The Melville family (ancestors of the Earls of Leven and Melville) are said to have settled at Raith c 1400. Sir John Melville of Raith (1502-48), knighted by James IV and appointed the Master of Ordnance and Captain of Dunbar Castle by James V was executed in 1548. His lands were forfeited to the Crown and thereafter restored to John Melville, his eldest surviving son in 1563.
Raith House was designed (between 1689-98), for Alexander Melville, Lord Raith, Treasurer-Depute of Scotland eldest son of George 1st Earl of Melville and his wife Barbara Dundas, by James Smith. Smith's design is said to reflect a ' monumental small classical house' reflecting 'the antique gravity of Palladio's villas'. However, a simpler version of his design was built between 1693-6 (Glendinning, MacInnes & MacKechnie 1996, p.100-1; Gifford 1992, p.352-3). Nothing is known of the landscape at this period, although a formal landscape existing by the mid 18th century, may derive in part to an associated layout. Roy's Survey (1747-55) shows Raith House set within a somewhat 'idealised' layout, the house oriented due north-south at the centre of a regular layout of flanking rectangular plantations to east and west, and a wilderness set to the north. Regular tree-lined enclosure fields extended to the south to Datie Mill and to the north to Long Braes. That this is probably an idealised plan is proved by the actual orientation of the house facing north-west to south-east, and the highly undulating topography. The Abbotshall policies shown broadly correspond to the walled gardens depicted on Playfairs 1783 plan (see below).
As Lord Raith predeceased his father (1698) the property passed to the next eldest surviving son David Melville, 3rd Earl of Leven and 2nd Earl of Melville (d.1728). He sold the Raith estate in 1723 to Robert Ferguson (1690-1781). Ferguson was a 'Scotch merchant…who had thriven in trade in London, and by middle life had realised 300,000l., besides purchasing a considerable estate at Raith in Fifeshire' (Stephen 1993, p.399). He joined the estate with the lands of Abbotshall which he had bought previously. The Abbotshall estate, including a 'house built of stone' (mentioned in 1536), was originally a residence of the abbots of Dunfermline (RCAHMS; Sibbald 1803, p.315). Abbotshall, described as a large and fine new house in 1710, adjoined Raith to the south-east.
Ferguson had two nephews by his sister, Robert, the elder who joined his uncle's business in the City of London, and William. Whereas Robert married a distant cousin (a Miss Seaton) who died in childbirth in 1767, leaving him with two infant daughters (Mary and Agnes), William 'had ingratiated himself with his uncle. Besides this, he had married a Miss Crawford, who brought him 5,000l. in money and two sons in the first two years of their marriage' (Stephen 1993, p.399). For whatever reason, when Ferguson died he left his estate to William Berry, who adopted the name Ferguson and aftermore was referred to by his nieces as 'the usurper' (Stephen 1993, p.399). William inherited '300,000l. in the funds and an estate worth 4,000l. to 5,000l. a year in Scotland. Robert Berry had a bare legacy of 10,000l. William, however, settled on Robert an annuity of 1,000l.' In 1783 Robert Berry and his two daughters travelled abroad to Holland, Switzerland and Italy. During this tour, Mary Berry (1763-1852) began her 'Journals and Correspondence', which she was to continue until her death, seventy years later. From 1791, she and her sister lived at Little Strawberry Hill Cottage on Horace Walpole's estate, where they stayed until his death in 1797. She became his confidante, literary executrix and edited his correspondence, alongside other literary works.
Berry was active at Raith, planting trees, draining marshy land, planning the park and pleasure ground (Millar 1895, p.315). These extensive works, turned Raith into the focus of his estate, in preference to Abbotshall, which he achieved through architectural and landscape commissions. A plan of Abbotshall by James Playfair dated 1783, preliminary to the re-instatement of the garden, shows ruins within a formal landscape consisting of a walled entrance forecourt and, to the north, a walled garden with a 'Rampert' linking the 'old House' with the south garden wall (Soane Museum 78/1/1). John Nicol (d.1824), was employed to lay out the walled garden and flower gardens using the framework of the 'Old Garden' (shown in Playfair's plan). Playfair's plan also marks the 'old Gates', which may be the surviving ornamental wrought iron gates, removed and stored within the Raith Stable Court grounds.
