16th November 2019
While being shown around Broomhall House, what came as an unexpected surprise was the incredible history above and beyond the story of Robert the Bruce. The Bruce Family have been at the heart of Scottish and British history since the 12th century, so this 300-year-old country mansion is a unique repository of archives and artefacts. A visit here is akin to a private guided tour of the National Museum of Scotland or the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The incredible Broomhall House is not open to the public, however by appointment and through Away From The Ordinary, a small number of privileged guests are able to visit for a private tour with Lord Bruce.
Lord Bruce studied history at St Andrews University and sustainable urban design at Dundee University. As well as overseeing the family business at Broomhall, he is involved in the non-profit sector, principally in conservation and cultural heritage and is currently involved in restoring a Scottish cemetery in Kolkata in India.
Aeneas O’Hara (AOH): Tell us a bit about yourself and your role.
I’m 58, I’m a father of five children ranging in age from 16-28. My role is really to oversee the family business at Broomhall which we run as a partnership. The enterprise involves farming, forestry, property management, sustainable development, hospitality and tourism. We manage a landholding of 2,500 acres with Broomhall House at the heart.
We have been running a family business in the Kingdom of Fife since 1575, so it’s possibly the oldest family-owned enterprise in Scotland.
AOH: Could you tell us about your ancestor, Robert the Bruce and what you think his legacy in Scotland is today?
King Robert’s legacy today, predominantly I think, is the contribution he made to a perception and definition of Scottish identity. I’m not sure if he would have anticipated this. But the clearest expression of his vision for Scotland is found in the surviving part of the Declaration of Arbroath, a letter addressed to the Papacy in 1320 by the nobility of Scotland where his dynastic legitimacy was validated and his achievement as a ruler was recognised.
King Robert’s legacy today, predominantly I think, is the contribution he made to a perception and definition of Scottish identity. I’m not sure if he would have anticipated this.
Bruce taught the Scots that with good organisation, training and tactics they could defeat an English army in the field and secure their borders against invasion. If he had not claimed the throne in 1306, and endured the early setbacks of his reign, it is likely Scotland would have been subjugated and colonised like Ireland and Wales and incorporated into the Plantagenet empire.
However, I truly believe he would have preferred to be remembered as a statesman and not as a warrior. The Scottish kings he most venerated were David I and Alexander III whose reigns were associated with state-building and prosperity. You have to remember he was a deeply pious man.
But he must have had many regrets. Among these, for example, was the failure to unite the Irish chiefs against the Plantagenets and to have extended this revolt to Wales; he must have regretted also the terrible toll the wars of independence exacted on his family. All his brothers died violent deaths. Indeed, his family was almost wiped out, leaving his dynasty in a fragile state.
Bruce was recognised as an Arthurian reincarnation in his lifetime. Indeed, this revelation by a captured Friar is thought to have caused Edward I’s fatal seizure & death. However, much of the subsequent hagiography of his reign by the writer John Barbour only served to deepen the mythology that surrounds him. I recommend anyone interested in learning more, read the work of contemporary historians such as Michael Penman to get a much more rounded sense of the man and his legacy.
AOH: Tell us about how you decided to open up Broomhall for events.
The opportunity arose in 2013 when we embarked on a major renovation of the service wing which was derelict and riddled with dry rot. We decided to repurpose the house as a “machine for entertaining” which was its original iteration in 1766. A branding exercise followed in which all my siblings participated. We agreed to create a hospitality and tourism business based on offering our guests a truly authentic and memorable experience. All our research indicated that we needed to participate in the experiential travel market, which is one of the fastest-growing specialist travel sectors.
Opening the house has coincided with the release of films & network TV series such as Outlaw King (about Robert the Bruce), Outlander, Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. There is a huge interest internationally in Scottish history & cultural heritage
Opening the house has coincided with the release of films & network TV series such as Outlaw King (about Robert the Bruce), Outlander, Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. There is a huge interest internationally in Scottish history & cultural heritage – all of this has had an impact on encouraging visitors to seek the most authentic experiences, inspired by the film version.
AOH: What do you love most about Broomhall?
The curious thing about Broomhall House is that it is still unfinished. Building started in 1702 and the house was entirely remodelled on two occasions, later, in 1766 and 1798. Although extensive plans were drawn up by over a dozen architects subsequently, between 1806-1867, the house is still unfinished. My favourite part of the collection is the architecture archive, an extraordinary smorgasbord of fantasy, a depository of dreams.
I’m also incredibly fortunate to be supported by a brilliant team. When the house is operating at peak performance – for an awards banquet or a whisky/cigar fusion festival, for example – there can be as many as 30 people involved in hosting and managing the event. When the house is purring like a well-oiled machine, entirely for the benefit of our guests, this is a great source of satisfaction for me.
AOH: What is your insider tip for anyone visiting Scotland?
I would encourage visitors to extend their curiosity beyond a superficial interest in Scotland and develop a deeper understanding of why it is so important to preserve what we have and hold, for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.
Our heritage is becoming increasingly difficult & expensive to maintain. There is no doubt the climate is changing, and this is having an insidious and damaging effect on our traditional buildings.
AOH: Could you give some examples as to how climate change is damaging our traditional buildings?
Aeneas, it’s the higher, heavier & protracted rainfall which is so damaging for stone buildings. Equally, the increasing frequency of gale-force winds will weaken roofs & exposed masonry such as chimney stacks. Continual saturation of sandstone, our predominant building stone will cause rapid deterioration. And to make it more difficult, we really don’t have enough skilled masons – and we aren’t training enough.