Rammerscales by Alan Bell Macdonald of Rammerscales.

Rammerscales was never a Macdonald stronghold. Historians of Clan Donald would never find it mentioned among the old papers of the Clan. Lying only 25 miles from the English frontier, (or do I perhaps jump the gun, not the gun I hope, but maybe the passport) from the steps of the House on a clear day the English hills are plainly visible. Macdonald Lands would have had to have been very wide spread to have encompassed Rammerscales.

My ancestor Donald Macdonald, grandson of Allan, 9th Chief of Clanranald, on his marriage to a daughter of McNeil of Barra, was given a tack of land in South Uist around Boisdale in 1658.

I imagine that already tacks of Land for Cadet branches of Clan Donald were getting fewer and fewer and those available were very much on the outskirts of the Macdonald Lands. At all events there were no backward glances or any record of complaint when after the collapse of the ’45, this particular tack of land was taken from us and the family was precipitated into what was then a growing and attractive Georgian City of Glasgow. The eldest son Allan being of fighting stock and there not being any Englishmen to combat, joined the 76th Macdonald Highlanders raised by Lord Macdonald of Sleat to join the English in putting down the revolting Colonists in North America. They did their best as Allan’s diaries show, but the expedition was unsuccess­ful.

Meanwhile, Donald the second son (the third Archibald came to grief in India in one of Tippoo Sahib’s insalubrious gaols) perhaps more studious and less martial than his brothers, decided to seek his fortune in Trade and Commerce, less glorious certainly, but often in the long run more satisfactory and this Donald certainly found.

Rammerscales present house was begun in 1760 for Dr. James Mounsey, the son of a local family who lived on a big farm, Skipmyre, not too far from Rammerscales Estate which then belonged to Robert Carruthers. After the ’45, Robert Carruthers had to sell up to pay the heavy fine levied on him for being on the losing side twice running. Dr. Mounsey bought the Estate and planned to retire to the large new house he was building, on his return from Russia whenever that might be.

He was a remarkable man and as well as being, within his period, an extremely able Doctor and Surgeon, he was also an outstanding administrator and evidently with considerable charm, since he became the personal physician to the Czarina Catherine the Great and a Privy Counsellor. Subsequently on the death of Dr. Crondoidi he became Controller of the entire Medical Profession, Civil and Military in Russia and this position was confirmed in a Ukase of the Czar Peter III who succeeded after Catherine’s death. However, as no doubt Dr. Mounsey well knew, the political situation in Russia then was critical. The new Czar was hated for his Prussian sympathies and his decision to seek a war with Denmark in furtherance of them was fatal and he was assassinated in 1763. The plot was wide spread and no doubt the Doctor knew of it but had little chance of averting it and equally he would know that with the Czar’s death he would have to give up his appointments and leave the Country with reasonable despatch and this he did; Czarina Elizabeth granting him indefinite leave of absence later in the year. He returned to live at Rammerscales though it could scarcely have been comfortable, it might have just been habitable.

History relates very little of what happened subsequently. Dr. Mounsey had a large family, four sons and three daughters though his eldest son Paul did inherit the place, he was unmarried and for a variety of reasons none of the other sons either could or were prepared to live at Rammerscales. There remained the daughters, by this time 1797 all three were married and none of them had any wish to uproot themselves and live in their father’s still uncompleted old house. So it was sold to two brothers, James and William Bell, sons of a local landowner who had themselves gone into the Sugar business through an inheritance of an Estate in the West Indies. There were two refineries, one in Edinburgh and the main one in Glasgow – the Sugar House it was always called and their business prospered; a third brother Richard looked after the West Indian end – a very satisfactory arrangement.

One of their employees was a young man called Donald Macdonald who by great good fortune from his point of view, caught and held the eye of Mary Bell, a sister of James, William and Richard. Ultimately they married and since none of the three brothers married, they inherited Rammerscales. As a gesture of courtesy to his wife, Donald put her name before his own and their descendants as Bell Macdonald live there yet.

The house itself is wonderfully situated relatively high on the eastern slopes of the Tinwald Hills overlooking Annandale in Dumfries­shire. Simple in design but subtly proportioned it sits well into the hill foursquare and uncompromising. In granite or other grey stone it could be a little depressing, but in its pink sandstone it makes a gay and colourful sight against the green hillside – especially in the morning when the rising sun catches it. In its 200 years it has weathered quite extraordinarily well and despite the softness of the local red sandstone many of the great square blocks look as if they had only just emerged from the stonemason’s yard. Curiously it is in the more protected areas where some weathering is noticeable.

The Architect is not known, nor even the builder; there are no papers of the Mounsey era giving any hint of who was commissioned to build the big house. Legend has it that Telfer, while he was apprenticed to a Lochmaben builder, laid the foundation and the lower courses, but there is no firm evidence for even that.

The outside of the house has remained virtually unaltered since the day it was built, the roof has been raised marginally to allow an attic floor, no longer used, but absolutely vital for insulation and warmth. At the back a small porch has been added to accommodate the usual offices, coats and hats, a deep freeze and a spare fridge.

Inside, however, to a connoisseur of the Georgian period the house must be a disappointment. Clearly it was not much lived in during the time the Mounseys owned it and it was not till the Bells bought the place that it was completed. James Bell’s diaries are clear on this point.

Consequently it was not in the style of the late Georgian period but more in the early Victorian that the staircase, drawing rooms, master bedrooms and library were decorated and furnished. There are classic friezes round the first and second floor landings obviously put in at the time of the original building, otherwise the decor and mould­ings are much inferior in scale and workmanship.

Nevertheless nothing can take away from the proportions of the rooms and the magnificent sweep of the circular staircase. The interior may lack the high elegance and beauty of the late Adams period but it does still retain the quiet and seemly decoration of the very early Victorian period before the increasing wealth of the haute-bourgeoisie brought on disastrous aesthetic indigestion. This Rammerscales has entirety avoided – remarkable, considering that the Edwardian period often resulted in the most astonishing flights of architectural fancy taking form, even to the point of rebuilding the entire house. Mercifully my immediate forebears remained contented with what they had and lived in it peacefully with no feeling of having to out-build the neighbours. If anything, perhaps too peacefully as at the end of the First World War there appeared to be no money to live in the place at all – peacefully or otherwise.

A portion of the library was sold and some of the land while the house itself was let. My father meanwhile took his degree at McGill University in Montreal as a Hydro Electrical Engineer and afterwards worked in Canada and the States. He married out there and I was born in Montreal. Subsequently we succeeded in returning to the old house, though the Second World War was a heavy blow and for a time Rammerscales lay empty after the death of my parents. My wife and I came back in 1957 to live there and thanks to the farms, forests and sawmill and those who work them, we have been able to keep the place going and the children brought up there.

What the future holds is hard to say, but I hope my family will continue to flourish in the old house. As I said at the beginning of this short note, Rammerscales may not have been an ancient Macdonald stronghold but it is now, and I trust it will remain so.