At about the same time, Thomas White senior (c.1736-1811) was employed to landscape the grounds and prepared a plan in 1783. Sunk fences were to 'be marked out on the spot', estate cottages, farm houses, a reservoir for water, a flower garden, a hot house and hot house garden were all planned. Nicol's remit was presumably to develop the finer detail within this overall landscape scheme, executed over a period of time. From this period successive generations of the Nicol family worked in Fife (see Wemyss, Craigtoun). An account of 1806 notes the woods and plantations laid out:
'with great taste in the neighbourhood of Kirkcaldy….a fine ornament to the vicinity. Several tracts of barren ground and divided commons have been lately planted; but as the trees are yet in an infant state, they make little appearance. These young plantations consist of various kinds such as oak, Scots fir, larix, beech, birch, ash'.
The use of larch as a nursery crop was particularly commended (Forsyth 1806, p.74). This account corresponds with knowledge of White's practice and methods (see Turnbull 1990).
James Playfair's architectural scheme complemented the landscape. He was instructed in 1785 to remodel the interior of Raith House and add pavilions joined to the main block by quadrant links. He also prepared designs for a gateway and lodge (SRO GD 248/591/2). A major project was his design and construction of the stable court and Home Farm, set immediately north-east of Raith House. Situated on rising ground, the prominent south front was designed with a pedimented front with niches containing statues, to act as an ornamental screen, visible from the house's main entrance.
In 1783, the same year that Playfair drew the Abbotshall plan, his elder brother John Playfair (1748-1819), highly regarded as a mathematician, teacher and writer, was appointed as tutor to William's two sons Robert and Ronald. He taught them until 1787 and, during this period, was appointed Joint Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University (1785). Shortly after this, in c 1789-90, Sir Henry Raeburn, a personal friend of Playfair's (Playfair 1999, p.31) was commissioned to paint the brothers portrait. The result was 'The Archers', considered an outstanding portrait from his early career (bought by The National Gallery, London in 2001). It shows the brothers engaged in archery, a fashionable sport, which underwent a contemporary revival in the late 18th century. Robert and Ronald became members of the Royal Company of Archers in 1792 and 1801.
John Playfair's works include Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802) and Outlines of Natural Philosophy (1812, 1816). As a close friend of James Hutton, he presented Hutton's theories in a clear, accessible form and it is said that he 'not only gave popularity to Hutton's theory, but helped to create the modern science of geology.' (quoted in Playfair 1999, p.31). He imparted this love of geology to his pupils, the eldest Robert Crawford Ferguson (1767-1840) became a politician and mineral collector. He travelled extensively in Europe (1795-1805) collecting minerals and fossils; the mineral Fergusonite was named after him. Returning to Scotland in 1806, he married Mary, Lady Elgin, daughter of William Hamilton-Nisbet of Dirleton (q.v. Inventory, Volume 5, p.68). He was Member of Parliament for Kirkcaldy (1831-2), County Member for East Lothian (1835-7 and 1837-40) and Lord Lieutenant of Fifeshire.
By c 1800 Walter Nicol (d.1811), John's son, was employed as Head Gardener. His experience at Raith provided the basis for a considerable number of published works, most notably The Gardener's Kalendar (1810). Loudon states that 'Nicol, while practising as head gardener at Raith, Wemyss Castle, and other places, kept a regular journal of this sort; he published it as his 'Kitchen Gardener' in 1802' (Loudon 1824, p.163). He was associated with Dicksons in Edinburgh in 1797, until setting up in partnership as Nicol and Forrest, of Middlefield, Leith Walk. Although there was a good gardening library at Raith it contained only Nicol's 'The Planter's Kalendar' of 1812, (Ferguson of Raith 1817).
