requirements of the building control and licensing departments of Perth and Kinross Council, and the costs associated with these made it prohibitive to operate the business.”¹⁴
In 2017, 147 years after it was built, Solsgirth House was placed on the market with offers over £1.95 million. Ironically, the property agent was Knight Frank who had marketed the house back in 1931. (The ‘Rutley’ was dropped from the Knight Frank name in 1996)
¹Stirling Observer (28 April 1914)
²Dundee Evening Telegraph (15 July 1898)
³’The Rise of the Victorian Ironopolis: Middlesbrough and Regional Industrialisation’ by Minoru Yasumoto
⁴Dundee Courier (7 February 1877)
⁵The Herald (16 January 1999)
⁶Stirling Observer (28 April 1914)
⁷Glasgow Herald (13 September 1898)
⁸Alloa Advertiser (23 July 1898)
¹⁰Pevsner – Perth and Kinross by John Gifford
¹¹Dundee Courier (1 July 1931)
¹²Falkirk Herald (14 May 1949)
¹³The Falkirk Wheel
¹⁴Sunday Post (31 Jan 2017)
Dollar, Clackmannanshire, FK14 7NZ