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Downton Abbey at Inverary: A History of Scotland's Most English Castle

Downton Abbey filming near Inverary Castle last summer. Source: Argyll News.

Inverary Castle, the location for last week’s season finale of Downton Abbey (I promise, there are no spoilers in this essay!), is a gothic mansion that harbors many a tale, beyond those dreamed up by Julian Fellowes’ period drama set in post-Edwardian England. An hour’s drive from Glasgow, Inverary is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Argyll, who made their reputation through loyalty to the King of England.

As Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham sauntered through the munitions room (Armoury) in Inverary, perhaps some (okay, few) viewers would have remembered the military prowess in 1731 of John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll, who helped bring about the Act of Union and had a distinguished military career under John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough (ancestor, of course, of Winson), joined with his brother Archibald Campbell, Earl of Illay, in controlling Scotland on Robert Walpole’s behalf. When he withdrew support from the then prime minister, Walpole’s fall from power followed swiftly.

In the many close-ups of life inside of Inverary Castle, ancestral estate of the Campbells, the Gainsborough portrait of Henry Seymour Conway, Field Marshal and son-in-law of the 4th Duke of Argyll, Frederick Campbell, brother of the fifth duke, are invisible. Nor could oil reproductions of Caroline Campbell, sister of the fifth Duke, and brother of the last Tory Governor of South Carolina, William Campbell be glimpsed.

Yet it was at this very mansion that James Ferrier befriended the Marquis of Lorne, advising the 5th Duke of Argyll to curb his expenditures. His daughter became one of Scotland’s most celebrated novelists, Susan Ferrier, whose Marriage rivals Jane Austen’s work in its close attention to the MacLaughlans and the misbehavior of other London aristocrats travelling north, who shock Scottish provincials with their bad manners.

The contrast in Downton Abbey, however, is not between London and Inverary, so much as it is between the owners of two estates. As Hugh “Shrimpie” MacClare, Marquess of Flintshire (Peter Egan) confesses his unhappy love to the Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), the latter counts his lucky stars that he is not about to lose his own estate. The true Campbells, who lived at Inverary, are not known to have suffered such setbacks, nor were they prey to particularly unhappy marriages. An exception to this in the eighteenth century was Anne Damer, daughter of Caroline Campbell, sister of the 5th Duke of Argyll, but then she did not reside there. In 1768, she visited Inverary with her husband and her mother from Park Place in Berkshire, forming a ghostly counterpart to the happy marriage between Matthew and Isabelle Crawley, the latter of whom visits Inverary while pregnant. Raised by Horace Walpole, Anne Damer inherited Strawberry Hill in Twickenham and only occasionally came up north to visit her mother’s ancestral estate. Her husband, a Regency rake, had murdered a man in Italy and left the country under cover of night. His large fortune led Horace Walpole and Anne’s father to approve of the marriage nevertheless. In 1776, John Damer committed suicide in a Covent Garden tavern over gambling debts of 60,000 pounds at Almack’s (a gentlemen's club) a week or two before. He left a note explaining his act of self-destruction, a fate far more dramatic than “Shrimpie,” who only contemplates living with his perpetually discontented wife in London and selling Inverary. Anne Damer’s close friend, the Duchess of Devonshire, depicted Damer’s suicide in her epistolary novel, The Sylph (1779). Anne Damer, perhaps drawing on her Scottish background, commissioned a painting by Daniel Gardner entitled “Witches ‘Round the Cauldron” (1775) which depicted herself, Lady Melbourne and the Duchess of Devonshire dancing arm-in-arm as the three witches of Macbeth -- only young and fashionable (The painting is so valuable that it was recently offered to the National Portrait Gallery in lieu of taxes). The mischief-making posture of these women in 1775 conveyed the sense of power they felt, married to rich men who ruled England, though that would soon change in less than twelve months. As Maggie Smith reminds the characters at the end of the episode, “we don’t always get our just desserts.” Some do, however. Lady Melbourne’s son, William, would go on to become Queen Victoria’s prime minister; her daughter, Emily, married Viscount Palmerston. As for the Duchess of Devonshire, she spun out into a vortex of dissipation, gambling a fortune away, not unlike John Damer himself.

Susan Ferrier served as an historian of Inverary and the Damers. She wrote three novels, one of which depicts Anne Seymour Damer as the cross-dressing and outrageous Lady Julia MacLaughlan. Blamed for her husband’s death, ridiculed for her artistic self-confidence, the real-life Anne Damer nevertheless prospered after her husband’s untimely death, travelling throughout Portugal, Italy, and Spain, corresponding with Josephine, and presenting her bust of Charles James Fox to Napoleon during the Hundred Days.

