Clock Tower House at Ayton
Roxburgh and Selkirk
Ayton is a small town in Berwickshire. It is on the Eye Water, from which it is said to take its name: Ayton means 'Eye-town'. It contains the former ancient tollbooth or town hall with a clock tower, a large branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland and a shop.
The A1 (the Great North Road) originally ran through the heart of the village, but during the 1980s a bypass was built to the East of the village. Ayton was the location of a coaching inn on the road between London and Edinburgh.
Ayton Castle is the last major work of James Gillespie Graham, a leading Gothic-revival architect, and was designed by him in 1845. The castle has survived in family ownership as the centre of a substantial Borders estate since then. Norman settlers are the first recorded owners of Ayton when the De Vesci family are understood to have built a small castle. Its mediæval history is limited apart from a siege by English royal forces in 1497. By this time it was owned by the Homes, already one of the great families of Berwickshire. James Home's support for the Stuarts in 1715 led to the sequestration of the estate which remained vested in the crown until 1765, when it was acquired by James Fordyce, Commissioner for Lands and Forests of Scotland. Fordyce planted a number of woodlands and moved Ayton village further from the castle.
Thereafter little is known until the 18th century, although one clue exists; namely three drawings by Robert Adam now in the Soane Museum. Dated 23 March 1791, they show proposals for the lodge and gate in the form of a simple rustic building with an elegant bowed porch 'at the entrance to Ayton House'.
James Fordyce died in 1809 bequeathing the estate to a grandson, John Fordyce, who was to have a military career. In 1834 disaster struck Ayton, as related by the Reverend George Tough, in the New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845): ‘A devouring conflagration has within these few weeks, and in the short period of as many hours, reduced that delightful mansion to a heap of ruins. Providentially, the whole family.... although scarcely in time warned of their danger, and some of them in the greatest jeopardy escaped unhurt. They must remove for a season. May they soon return to retrieve the damage, and to enliven the scene, which is desolate in the extreme’.
The Fordyce family did not however return and in 1838 the estate was sold to William Mitchell. Born in 1778, the youngest son of an Aberdeenshire family, he had been the protégé of his cousin Gilbert Innes of Stow, near Lauder, who for more than 40 years was Deputy Governor of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Mitchell became First Cashier of the bank in 1816 and a director in 1841. Innes dies in 1832, to be followed by his only surviving sister in 1839, whereupon Mitchell inherited their estates, a magnificent increase in his fortune which he marked in 1840 by adopting the name Mitchell-Innes. The only cloud was the scandal that ensued when it was discovered that Gilbert Innes had died bankrupt. It is possible that as a result of the Mitchell-Innes were never quite as rich as they felt they ought to be, but William Mitchell-Innes seemed unconcerned; ‘His means were ample’ wrote his obituarist in the Berwickshire Journal, ‘And his liberality in distributing them commensurate therewith; he maintained a princely establishment, and his generous hospitality was his most striking characteristic’.
Whilst now in his 60s Mitchell-Innes was determined to build a house worthy of his new landed status and approached James Gillespie Graham who was his near contemporary. The contract drawings still preserved at Ayton are dated 1845. Graham was then busy extending Brodick Castle in Arran for the eldest son of the 10th Duke of Hamilton.
There are similarities between Ayton and Graham's work at Brodick, but at Ayton he had the advantage of an empty site and a more enthusiastic patron. The result is a masterly composition, built of local red sandstone by Alexander Rowe of Edinburgh that brings great drama to what was originally quite a small building: Mitchell-Innes’s demands for space were relatively modest, as his family had all left home.
The noted diarist and author James Boswell, biographer of Samuel Johnson passed through Ayton on his journey to London on 15 November 1762. In his London Journal he recounts:
"...We did very well till we passed Old Camus, when one of the wheels of our chaise was so much broke that it was of no use. The driver proposed that we should mount the horses and ride to Berwick. But this I would by no means agree to; and as my partner let me be the principal man and take the direction of our journey, I made the chaise be dragged on to Ayton, where we waited till the driver rode to Berwick and brought us a chaise. Never did I pass three hours more unhappily. We were set down in a cold ale-house in a dirty little village. We had a beefsteak ill-dressed and had nothing to drink but thick muddy beer. We were both out of humour so that we could not speak. We tried to sleep but in vain. We only got a drowsy headache. We were scorched by the fire on the one hand and shivering with the frost on the other. at last our chaise came, and we got to Berwick about twelve at night. We had a slice of hard dry toast, a bowl of warm negus, and went comfortable to bed"
| ("Wikimedia Commons" has material
- ’Ayton Castle’: Country Life Magazine dated 12 August 1993, by Michael Hall
- The History of the Royal Bank of Scotland 1727–1827, by Neil Munro, Edinburgh, 1928.
- Borders and Berwick, by Charles A Strang, Rutland Press, 1994, pps: 21-2, ISBN 1-873190-10-7