Why Largo House Is A Tale Of Two Mansions

The Obsession With Largo House in Upper Largo, Fife

Many who research the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade (1 Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa) quickly become obsessed with Largo House, Upper Largo, Fife where the unit was based.

It all starts with the question "What was this place before the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade (1 Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa) came to it?"  Very quickly, you become fully absorbed with the intriguing tale of this house, trying to get to the absolute truth of a very complex story.

I have spent hundreds of hours researching this place and believe the detail below to be the closest to the truth. The story of Largo House is intertwined with the story of the 1st independent Polish Parachute Brigade. It's impossible to tell one story without telling the other.

Buckle up, you are about to become immersed in the history of it and made an honorary member of the "Obsessed by Largo House" club"! 

It Wasn't Always Largo House...

You could be mistaken for believing that Largo House in Upper Largo, Fife, was the only house ever on the site. However, the tale of Largo House has more twists and turns in it than a bowl of spaghetti pasta. It turns out there was another mansion there long before Largo House. Little is known about it but here is a summary of all the information I could find on it.

Before Largo House - Sir Andrew Woods Tower & Mansion/Castle

Scotlands answer to Admiral Nelson, Sir Andrew Wood, was renowned for fighting the English in sea battles, he was ferocious and excelled at it. He is even regarded as the founder of the Scottish navy. In 1482, King James III by way of recognition of his naval efforts (and also the "gratuitous and faithful services" Sir Andrew Wood undertook as his personal servant) gave him the "lands and village of Largo".

Sir Andrew Wood then set about building houses as well as a "fortalice" (a fortified house) in Largo (this cannot be his tower, see further on for reasons why). The purpose was to "resist and expel the English pirates". Then, in 1491, in a charter under the great seal dated the 18th of May 1491, James the 4th (James III was by now dead as of 1488) gives Sir Andrew Wood permission to build a castle in the grounds of what we now know as Largo House with iron gates.

Notably, the "English Pirates" that invaded were caught and kept as Masons by Sir Andrew Wood, so perhaps we can assume that it was "English Pirates" that built the tower and original mansion/castle? (Source: https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usebooks/fleming-eastneuk/chapter15.html)

Circa 1490, a licence was granted to Sir Andrew Wood, to build a tower on the grounds of what is now Largo House. The tower was then built with an extensive elaborate and grand mansion, some say castle, being added to it.

Sir Andrew Wood then built a canal between this mansion and the local church, 300 yards away, so that he could be rowed to church in his barge, presumably as a naval hero he was obsessed with boats. The canal is long gone, although there is some evidence of it behind the local church.

In time, the tower itself came to be known as "Sir Andrew Woods Tower". Then, in 1611, the tower and mansion changed hands with Peter Black, a descendant of Sir Andrew Wood, taking ownership of it. 

Then, Peter Black sold the estate to Alexander Gibson of Durie.

The fate of the original mansion will be covered in the next section however the tower still exists to this day, albeit, it is dilapidated and in dire need of restoration. The East Neuk Preservation Society recently raised funds for some restoration and re-roofing of it although concerns over it's current condition continues.

Some further info on the tower can be found here: https://lundinlinks.weebly.com/blog/sir-andrew-woods-tower

The Durham Family Purchase Largo Estate

Sir Alexander Durham

Sir Alexander Gibson of Durie then sells the tower and original mansion in 1662 to Sir Alexander Durham (3rd son of Sir James Durham of Pitkerrow) for 85,000 merks, his family being a wealthy Fife family. The original mansion and Sir Andrew Woods Tower remain for a further 90 years before the Durham family decided to do away with it.

Who was Sir Alexander Durham? He was a loyalist and was knighted by Charles II and appointed lord-lyon, king at arms in 1660. He was also a colonel of a regiment and...wait for it...a receiver-general of land taxes of Scotland. So, plenty of money kicking about to run the place! Interestingly he then took a change of career and went on to study and become one of Scotlands first ministers. If you would like to know more about the Durhams ancestry go here: http://www.electricscotland.com/History/nation/durham.htm

Sir Alexander Durham never married so when he died so when he died in 1663 he bequeathed the "lands of largo" to his nephew Francis (the son of his eldest brother, James of Pitkerrow, one of Glasgow's ministers aka The Reverend James Durham of Glasgow). In 1667, Francis Durham died and was succeeded by his brother "James Durham Esq Of Largo"

James Durham Esq Of Largo (Married To Margaret Rutherford)

We are about to mention quite a few "James Durham's" here but bear with me, the lineage is good and comes from researching Burke's Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, Volume 1.

So "James Durham Esq Of Largo" marries Margaret Rutherford and inherits the house in 1667 and in due course is married twice. His second wife is Anne Anstruther from whom arose his heir.

This heir was, wait for it.."James Durham" (yet another one!) to make matters worse he also took the title "James Durham Esq of Largo" and in time married Anne Calderwood.

James Durham Esq Of Largo (Married To Anne Calderwood)

So around 1750, James Durham (1732 - 1808) (the one married to Anne Calderwood!), demolishes the original mansion with Sir Andrew Woods Tower being retained. A new mansion is built that will soon be known as Largo House. Notably, James Durham and his wife Anne Calderwood in 1754 had a son by the same name, "James Durham" who then went on to be known as "General James Durham". His younger brother, in turn, was "Sir Philip Charles Calderwood Durham" (born 1763), AKA "Admiral Durham", who would go on to fight distinguished Napoleonic wars.

Noting the date of birth of James Durham, he would have been shy of 18 years old when he commenced this. Either he was a very mature teenager or the dates recorded in history are slightly out! However, when we consider that his brother Philip entered the Navy at age 14 it is maybe not so unusual to have made such a big decision early in life.

