Location and Setting
The policies of Biel are situated in the valley of the Biel Water approximately 3 miles (5km) south-west of the town of Dunbar, 1 mile (l.5km) north-east of the village of Stenton and 2 miles (3km.) south-east of the village of East Linton. The A1(T) and the Edinburgh/London railway line lie beyond the northern boundary of the site. The agricultural landscape of the East Lothian plains stretch to the north of Biel to the Firth of Forth and the North Sea. The policies of Tyninghame, Berwick Law, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth and the Fife Coast can be seen from Biel, whilst Traprain Law stands out some 4km to the west. South of the Biel Water, the landscape rises to the uplands of the Lammermuir Hills.
The Biel policies lie on the gently sloping valley sides of the Biel Water. The house stands on the northern bank of the river raised on a series of grand terraces built to support the house which today provide a setting for the gardens. These gardens and the immediate policies of the house enjoy a secluded setting. The parkland to the south of the house is partially screened by the policy wall from the B6370 which runs along the southern boundary. To the north of the house, the designed agricultural improvements can be seen from the minor access roads but the landscape has little impact from the A1(T) north of Biel, as here it lies in a cutting.
Biel House stands within some 512 acres (207ha) of policies which extend north to Beesknowe and Bielhill, south to the B6370, west to Bielmill and east to the adjacent policies of Belton. Documentary evidence of the development of the designed landscape is provided by a number of estate plans dated 1700, 1797 and 1823, in addition to General Roy's map of c.1750, the 1st edition OS map of c.1860 and the second edition OS of c.1900. Comparison of these maps indicates that by c.1700, the estate extended south to Meiklerig Wood and north to the limit of the agricultural enclosures that are now midway between the house and the A1. This extent was maintained until the mid-18th century but, within the next 100 years, the design was extended north as shown on the 1st edition OS map. This form is maintained today. The improvements in this 1850-1958 phase of development included a curling pond and a long drive from the house to the northern boundary which was terminated at the North Lodge.
There are a wealth of early plans and historical photographs of the policies at Biel. The structure of the designed landscape was established between 1647- 1708 by the 1st and 2nd Lords Belhaven. Alterations and additions were made c.1814-18, again in the 1880s, and in more recent years.
The lands of Biel were established as part of the estate of the Earls of Dunbar in the 12th century and Biel was conferred on Sir Patrick Dunbar, the 4th son of George, the 10th Earl. In 1489, Sir Robert Lauder acquired the estate from Patrick's son and his family held it until 1489 when it was sold to James Livingstone. Soon after, in 1647, it was sold again to Sir John Hamilton of Broomhill who, in the same year, was created Lord Belhaven and Stenton for his loyalty to Charles I.
Lord Belhaven is thought to have been responsible for the layout of the original terraces at Biel. In 1656 he was succeeded by the 2nd Lord Belhaven who was renowned for his opposition to the Union. He inscribed 'Traditionis Scotiae anno primo, 1707' on the walls of the terraces.
The designed landscape shown on the estate maps surveyed in 1700 appears to have been the responsibility of the 1st and 2nd Lords Belhaven. The latter died in 1708. The 4th Lord Belhaven was responsible for alterations to the house, and the construction of such features as the Bridge in 1760 and the canalisation of the river in the 18th century style. He died in 1764.
The estate passed by marriage to the Hamilton-Nisbet family in 1777 and Mr. William Hamilton-Nisbet commissioned William Atkinson to enlarge the house between 1814- 18. The Rt. Hon. R.A.C. Nisbet Hamilton inherited Biel in 1828. Additional woodland planting appears to have been established on the perimeter of the policies during this time. He died in 1877 and his wife, Lady Mary, in 1883. The estate then passed to her daughter, Mrs Hamilton Ogilvy, who had succeeded to the estates of Dirleton and Belhaven. She in turn was succeeded by a nephew, Colonel J.P. Nisbet Hamilton Grant.
In 1950, Biel was inherited by Vice-Admiral Brooke. Two years later, the Chapel and part of the house were demolished. Admiral Brooke also appears to have had a great interest in the terraced gardens. The estate was purchased by Mr Charles Spence in 1959 who has continued to manage and improve the policies.
Biel House is a castellated three-storey building which dates originally from the 16th century; it is statutorily listed. It was extended by William Atkinson in 1814-18. Alterations were made to the interior by R.R. Anderson and possibly by Sir Robert Lorimer in the early 1900s. Much of the Atkinson extension was demolished in 1952. A small rock garden has since been established in the foundations of the chapel. The porch which he designed was resited to form the present main entrance on the north side of the house.
