Statement of Special Interest
Poltalloch House is a notable example of William Burn's mid-19th century country house work, built towards the end of a period when he was specialising in the Jacobean style. Burn's country houses are distinguished for his innovative plan forms which allowed for increased practicality and privacy. The arrangement of Poltalloch, with public rooms in a prominent south wing and the private rooms in a set-back wing, is characteristic of his work. The mid-19th century layout and footprint of the building remains readable.
Poltalloch House is in a ruinous condition, following the removal of the roof in 1957, and it has lost a significant degree of fabric, including its roof and its highly detailed interior decorative scheme. However, the exterior survives largely complete to the wall head and has a wealth of good quality Jacobean-style detailing and stonework. The house is the principal building of a mid-19th century rural estate.
Age and Rarity
Poltalloch House was built for Neill Malcolm to designs by the London office of William Burn. Burn proposed his first design in 1845, but lengthy discussions with the Malcolms delayed the project and the working drawings of the final design date from 1849. Burn's early designs show a family chapel within the house. However, this was abandoned in the working drawings and a separate chapel dedicated to St Columba, of 1852-4 by Thomas Cundy, was built about 200m to the northeast of the house (listed at category B, LB13764).
Poltalloch House is at the centre of a large rural estate and its construction was part of a wider programme of mid-19th century estate improvement. See Setting section below for more information.
In the Ordnance Survey name book of 1868-78 the estate was as known as Callton Mor (or Calltuinn Mohr), which means place of the great hazel trees, as the house was built below a wooded ridge. The estate is described as 'A very extensive and fine mansion having a large demesne, pleasure grounds, Veg. [Vegetable] Garden and Orchard attached, the property and family residence of John Malcolm Esqr. of Poltalloch.'
In November 1904 a fire broke out in the west corner of the house, believed to have originated in a fireplace in the corridor on the ground floor. An article in Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette about the fire, notes that the roof fell in and there was substantial damage to the first floor rooms and some to the ground floor rooms.
George Washington Browne and John More Dick Peddie prepared drawings for alterations to the property in December 1904 and March 1905. These alterations are likely to have been instigated to repair the fire damage. The alternations included new openings in the walls, mostly in the first floor rooms of the south facing wing. The layout of the building remains largely as that designed by Burn and the footprint is largely the same as that shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map.
In 1954 the Poltalloch estate was put up for sale. The sale comprised of 66 lots, including Poltalloch House and grounds, as well as a variety of ancillary buildings and woodlands. The sales particulars describe the principal public rooms and bedrooms, including the former drawing room which had been partitioned to create a pantry and kitchen. The rear portion of the house was arranged into seven self-contained flats. It is not known when these alterations were carried out.
The house was not sold and in 1957 the roof was removed when the Malcolms moved to the nearby Duntrune Castle.
By 1800 following the significant agricultural improvements of the 18th century the landed classes emerged richer than ever and the building of country houses expanded in quantity and quality. Their design changed radically from the symmetrical classical country house of previous centuries to more irregular compositions. Of particular note was the change in plan form, with country houses arranged for practicality and privacy. This arrangement did not fit into the constraints of the formal classical plan.
William Burn became a master of the changing requirements, setting a framework for other architects to follow. His skill in country house planning was one of the factors which led Burn to have the largest architectural practice in Scotland by 1830, with work spanning the whole of the country. Country houses for the nobility, landed gentry and nouveau riche were the core of his architectural work and by 1840 he had already designed or altered over 90 country houses.
Whilst William Burn was a prolific designer of country houses, surviving examples are becoming increasingly rare. Poltalloch House is in a ruinous condition and has lost a significant degree of fabric, including its roof and its highly detailed interior decorative scheme. However, the exterior survives largely complete to the wall head and has a wealth of good quality Jacobean-style detailing and stonework. Burn's original layout of the building continues to be readable. In its current condition it remains a recognisable example of Burn's country house work of this period.
Architectural or Historic Interest
The interior of the building has seen the greatest change, since the roof was removed.
Mid 20th century photographs of the interior show that it was lavishly decorated including strapwork ceilings and plaster cornices, timber panelling and stone and marble chimneypieces. The central stair hall had a wide oak staircase with an intricately carved balustrade and was lit by a six light window with stained glass featuring coats of arms. The fireplace had an elaborate armourial overmantel.
None of this decorative scheme is known to survive and of the parts of the interior which have been seen, the walls are back to the brick and stonework, with fragments of lath surviving and very little plaster. The interior has no known interest in listing terms.
The importance of Burn's country houses lies in their internal arrangements. He was an expert in balancing the client's demand for privacy with a need for a degree of stateliness in public rooms and principal elevations.
By 1830 his houses were usually two stories in height with hall-corridor plans with symmetrically arranged main rooms that were hidden from sight from the entrance. Rooms were arranged in a logical sequence. The private rooms were usually in a separate wing, furthest away from the entrance and often stepped back creating a sheltered private garden area. Rooms for children were typically separate, often on the first floor of the private wing. The service block would also be as separate as possible with male and female servants kept strictly separate.
