History of Shambellie House

Much of the land around New Abbey had been under the control of the Cistercian monks of Sweetheart Abbey but as a result of the reformation their estates began to break up. By 1625 the Stewart family, associated with Galloway since at least the early 15th century, began to acquire some of these lands, especially around Shambellie (Gaelic: sean baile (old settlement)) to the north of the village.   

The Stewarts lived in a house in the village of New Abbey, once believed to have been the home of the last abbot.  It served their purpose for over 200 years. Prominent amongst these Stewarts of history was William Stewart, Lord Mayor of London in 1721 and another William, who was secretary to the powerful Dukes of Queensberry.  William’s son Charles and his son, also a William, dominated the Stewart story throughout the 18th century.

Charles built up the estate to its maximum size, then some 2400 acres, and began the forestry plantations, now such a feature of the area.  He also began to develop important commercial interests, firstly with Scandinavia and the Low Countries and later with America. His American trade, in which he imported Tobacco, led to the establishment of a snuff mill on the outskirts of New Abbey and probably the founding of the large 18th century warehouse behind the village shop. His son William took over the estate in 1750 and continued with the commercial enterprises, despite being saddled with significant debt.

William made his mark in other areas too. He was known as a hypochondriac but nevertheless found time to father 26 children with his three wives and a few unnamed ladies.   William Stewart (the younger) was the second son of this William by his second marriage and he was to inherit the estate in 1844. Just one year later he married Katherine Hardie and was to father 7 children.  The rising expectations of the mid-Victorian era soon had an impact and the old early-Georgian house in New Abbey failed to satisfy William and his new wife.  By 1854 William had appointed an architect and the building of Shambellie house began.

It wasn’t easy and almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  William argued with his architect, the tradesmen and just about everyone else associated with the building of the new house. However on the positive side it illustrated the care and attention to detail that William brought to his venture and the result is the mansion we today call Shambellie House.

David Bryce, a leading Victorian Scottish architect of the time, was the principal architect.  The house was to be built on a raised bank in the Shambellie woods, private but near to the New Abbey village and able to take advantage of the spectacular view over Criffel to the South West.

The combination of the picturesque and practical in the choice of site is also reflected in the appearance of the house itself. The design mirrors the romantic old Scottish manor house with stone mullioned windows, crow stepped gables and conical roof turrets.  Inside the house the basement area, sunk to the rear of the house gave generous servant and service accommodation whilst the family and guests would enjoy the raised aspects seen in the main rooms on the two floors above.

The final design is most appealing despite Bryce being forced to change his plans a number of times and ultimately to scale back the size of the new house to cut down costs. The building of the house itself was even more problematic featuring continual quarrels with the architect, the joiners, slaters and the mason; quarrels which were only finally settled in a court of law. Nevertheless, by 1860 the house was finished albeit well behind schedule.  The new stable block had already been completed and William finally added the gate lodge house in 1863.

The Stewarts and their descendants were to occupy the house continually until 1977 when it was finally handed over to the National Museum of Scotland. It subsequently opened as the Shambellie House Costume Museum in 1982, becoming the National Museum of Costume. The Museum closed in 2013 and the local community, under a new management board, are now working to re-use the building for alternative uses.