The Terraces date originally from the 17th century; a Summerhouse is incorporated at the west end of the terraces.
The Doocot, listed category A, dates from the early 18th century. The Gatepiers at the north entrance, which are statutorily listed, also date from this time. The Bridge, listed category C(S), dates from 1760. The Gardener's Cottage, listed category C(S), dates from the late 18th century. Beesknowe was built in the 1880s to the design of R. Rowand Anderson.
The deer park lies to the south of house between the Biel Water and the B6370. A smaller area of park, in which the Doocot stands, lies on the north bank of the river to the east of the house.
The parks were formerly enclosed in a similar way to the fields which lie to the north of the house, as indicated on the estate maps of 1700 and 1797. Between 1797 and the mid-19th century, the enclosures were broken down although many of the trees of the former field boundaries remained. A drive from the south was established, crossing the Biel Water by the Bridge, built in 1760.
By 1959, the individual trees which remained from the original plantings were in such poor condition that they were removed, but the woodland clumps which are significant features in the park have been kept. A small area of park has also been retained on the south-facing slope to the north of the house; it forms an attractive and ornamental setting to the main entrance. New walnut trees have been planted to replace the original trees which were recently removed.
Woodland was established at Biel by 1700 along the banks of the river and in two blocks within the parkland to the south of the river. The form of those woodland areas remains today although their composition has altered. Reference to the 1st edition OS map indicates footpaths that meandered through the wood to the south of the river, reached by a footbridge. A summerhouse, situated overlooking the park on the southern edge of the wood, has now gone.
Apart from these main woodland areas, the cover within the policies in c.1700 was confined to the shelter strips which divided the agricultural enclosures. In the early l9th century, woodland clumps were established on the western and eastern boundaries of the park. In the latter half of the century, these clumps were joined up to form a complete woodland enclosure to the park but, since then, the woodland along the western boundary of the park has been removed.
Tree species within the woodland are a mix of deciduous species, predominantly beech, some of which date from the early 19th century, with later additions. Yew and are well established in the old woods. The majority date from the post-war period at which time coniferous species were introduced as a major component of some of the woodland blocks. New specimen conifers have been planted along the main west drive. The woodland immediately to the west of the arboretum contains many mature trees and has a well established ground flora. It has been allowed to develop naturally by the owners as a wild garden.
The terraced gardens are laid out on four levels. They were originally formed by the 1st Lord Belhaven but their composition has been altered by the various owners over the years. Photographs taken in the early 1900s show elaborate scroll bedding along the upper terrace. The terrace paths are laid out in gravel and edged with well- established, clipped box hedges. The path along the upper terrace is known as the White Lady's Walk, after a ghostly apparition said to be the wraith of the 3rd Lord Belhaven's wife. The summerhouse is at the west end of this walk and contains a sculptured bust of Mrs Hamilton Ogilvy. A small sheltered garden has been formed within the low walls of the former chapel; this retains many of the chapel features including the paved floor and a bell, and has been planted with heathers and rock garden plants. Many of the special plants and trees in the grounds have been gifted from other notable gardens, including Dawyck, and from Sir George Taylor's collection at Belhaven.
The vertical walls of the terraces are clothed with climbing plants such as Clematis, Actinidia, Hydrangea, Viburnum and Camellia are overhung with trailing flowering shrubs. Roses and bedding plants are laid out in the borders along the terraces. The lower terraces are more informal in character with mixed shrubs and ornamental trees planted alongside a serpentine path.
Along the base of the terraces runs the Gull Pond which, according to an account of 1902, was lined with exotic plants; these have now gone. It is the intention of the owners to redevelop the pond as a damp garden.
It is uncertain where the original kitchen garden at Biel was sited although reference to the 1st edition OS map indicates that it could have been sited to the west of the terraces. The present kitchen garden is unusually located on the site of the former east wing of the house within the shelter of the remaining walls. There is a glasshouse on the south-facing wall and the garden is intensively cultivated for fruit and vegetables.
The arboretum at Biel has been admired for many years. It is planted on the flat haughland between the terraces and the Biel Water, directly to the south of and below the house, and is overlooked from the house. It was established by the 2nd Lord Belhaven from tree seed which he acquired from London. Thereafter, several fine trees have been added, including Wellingtonias, Californian redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), Picea brewerana, Cryptomeria japonica, a Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and many others including a London plane which is thought to be the best specimen in Scotland. Measurements were made of 43 interesting trees at Biel by Alan Mitchell in 1985. The very rich alluvial soil and sheltered situation has contributed to the luxuriant growth of the trees.