To enjoy the splendid view that we see in the opening shots of Downton Abbey, when the family makes their hunting and fishing trip to the castle, Archibald Campbell, the 3rd Duke of Argyll, moved a whole village closer to the Loch. His mentor was none other than Lord Milton, Lord Justice Clerk in 1743, whose descendant was Anne Damer’s father-in-law. The hypochondriacal Lord Milton, the Earl of Dorchester, also relocated tenants to what is now Milton Abbas, one of the first, eighteenth-century examples of town planning; he was fearful that he would die of malaria if he did not take action. That Anne Damer married the descendent of Lord Milton is somehow fitting, since both men cultivated picturesque views at the expense of the people who inhabited them. At Inverary, “the site chosen for the new town was the headland known as Ardrainach or Fern Point to the east of the avenue... planted by the Marquis of Argyll around 1650.” Houses appeared in the 1760s along with the tenements of Arkland and Relief Land. In the old boundary wall, viewable from the A83 roadway -- the MacCorquodale family built in a large pot and pan, marking the spot where their Inn used to be. In Milton Abbey, which is in the south of England, the townspeople were not pleased to find themselves inhabiting a new village near Blandford to make way for what is now Milton Abbey School, a public school that also enjoys a magnificent view.

Though the setting for an unhappy marriage in Downton Abbey, Inverary inspired artists such as Monk Lewis who staged amateur theatricals for the Duke of Argyll, like the characters in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Lewis was, perhaps, imitating the success of Anne Damer, who had acted in “The Way to Keep Him” at the Duke of Richmond’s home in London in 1787, a performance attended by the King George III and Queen Charlotte, as well as William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox, darling of the Whig aristocracy, of which Anne herself was a member. The Campbells were faithful to George III and Queen Charlotte, whose portraits still hang at Inverary, though they cannot be seen by in the background of the tight shots of the last episode of Downton Abbey. The young girl depicted in Downton Abbey (Lady Rose MacClare) resembles Charlotte Campbell, who wrote novels such as Flirtation: A Novel, Marriage in High Life and The Divorced and later became lady-in-waiting to Queen Caroline. Damer advised Charlotte Campbell to behave more appropriately (as the aunt played by Dame Maggie Smith advises Lady Rose in a rather loving manner), but Campbell ridiculed Anne Damer for her cross-dressing and did not heed her aunt’s advice about her first novel, Self-Indulgence, which she published a year after Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811). Charlotte Campbell, a veritable inhabitant of Inverary (like Lady Rose MacClare) would go on to publish the even more scandalous Diary of a Lady in Waiting, which also ridiculed her cross-dressing aunt. As a sign of their Tory leanings, it is worth mentioning that Anne Damer’s cousin, William Campbell, served the Loyalist cause in America and died in a battle to regain Charleston.

Monk Lewis, author of one of the most hair-raising novels in the genre (The Monk), staged Castle Spectre in London to great success, before inspiring Mary Shelley at the Villa Diodati to write Frankenstein (along with Byron, Shelley, and John Polidori), by reading from Goethe’s Faust. Lewis met with Lord Byron at his rooms in London, when Byron was writing The Corsair. Monk Lewis believed that women should not write fiction. But this did not stop Anne Damer from sharing a story that another Scottish playwright, Joanna Baillie, incorporated into her play, The Family Legend, about a young Campbell woman (Helen) abandoned and left to die on a rock.Walter Scott is alluded to briefly in Downton Abbey as the men go hunting in what is supposedly the Highlands. In fact, Inverary is in Western Scotland and Walter Scott’s home at Abbotsford is on the other side of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Inverary is still technically part of the Highlands, however, though it is in the western and southern-most region.

Though parodied by Charlotte Campbell in her writings, Anne Damer went on to become one of England’s most prolific sculptors, casting works of Lord Nelson, Joseph Banks, Elizabeth Farren, Lady Melbourne, Elizabeth Foster, George III (which can still be seen in Edinburgh), Humphry Davy and many others. She influenced Sarah Siddons, Queen Caroline and others to pursue the “unfeminine” art, as one critic put it. Her portraits of Elizabeth Farren and Mary Berry can still be seen at the National Gallery in London.

Homosexuality is depicted as a male concern in Downton Abbey, but this topic can be traced back to Inverary as well. Anne Damer’s attraction to women inspired such poems as “A Sapphick Epistle” and Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask (2004) which depicts Damer’s relationships with the Irish actress Elizabeth Farren and the young writer, saloniste, and historian Mary Berry. Damer’s novel, Belmour, explores her love affair with Mary Berry in the guise of a heterosexual romance; it also includes a parody of Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill.

Watching Downton Abbey reminded me of the power of homes to tell a story. The romantic vistas the characters enjoy in their hunting gambols and umbrella-twirling walks through gardens would not have been possible without the vision and estate planning of the Dukes of Argyll, relatives of Anne Dame, including Charlotte Campbell, mother of many children and the author that Anne Damer could not tame, who might have served as a prototype for Lady Rose MacClare, offering historical background to Julian Fellows’ masterly narrative of life in 1920s England and Scotland.

Jonathan Gross is the author of Anne Damer, Regency Artist, forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield in July, 2013. He has edited the letters of Lady Melbourne and the novels of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, who appear in a painting by Daniel Gardner entitled “Witches’ Round the Cauldron,” recently purchased by the National Portrait Gallery.