by Evelyn Murray
First, a sad ending to a
Balnain House, the Home of
Highland Music has had to close its doors. The prime reason is that it was
impossible to obtain sufficient funding to cover operating costs. As
anyone in a nonprofit organization will confirm, it is considerably easier
to raise funds for a specific project, compared to the almost impossible
task of obtaining grants and donations for operating costs. These are the
fixed costs of an activity - rent, salaries, repairs, utilities, etc.
Balnain House itself has been saved firstly by the people who started this
enterprise, when they renovated a derelict merchant's house on the banks
of the river Ness to its original beauty. Secondly, by the National Trust
for Scotland, who took over the debt on the house, and will continue with
There is hope in this that
out of the ashes will rise a phoenix, as there is now a realization in the
area in and around Inverness that there is a market for classes teaching
the traditional music of Scotland to young people. As well as continuing
some of the other projects that Balnain has initiated. So we shall see
what will come of this great resource for all dancers; we depend upon the
music and most of all the musicians, for out dancing pleasure.
In suggesting that a dancer
should visit Blair Castle in Perthshire may seem to the newer dancer a
little strange. But, this was one of the great centers of dance music in
the latter half of the 18th century. How? Why? The great Niel Gow was born
and lived in Inver, a tiny village near Bunkeld, which is just 'doon the
road' from Blair Atholl. He played for four Dukes of Atholl, and the
Atholl family played a major role in getting him and his son Nathaniel
gigs with other members of the aristocracy. It was from the Castle's
Archives that many of the tunes we dance to today were rediscovered. The
Royal Scottish Country Dance Society published them with the dance
instructions. Lord James, brother of the 8th Duke, and himself, later to
become the 9th Duke, was President of the RSCDS for a number of years.
Iain Murray, the 10th Duke followed in his footsteps, and today, a head of
another branch of the Murray family, Lord Mansfield, is President of the
As additional piece of
dance history associated with the Atholl family is that The Eightsome Reel
as we dance it today was devised by members of the l7th Duke's family, for
an Atholl Highlanders Ball, in the early 1870s. Bill Clement researched
this, and found an original copy of the dance, entitled The Atholl
Highlander's Eightsome Reel.
The Atholl Estates, who are
responsible for the operation of Blair Castle, have recently made several
very impressive changes to the way the visitor sees this famous historic
The most obvious changes
are at the rear, so you may not notice these at first, as the normal
entrance for visitors is, of course, at the front, which takes you into
the entrance hall. Here is the first difference, the large portrait of
Duke Iain (the 10th Duke) has been moved to another location. Instead,
some weapons that had earlier been displayed there have been restored to
their original positions. This hall is awesome for anyone interested in
the ancient weapons of Scotland, and probably is the highlight of their
visit for many youngsters.
As one takes the tour
around the many rooms open to the public, look out for the beautiful
embroidery by Lady Evelyn in the China room. There are many, many
wonderful paintings to look at as your walk through the rooms. Hold onto
the banisters as you ascend or descend the main stairs, as the walls are
covered with fascinating portraits! There are antique furniture, tapestry
chairs, tableware, and so on to look out for during your tour. As an
example of the constant and continuing work in progress required keeping
such a place looking its best, observe that the curtains in the drawing
room are being repaired. This will take quite a time as it is mostly done
by hand requiring hours and hours of painstaking work.
The most obvious change is
at the back, as you exit; instead of walking straight out onto the outside
gravel drive, you will find a wonderful glassed-in foyer. Large enough so
that bus passengers can wait here under cover. There are modern rest
rooms, a place to sit, and display cases to distract while you wait for
the rest of your party. For formal occasions held in the ballroom, there
is a direct entrance into the ballroom. At night it is lit with blue
lighting which must be very dramatic.
If the weather permits,
save some time and energy to walk out to Diana's Grove, walk past St.
Bride's Kirk, where "Bonnie Dundee" is buried, following his death at the
Battle of Killiecrankie. Then continue along the path to the Hercules
Garden. This 18th century walled garden has been recently restored.
Unfortunately on this day I visited last October it was raining too hard
to take this stroll. However, next time, as I gather it is well worth the
Do allow an adequate time
going around the castle. To give it real justice, plan on spending the day
there, as there is so much to see and absorb. In each of the 30 rooms,
local people, attired in the familiar Murray of Atholl tartan will help
with explanations and historical gems of information. Usually there is a
piper playing in the forecourt at different times during the day. On the
day of my visit it was the Pip Major of the MacNaughton's Pipe Band.
During the summer there are
special events held at the Castle. This year (2001) on April 20-22 is a
needlework and lace exhibition. Then on May 26th is the Atholl
Highlander's Parade, and Sunday May 27th the Atholl Gathering and Highland
Games. July 18-22, an exhibition on Contemporary Textile Art by Northern
Fringes. August 23-26 is the Bowmore Blair Castle International Horse
Trials and Country Fair. October 27th the famous Glenfiddich Piping
Championships where you will hear only the best piping, and similarly the
very best fiddling next day at the Glenfiddich Fiddling Championships.
Thinking of this last item reminds me to say, do look for the David
Allen's portrait of Niel Gow, fiddler to four Dukes of Atholl, together
with his fiddle, both on display in the Ballroom.
There are also guided walks
and countryside events held during the summer. Contact Polly Freeman on
01796.481.3555 or visit website
Obviously plenty to do and
plenty to see in order to absorb Blair Castle's history, and the beauty of
the surrounding countryside. And say a quiet thank you as much of our
early dancing heritage was preserved here, for our enjoyment today. Gown's
cottage in Inver, is not open to the public, but is marked with a plaque,
and his grave is in Dunked churchyard, just across the A9. The late
Scottish fiddler, Ron Gonnella is also buried nearby.