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Thrumster House

Thrumster House
The main part of Thrumster house was built in 1790 by David Brodie of Hopeville, who was a tenant of Sir John Sinclair, a very powerful local magnate, noted for his improving works during this period. There was originally a much older structure on the same site, and some of the foundation stones are still visible in the “secret passage” which runs under the hall. (This is not an exciting early feature, but a tunnel which was constructed to enable early electricians to take cables under the house when it was first wired in the 1930’s!).

David Brodie was responsible for the construction of the Whaligoe Steps, and the planned village of Sarclet just north of Whaligoe.

This was an era when much Government effort went into creating new employment outside the influence of the great clans, in order to keep the people’s mind from further rebellion after the two main Jacobite risings. Many coastal areas saw substantial investment in fishing, flax weaving and other settled occupations, which brought new prosperity to many areas. Sir John was a good government man, and embraced his role in this regard with enthusiasm.

Davis built his house on a symmetrical plan, consisting of two back-to-back blocks, with a wing to each side, and this is still obvious, in spite of later additions. It was the first house in Caithness to have sash windows, an innovation which attracted great attention at the time. The main house consisted of three floors, and sunken cellars to the rear.

Servants’ quarters were located in the top floor, bedrooms on the ground floor, and the more public rooms above. In the 18th century, it was customary to leave a bedroom door downstairs not quite shut, so that guests about to pass upstairs might observe, through the gap, the presence of a bed with rich hangings, which was a great status symbol, even for the gentry of the day.

In 1812, Sir John, feeling the want of money, sold a great many of his Caithness lands, and Thrumster was bought by James Innes, a tenant of Sir John at Keiss, a scion of a once powerful family in the County, whose fortunes had recently been restored by his young brother, George, who had accompanied his employer, Basil Cochrane, to India. Basil traded in alcohol, which he sold to the army in Madras. His story is not difficult to follow, as he fell foul of the military authorities and the East India Company with great regularity, and his exploits are thoroughly covered in Court reports of the time.

George returned, a very sick man, and died in Portsmouth at the early age of 24. He had used his short time in India to amass a small fortune, which he left to James, and so they became lairds once more.

James’ first three sons died young, two being killed in the Peninsular Wars, and the fourth son, Robert became his heir. He planted trees around the house, and these must have been a great curiousity at the time. Robert married Henrietta Wemyss of Southdun, a grand-daughter of Lord Duffus, and they had one child Henrietta. Six weeks after the birth, Robert’s young wife was dead, of measles, and Henrietta was brought up by her formidable Aunt Anne, who kept a very strict hand on her young charge.

Henrietta grew up with rather grand ideas, and immediately after her marriage in 1863 to Frederick Bentley, who changed his name to Bentley-Innes in recognition of his marrying such a great heiress, she set about spending his money as fast as she could. Dresses were bought from the most fashionable Paris houses, and Henrietta and her husband travelled around Europe in the best style.
The house was extensively re-ordered, as you see it today. The top floor was removed, with the exception of one small end to the front of the house (which used to be the back!), and a new gable end was driven through to accommodate the vaulted ceiling and gothic window. New furniture and furnishings were ordered. The curtains in the Hall came from Paris, at great expense, and the furniture in the dining room was also her purchase.

The Hall was designed to allow Henrietta and Frederick to indulge their love of music and performance, and they gave frequent concerts for their friends and tenants. They were enormously popular, and took great interest in local affairs.
Unfortunately the money began to disappear, and in 1877, Frederick shot himself at his home n Begravia, and poor Henrietta was left alone to bring up her three sons. She died in 1896, and the Innes family connection with Thrumster was extinguished. The Estate continued in the hands of the Trustees, until my grandfather Vyvyan Harmsworth bought it in 1928.

My parents took it over in 1952, and it has been a much-loved home ever since. My mother, Lady Jessamine Harmsworth died in 1994, and, apart from my own visits, it is was largely unused. However, the house now plays host to visitors who can enjoy its special ambience, as sporting holiday guests and I hope very much to return it to the happy place I always remember, with the sound of laughter and music, and of people enjoying the surroundings and the many very special delights of the County of Caithness. We hope very much that many people will enjoy a visit to our unique and fascinating part of the highlands, and take home many good memories.

Isla MacLeod
Current Owner

See Also
Thrumster or Old Garden Broch