Sunday, October 21, 2012

Gelston Castle, Dumfries & Galloway

I start my UK series with Gelston Castle: a building that I have not only grew up around but also in, it being currently owned by the family of one of my oldest, childhood friends. In many ways, it was Gelston Castle that spurred me into dabbling in photographing abandoned buildings. As a child, it was quite fascinating and playing in its surroundings added a very real "fairytale" dimension to childhood games. So, too, did the additional thrill provided by the menace of a promised billy goat which sentineled the glorious ruin. 

It, therefore, made great sense to me to return and look at Gelston Castle not through the eyes of a child, but through the lens. 

Gelston Castle, South-East Façade, I

Built in (circa.) 1796, Gelston Castle is a fine example of a glorious vanity project typical of Scotland's rising nobility of the time, many of whom had acquired recent, vast wealths in far from reputable trades.

Sir William Douglas, who made much of his wealth through the "American trade" in Virginia, owning plantations, and dabbling in occasional privateering, began to buy up vast amounts of land surrounding where now exists Castle Douglas - modestly named after himself.

The nearby village of Gelston was bought to house estate workers, and after being made a baronet in 1796, Douglas took the adage "every man's home is his castle" quite literally by building his very own.

Gelston Castle, South-East Façade, II

The Adam-style façade is coupled with "anachronistic castellated parapets and round corner towers with arrow slits [which] combine to create an illusion of grandeur befitting the man", as the current owner describes, creating an "uneasy pastiche".

The Adam-esque style has led to the building's design being attributed to Edinburgh architect Richard Crichton, pupil of Robert Adam and notable designer of the Bank of Scotland building in Scotland's Capital which dominates the skyline from its imposing situation on The Mound.  

Whilst dates are difficult to pin down, it is generally thought the building was finished by 1805, leaving Douglas only four years to enjoy his palatial lodgings before his death in 1809. Even in death, however, Douglas could not conceal his vanity. His final act of egoism must be the supercilious mausoleum in which he was buried (having apparently been denied a plot in the local churchyard due to his questionable character), which is described as consisting of a "bizarre mix of styles incorporating neo-classical and Egyptian elements".

Douglas died without an heir, but the Castle passed to his distant relatives and continued to act as a splendid home for the 150-or-so years in which the Castle was inhabited.

This early postcard from Kirkcudbrightshire is one of the few coloured depictions of the Castle before its abandonment.

Postcard of Gelston Castle 

The photograph below shows the Castle in the later stages of its life, circa. 1920 from the front driveway.

View From the Driveway 

After being requisitioned during the Second World War in order to house children evacuated from Glasgow, the Castle was in need of significant renovation and modernisation into the electrical era. Bought by the Galliers-Pratts, the roof was removed in order to avoid rates payments and the building left to rot.

The Castle has remain abandoned to this day, a forlorn reminder of an era-passed.

Front Façade and Remainder of Staircase

Other than half of the front-door and some strapping on the interior walls, little other than the masonry exists. The hard Scottish weather has dealt with most of the finishings, though some original wood work has tenaciously remained affixed.

Turret Window, With Original Woodwork

This shot of the entrance hall shows the relative size of the living space - much smaller than the deceptive façade would suggest.


Only one section of the grand staircase remains, seemingly determined to remain despite the parlous state of the building's structure.

Remainder of Staircase

With the Castle's internal structure consisting of merely brick and rubble walls, the decay of the interior was swift and, ultimately, irrecoverable. Save for a few of the external turrets, the Castle today remains a shell - bereft of hope, and with an uncertain future.

Empty Space

However, the Castle continues to exert an imposing presence from the ground with much, if not all, of the fine sandstone masonry in remainder as a testament to the craftsmanship that carved it.

North-West Façade 

However, the influence of Sir William Douglas, and Gelston Castle in particular, was not limited merely to the South West of Scotland.

When Douglas' niece, Harriet Douglas Cruger, of Jordanville, NY, visited her uncle's Castle in the early part of the 19th Century, she returned to the USA, enchanted, and vowed to build her very own Gelston Castle. And she did just that, completing her very own vanity project in 1836.

Little photographic evidence of Gelston Castle, NY, exists though the image below gives an idea of its somewhat Americanised style.

Home From Home: Harriet Douglas Cruger's Gelston Castle, NY 

After Harriet Douglas Cruger's death, the Castle passed through various hands remaining largely empty during the latter half of the 20th Century. It was eventually bought by the famous cellist Mstislav Rostroprovich in 1979 who, uninterested in restoring the charms of Gelston, built a new home in the Castle's grounds in 1983.

Today, much of the Castle has collapsed, with what remains being beyond repair. Douglas Cruger's dream began and ended much the same way as her uncle's - and despite being over 3,500 miles away both Gelston Castles have, ultimately, shared a similar fate.


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for posting.

  2. I am a descendant of the Gelston's on my Dad's side and hope to make a trip in 2018 to visit that among other sites. Some of these pictures I have framed in my home. Thank you for this!