A number of follies were constructed as eyecatchers in the outer landscape. Torbain Tower, a square crenellated tower appears on high ground, in views from and framed between, the parkland perimeter belts at the foot of Broom Hill. Lambswell, built to be viewed due west from Raith House, is almost identical in form to Balwearie Tower. Both are built onto farmhouses. The latter in particular, appears as a 'Beautifully detailed Gothic to suggest that this is the surviving gable of a vanished church' (Gifford 1992, p.301). Raith Tower, a square crenellated tower, built at the summit of Cormie Hill, the highest point in the policies, was built to house Ferguson's geological collection. Several stone coffins, urns and human bones have been found on the hill and the tower was said to have been built on the site of 'a small artificial mound on removing which it evidently appeared to have been a burnt mound and many fragments of deer's horns were found in it.' (N.S.A. 1845, p.150). The number of towers built at this period is completed by the Ice House, set on a walk between the house and the Home Farm.
In 1812, the Dronachy Burn from Camilla Loch, Auchtertool was dammed up in a hollow at the foot of Castle Hill and Raith Lake was formed (for a view of the park from the lake see Leighton 1840, p.151).
Sir Robert Crawford Ferguson died without issue in 1840, and his younger brother, Ronald inherited. General Sir Ronald Crawford Ferguson (1773-1841), served in India 1794-1800, where he met and then married Jean, the daughter of General Sir Hector Munro of Novar (q.v. Inventory Supplementary Volume 2, pp 29-34). She died in 1802 'A few weeks after the birth of her son (from a chill caught at Raith)' (Highland Council Archive D538/N/2, 1898) and he was engaged, briefly in 1803, to his first cousin Agnes Berry (see above).
Ronald survived his older brother by only a year, and in 1841, his son Col. Robert Munro Ferguson (1802-68) inherited both the Raith and Novar estates. An altar-tomb was erected to Munro Ferguson on Castle Hill, a 'picturesque spot within the grounds of Raith' (Millar 1895, p.123). By the mid 19th century Raith was well known and visited for its picturesque landscape and scenery, with a number of topographical accounts describing its features. It was visited as a:
'famed resort of holiday promenaders, who freely obtain the proprietor's permission ..The high ground is Comrie hill, on which stands Raith Tower, 400 feet above the level of the sea…The view from the top of the tower is said to range over fourteen counties. The river Camilla flows though the delightful walks which environ Raith house into a large sheet of water, twenty-one acres in extent, and frequented by swans and wild fowl in the heart of the pleasure-grounds.' (Menzies 1853, pp.80-1).
Other accounts mention features of the grounds and romantic tales which had become associated with them. Thus Croupie Craigs, 'a romantic rocky ravine' with waterfalls, derived its name from a local miller who tamed his wife by suspending her above the craig until she was half-drowned (Millar 1895, p.315-6; 1894, OS 6""). Lovers Loup derived its name from the story that a pair of lovers leapt from the rocks (Anon 1900, p.21)
Robert Crawford Munro Ferguson (1860-1934), created Lord Novar in 1920, inherited Raith at the age of 8. He became M.P.for Ross and Cromarty in 1884, was private secretary to Lord Rosebery and became Governor General of Australia. He was 'never happier than when working among his woods and walks of Raith..A noted expert in afforestation, his estate was the last word in silviculture' (Thomson 1952, p.17).
During the late 19th century tracts of the estate were sold off. Houses were built at Raith Estate and Long Braes. Michael Beveridge (1836-90), partner in Shepherd and Beveridge Co., manufacturers of linoleum, left a gift of £50,000 to create a park and library. In 1890, 92 acres of the Raith estate, were sold for the creation of Beveridge Park, formally opened in September 1892 by Mrs Beveridge, his widow. The sale included the Newton Park and Robbie's Park, the Abbotshall walled garden of two acres, Southerton (the factor's house set amidst a fruit garden), and the flower garden separated by a drive from Southerton (1894, OS 6""; Anon 1900, p.23). The public park was designed by William Drysdale Sang (c.1850-1917), and includes a lake with an island; formed from a previously boggy area, gravel walks and carriage drives. J W Hislop designed a Gate Lodge at the Main Entrance, and Southerton Lodge (the Gardener's Lodge) with a view of the whole park, situated near the flower garden (Gifford 1992, p.292).
Housing development in the outer park has continued during the mid-late 20th century. The Kennels, 'The Scars' and other parkland areas flanking the north drive have all gradually been built over (1894, OS 6""; 1913, OS 6""). Beveridge Park continues to be one of Kirkcaldy's major public parks. The greater part of the policies and the inner park remain in private ownership.