A Victorian Scots Baronial-style ‘castle’ dating back to 1865, on sale for the first time in more than 100 years.
An asking price of £2.3 million is being asked by Savills for the Gilford Castle Estate in Co. Down, Northern Ireland. It is a residential, agricultural and sporting estate with amenities extending to about 207 acres in total. It is for sale as a whole or in five lots. The historic, Category B1 listed castle occupies a commanding position within the heart of the estate and dates from circa 1865. It is constructed in the Scottish baronial style and includes well-proportioned principal accommodation, plus two flats. Adjoining the castle is an extensive range of traditional outbuildings, including a former farm yard, sawmill and kennels.
The house is built of Portland stone and Scrabo sandstone, multi-gabled, with a slate roof. Its most striking feature is the portico, which is topped in the same way as its bay windows with two stone urns resting on the two corners.
The present castle superseded another dwelling dating from the seventeenth century. In 1635, John Magill, a Scottish settler, acquired land around the present-day village of Gilford from the Magennis clan.
John Magill strengthened his position locally and the village began to develop around ‘Magill’s Ford’, from which the name of Gilford was derived.
The Magills based themselves at Gill Hall near Dromore, but a branch of the family – the Johnstons – resided in Gilford and developed the village. The will of Sir John Johnston Magill had left his estates to the heirs of his two sisters, Mary and Susanna. Gill Hall went to Mary, and Gilford passed to Susanna, who married her first cousin Richard Johnston of Emyvale, Co. Monaghan. On coming to the property, the Johnstons built the original Gilford Castle and the property remained in the male line of Richard Johnston for five generations. The original castle is believed to have been built by the Johnston family close to the present-day bridge (situated at the north-west of the estate) which passes over the River Bann.
His great grandson, also Richard, was a pioneer of free-range pig farming. He succeeded to the family estate in 1758 and commenced pig farming in 1760. In those days pigs were more valuable than cows, Ireland had a good export of corned and salted pork.
He also took a prominent part on the landlord side in the Hearts of Steel men. In 1772, the castle was the scene of an attack by the disaffected group, who were suffering from failure of the harvest and a rise in taxation. Richard just escaped with his life, but the castle was sacked and set on fire. Richard was made a baronet, but died a bachelor in the 1840s, his property divided between his two sisters.
In the 1860s, the Gilford portion granted to one of the sisters, Catherine, was purchased by Benjamin Dickson, who at that time was a partner in the prosperous local linen thread company of Dunbar McMaster.
As well as being a successful businessman, Dickson was also a keen farmer, keeping a celebrated herd of shorthorn cattle and an accomplished horse breeder.
When Dickson bought Gilford Castle, the old property had fallen into decay, and he engaged the fashionable architect William Spence, based in Glasgow, to design the present-day mansion on a new site in the Scottish Baronial style, creating a majestic grouping of river, park and house. A year later, Spence also built nearby Elmfield House for Benjamin Dickson’s brother James.
The cost to build Gilford Castle was reported to be £42,000, but Dickson never lived here, with Percy Jocelyn McMaster, younger brother of Hugh Dunbar McMaster (proprietor of Gilford Mill), believed to be the first occupant, leasing the house between 1887 and 1891.
After Dickson’s death in 1894, the property passed to his trustees and was bought for £15,000 by Miss Katherine Carleton, a spinster, in 1902, and subsequently sold in 1914 to James F. Wright. It has remained in the Wright family’s ownership ever since.
James Wright was the son of a mill owner from Ballinode, Co. Monaghan who had become a successful Hong Kong and Manila merchant and stockbroker. His wife, Mary Menary, was the niece of Sir Thomas Jackson, third Chief Manager of The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (now known as HSBC), who was responsible for financing the development of Colonial Hong Kong under the first large scale bank.
James and Mary furnished their Gilford home with memories of Manila and Hong Kong, also furnishing it with keepsakes and memories of the histories of their families, both of which had roots in Ireland going back at least 400 years.
A news account at the time of James Wright’s marriage said he had service in South Africa, where he was badly wounded, but had “forged his sword into a pruning hook”. In his decades at Gilford, it seems that James got his wish. On his death certificate, his profession was recorded as farmer.
In 2004, the Belfast Telegraph reported that GML Estates agreed to buy the site and convert the mill into a 132-bed luxury hotel and the grounds into a golf course in what was expected to be a £30 million “world class resort”.
Open winner Darren Clarke was called on board to realise the golfing aspect of the site, but the project never materialised.