Site Report: Kinneil House and Estate

October would normally see the last open days of the year at Kinneil House, with visitors invited inside the building to view the painted rooms, which date from the 16th and 17th centuries. This close to Halloween, a local volunteer dressed up as the White Lady ghost might well be lurking in the corridors, popping up to surprise the visitors on their tour. The story of Lady Alice Lilbourne, now commonly remembered as the ‘White Lady’, is well-known locally. Although people often do not recall exactly when they first heard the story or came to know about Kinneil House, “If you grow up in Bo’ness, [you] can’t not be familiar with it” (Respondent 2.11).

Lady Alice’s story, like the House itself, is intimately connected to the surrounding Estate – she fell to her death while attempting to leap from the upper stories of the House across the Gil Burn, which runs through a deep gully directly behind the House. This year, the House has been closed to visitors, so people will be looking for evidence of the White Lady from outside the building. For many people visiting the Estate, even in a normal year, the House is principally experienced from the outside. Its impressive façade and distinctive silhouette form a backdrop (literally and mentally) to many of the activities that take place at the Estate, seen while walking or cycling through the woods, fields, roads and pathways (the John Muir Way cuts through the Estate), where generations of families have played and socialised.

Image on left: Logo for the Estate cycle trails, featuring the silhouette of the main ‘Tower’ section of the House; Image on right: Kinneil House viewed down the main drive, which is the the end point for cars competing in the Bo’ness Hill Climb [photo credits: Elizabeth Robson. The Kinneil Trails logo is the property of The White Lady Mountain Group, designed by pupil at Bo’ness Academy]

Although the entry point for this study was Kinneil House (and associated aspects of the designed and built landscape), it quickly became apparent that these could only be understood as part of the wider Estate. Kinneil Estate is a place of recreation, education, employment and residence. It is used throughout the year for a range of events and as outdoor space by local schools, in addition to day-to-day use by various groups and individuals. The 200-acre Estate includes multiple heritage sites that fall under different designations and management arrangements. As well as the House with its painted interiors, these include a workshop used by engineer James Watt to work on the improvements to steam engine technology and a section of the Antonine Wall, part of the multi-country Frontiers of the Roman Empire UNESCO World Heritage site.

Detail from The Arbour Room in Kinneil House showing two phases of painted decoration: naturalistic foliage and animal scenes (1550s) and imitation oak panels (1620s) [Photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]

This research identified a variety of wide-ranging and diverse communities, based on interest, identity, and location, for whom the House and Estate were of significance, encompassing people resident in the local area and those living further afield, including elsewhere in the UK and abroad. Some of the key findings from the social value assessment were:

  • Within this complex site, Kinneil House is experienced and framed by the landscape and setting, of which it is a part.
  • For many people, the House is the lynchpin of the wider Estate. However, the formal conservation priority (the painted rooms) is not necessarily of primary importance to communities.
  • The House is an impressive and familiar symbol, mobilised when representing and asserting membership of different communities.
  • The site is connected with the formation or origins of many of these communities.
  • There is a sense of ownership over the House and of the Estate as public space. This is not about proprietorial ownership but a broader sense of it belonging to the community.
  • It is valued as a constant presence, linking communities across time and space.
  • However, memories and stories about Kinneil also reveal it to be a dynamic landscape.
  • The House and the Estate have spiritual values through connections to formal religion (practices and objects linked with the site of Kinneil Church, including the Stone Cross, now housed in the lower floor kitchens), informal spirituality, the supernatural, and nature.
  • The Estate is valued as a place of peace and reflection.
Bell tower and remaining walls of Kinneil Church with in situ gravestones [photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]

Implications for future consideration and management of the site include:

  • The social values of the site derive from a combination of location, history, use and ‘feeling’.
  • The House is a constant feature, but there is a tolerance (and desire) for certain changes. Whether a change is felt to be detrimental varies according to people’s interests and values. Changes that were consulted on, well-communicated and understood were generally more acceptable.
  • There are conflicting perspectives on balancing human activities and ‘natural’ aspects of the Estate.
  • The range of communities identified potentially requires multiple engagement strategies that can reach beyond regular users, formally constituted groups, and locality.

My sincere thanks go to everyone who participated in the research.

The full site report is available here: Site Report: Kinneil House and Estate (Author retains copyright. Proper attribution of authorship and correct citation details should be given).

Cover image: The main ‘Tower’ section of Kinneil House [photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]