In 1640, the Balfour family acquired the Balbirnie estate. Active in agriculture and industry, they acquired the estate from the Balbirnie family, former heritable sherriffs of Fife.
General Roy's mid-18th century military survey provides the earliest indication of a designed landscape at Balbirnie. It shows a small, formal landscape with planting and regular enclosures surrounding what was probably at that time an L-plan tower house, on or near the site of the current Balbirnie House.
A large collection of estate documents survive, including plans and accounts from 1770 onwards. This is mainly due to the estate factor's post being handed down through one family, the Ballingouls, from 1770 to 1916. John Balfour, who rebuilt the 17th century house between 1777 and 1782, employed Robert Robinson, the renowned Scottish landscape gardener and draughtsman for Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, to draw up proposals for improvements to the Balbirnie policies. The rolling topography of the site provided a framework for laying out the grounds in the informal or 'picturesque' style, which was increasingly favoured over the more rigidly formal landscapes of the earlier 18th century.
Balbirnie was a late and lesser example of the work of Robert Robinson. Earlier sites where Robinson practiced his transitional semi-formal style include Castle Grant, Morayshire; Glamis Castle, Angus and Paxton House, Berwickshire (q.v. Inventory).
While Tait notes that Robinson's work at Balbirnie 'showed no real extension of the ideas displayed at Castle Grant fifteen years earlier' (1980: 75), contemporary writers were more generous. In 1799 the Statistical Account of Scotland described Balbirnie as 'delightfully romantic' with 'surrounding eminences [...] covered with fine thriving plantations' and 'clumps of trees on the higher grounds, arranged and disposed in such a manner as at once to please the eye and to afford shelter to the adjacent fields'.
A comparison of Robinson's 1779 plan with the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map of 1859 indicates that the overall design structure of open parkland and woodland belts did not change significantly during that period. It suggests a gently progressive evolution of Robinson's original layout in 1779 and which continues to broadly inform the present landscape.
In 1815, John Balfour's son, General Robert Balfour commissioned Thomas White Jnr to make adjustments to Robinson's layout including the thickening of existing shelter belts and the addition of more single specimen trees to the open parkland and grassland areas. Thomas White Jnr worked in the 'Landscape Movement' style most often associated with Lancelot 'Capability' Brown in England. At Balbirnie, his main contribution was to remove aspects of Robinson's geometry in the landscape and to create a more open landscape scene (Tait 1980: 81).
In the same year, Balbirnie House was remodelled. The architect, Richard Crichton, added new apartments with grand neoclassical facades to the south of the earlier house. The improvements were funded partly by income from coal mining across the estate and from increased estate rentals.
The New Statistical Account of Scotland described Balbirnie 'as a complete and elegant residence […] surpassed by few north of the Tweed' with its hills 'clothed with some of the finest trees in the country […] rendered as to command at every turn varied and picturesque views of the surrounding country, from the Lommonds to the shores of the Firth of Forth' (1834-45).
Robert Balfour's son John carried out further alterations to the estate between 1849 and 1875. Cardinal approach drives from the north, south, east and west were either newly created or rerouted during this period along with lodge houses at each entrance.
Robert Balfour's brother George was a friend of Sir Joseph Hooker, the famous plant collector, and sent specimen plant seed back to Balbirnie from India, thus starting the woodland garden collection from the mid-19th century. A significant proportion of this planting survives in the present landscape, including a rhododendron collection of around 200 varieties and a number of veteran specimen trees.
The 1st edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1859) shows a small terraced garden area extending round to the north side of the house. Photographs from the latter part of the 19th century show the terraces laid to grass with steps descending from the house. In the early 20th century, when two generations of Balfours shared the house, the garden was divided into two by yew hedges and a long central herbaceous border was planted.
Workable coal seams were mined at Balbirnie up until the 1930s. The Balfour family continued to live at Balbirnie until 1969 when the Glenrothes Development Corporation purchased the estate in order to address the need for recreational facilities in the area, converting much of the park for public use. An 18-hole golf course with clubhouse was laid out in the parkland in 1980.
Balbirnie House has operated as a hotel since 1990 and the stables have been converted for use as a craft centre. A small caravan park is located within a wooded area to the south. Residential expansion around the periphery of the historic designed landscape core has occurred from Markinch to the southeast, Tofthill and Viewforth from the west, and Mount Frost from the south.