In plan form Poltalloch House follows these principles and is therefore a typical example of Burn's work. It is a large irregular U-plan arranged around a central courtyard. The principal public rooms (breakfast room, dining room, library and drawing room) were to the south of the plan accessed by a wide east-west corridor from the main entrance. On the first floor were four suites of bedrooms and dressing rooms. In the basement were cellars and the butler's rooms. The kitchen and laundry were at the rear of the house.
The two-storey northwest wing is the private wing of the house. The ground floor had the family sitting rooms and bedrooms. The wing terminated in a conservatory which was access directly from the boudoir. The first floor has the rooms for the children, including the schoolroom, bedrooms for the young ladies of the family, as well as for a governess and maidservants. The housekeeper's room was in the basement.
To the northeast is a single storey and attic stable court range, which had stables on the ground floor with a hay loft and bedrooms for the grooms and stable servants in the attic. The 1st Edition Ordnance Survey Map shows a drive to the rear of the house so that the staff and tradespeople could access the house without disturbing the owner.
Whilst the house is ruinous the internal layout of the building remains largely intact, with some of the interior walls complete to wall head. The floors have been lost, with only some remnants of the floor beams surviving in the walls.
The staircases were not seen so it is not known the degree to which these survive.
Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality
In the early 19th century classicism became increasingly associated with public buildings and country house architecture used more informal styles, inspired by Italianate villas or castellated tower houses. Burn was adept as a designer in a variety of different styles, with his early work ranging from neo-Greek to Gothic and later moving to Scots Baronial. The most noteworthy stylistic trend for country houses was Tudor or Jacobean, and by about 1825, Burn had made the Jacobean country house his speciality.
Following the removal of the roof in 1957 Poltalloch House has fallen into a very ruinous condition. The roofs were slated, except for the conservatory which was glazed supported on slender iron ceiling ribs. The ceilings of a number of ground floor rooms were reinforced with metal girders incorporating a curved truss, the largest of which was 10.3m and spanned the staircase. Many of the chimneystacks have been lost and the conservatory was originally surmounted by classical urns.
The principal exterior walls (towards the south, west and east of the plan) survive largely intact to the wallhead and include a wealth of good quality Jacobean-style detailing and stonework which is typical of Burn. This detailing includes a pierced roof balustrade with finials, curvilinear gables, canted bay windows and an entrance bay with an armourial panel. No glazing was seen and many of the windows have lost their stone mullions and transoms.
William Burn (1789-1870) had the largest architectural practice in Scotland in the 1830s and at his peak was known to design at least three or four country houses a year. There are differing views as to the excellence of Burn as an architect. Colvin states that he 'cannot be ranked as a great architect' and that his output was perhaps more impressive than the actual designs and his Jacobethan houses are often dull and repetitive in detailing. Conversely Glendinning et al describe Portalloch as the culmination of Burn's Jacobean work (p.229).
It is the convenient planning of his houses which make his work remarkable, and his country houses were practical and innovative for their time. Burn was adept at providing what the client wanted and could work with in a range of architectural styles. His career which spanned a large part the 19th century from Greek revival to Scottish Baronial is also exceptional.
The design of Poltalloch House is not innovative as it shares very similar detailing to his other country houses. Although no longer complete enough fabric survives to make it a recognisable work by Burn. 19th century Jacobean-style country houses form a diminishing part of our architectural heritage.
Poltalloch House is the principal building of a rural estate. The construction of the house was part of a wider programme of mid-19th century estate improvement, including landscape features and the construction of ancillary buildings.
The landscape architect, William Andrew Nesfield, laid out the garden to the south and east of the house, including terracing with balustraded walls. Photographs from the early 20th century show that principal entrance courtyard had gatepiers topped with carved stags. Only fragments of Nesfield's terrace walls survive today. The wooded ridge, which the house was built in front of still survives and continues to be marked on the Ordnance Survey map as Callton Mor.
As previously noted there is a chapel (listed at category B, LB13764) to the northeast of the house. To the north of the chapel is a large, square walled garden with associated ancillary buildings. Pathways lead from the rear of the house to the walled garden indicating their original functional relationship. The walled garden and its ancillary buildings have not been visited and they have not been assessed at this time.
The estate had two principal entrances, both of which have a gate lodge designed by Burn in 1855 (both listed at category B, LB11493 and LB11022). The main access drive is from the east and includes an ornamental bridge also designed by Burn (listed at category B, LB11023). The north drive is described in the 1954 sales particulars as the rear access drive and from here the rear part of the house could be accessed without being seen from the principal rooms.
Within the vicinity of Portalloch House and its ancillary buildings are seven scheduled monuments, including a cup and ring marked stone both to the north (SM222) and south (SM223) of the house and cists (SM221, SM225 and SM 228) close to the access drives.
The estate has not changed significantly from that shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey Map (surveyed 1865, published 1874). The survival of the other estate buildings, such as the listed gate lodges, bridge and chapel add to the interest of the house itself and provide an important context. Although the house is ruinous it continues to form the centrepiece of a 19th century country estate and helps our understanding of the planning and development of these types of structures.
There are no known regional variations.
2.3 Close Historical Associations
There are no known associations with a person or event of national importance at present (2017).
Statutory address, category of listing changed from B to C and listed building record revised in 2017. Previously listed as 'Poltalloch House (Callton Mor)'.