There is no verifiable detail on whether the completion date was 1750 or whether this is when the founding stone was set. As the stone over the front door has 1750 carved in it, based on customs at that time it is likely it was finished in 1750 with the building work commencing many years earlier.

Notably, on the triangular point one floor up (the"tympanum") from the front door is the Durham families coat of arms.

In 1815 the stable block at the rear was added. Then further alterations were undertaken including the addition of the 2 rear wings of the house, the conservatory, the Eagle Lodge and associated gate.

The ownership of Largo House changed because at one point "Mrs C Dundas Durham" was listed as being the owner of it. On other documents, "Mr D Dundas" was listed as owner of Largo House. Presumably, he died and she inherited it. Interestingly, Mrs D Dundass is also listed as the owner of Kirkton of Largo Brewery whome brewed a strong Porter Ale then subsequently beer. Now I love Porter Ale, wish I could have tasted that one!

The ownership of Largo House changed because at one point "Mrs C Dundas Durham" was listed as being the owner of it. On other documents, "Mr D Dundas" was listed as owner of Largo House. Presumably, he died and she inherited it. Interestingly, Mrs D Dundass is also listed as the owner of Kirkton of Largo Brewery whome brewed a strong Porter Ale then subsequently beer. Now I love Porter Ale, wish I could have tasted that one!

If you search for "Largo House" on this link you will come across many farms and business ventures of the Dundas family. Their power, wealth and influence in all areas of Largo was quite outstanding. It starts to give you the feel of what Largo House was all about, a family who owned very considerable amounts of land, farms, forests, a brewery, a corn mill, a spinning mill (of 60 employees) and more.

Largo House - Architectural Inspiration

Possible Architects

Largo House in Upper Largo, Fife, is an absolutely stunning building, even in it's broken, dilapidated, abandoned condition. To walk around it and wonder at it's grander days, to take in its inspiring architecture it truly is intoxicating. It was that very experience that led me to start this website up and cover the history of this stunning building.

So where did the architects get their inspiration from?

Some experts believe it is modelled on the "Shawfield Mansion" design. This was a house designed by Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, Glasgow in 1711. The likeness is rather uncanny, you can see more information on the Shawfield Mansion here:http://www.theglasgowstory.com/image/?inum=TGSA01030 and also here https://lundinlinks.weebly.com/blog/largo-house

Other experts believe it to have been designed by James Adams and yet others say John Douglas. Either way, its design is stunning.

At a later date, further wings were added in 1814 and 1831, a conservatory was also added to Largo House, making it less like the Shawfield mansion but still stunning nonetheless.

The Case For Robert & James Adam

Robert Adam along with his brother James Adam were sons of William Adam, an architect. Both brothers took up being architects and produced many notable designed.

Some of these designs were published in the magazine "The ruins of the palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia (1764)".

James Durham married Anne Calderwood, her parents being the noted diarist Margaret Calderwood and her husband Thomas Calderwood.

Now Anne's father, Thomas Calderwood, was a subscriber to this magazine and the mother, Margaret had a funerary monument made for her by Adams.

So Anne Calderwood was familiar with Adams work and no doubt would have mentioned this to James Durham at some point. Anne also commissioned Adams to enlarge their Polton estate and "Georgianise" it.

An Remarkable Resemblance

The Shawfield (Trongate, Glasgow)

Largo House, Upper Largo

Little Known Facts About Largo House in Upper Largo, Fife

The Cannon

Also at the front of the house was a square stone building about 3 feet high. On this building was a 32Lb cannon which was raised from the wreck of the Royal George and presented by the Board of Ordnance to the late General Durham. Now unless I am mistaken, his relative 19 year old Philip Charles Durham (1763-1845) was on The Royal George when it sunk in 1782 at Spithead.

At the time, Philip Charles Durham was lieutenant of the watch and so arguably was the most to blame for the sinking. That same year, 1782, a Charles Spalding recovered some of the cannons (for which the Board of Ordnance paid salvage) and later around 1837 the Deanne brothers recovered further cannons.

Because an article in the Fife Herald on 6 April 1837 referred to the cannon having been installed the year before (1836) it's possible the cannon came from the Deanne brothers salvage of the wreck and not the earlier Spalding salvage of 1782.

Where is it now? If you have any info, please let us know. (Source of info: Search for "Royal George" Here)

The Runie

At one time there was a 6ft high by 3ft wide Celtic stone called a "Runie" with a cross on it with grotesque carvings on it on a stone platform at the front of the house on the lawn (Apparently at one time these were cemented into a wall there).

It was put there by the Durhams. The cross was split into two parts, one part was found in 1839 the other some years later.

These had been found about a mile apart in the nearby area. I hear that this is now in the local graveyard.

 

When Largo House was being used by the Polish troops, they had mass on a sunday. According to the book "Lata Zanikajacej Nadziei" by former parachuter Zbigniew S Siemaszko, on page 122 he refers to mass being held in the first room on the left on the ground floor. Interestingly, Zbigniew hated Largo House and refers to the pain of all the exercises they did in Malpy Gaj. He returned in the 1980s to take another look at it though!

Most of their exercises at Malpy Gaj were focused on strengthening below the knees, specifically for the parachute landing. It's ironic that so many legs were broken in the process of strengthening the lower legs..

In the aeroplane was a circular open hole through which the parachuters jumped having to rotate 90 degrees during the jump out. To practice this, at the stables at the back of Largo house they cut a hole in the ceiling and practised this manoeuvre jumping through the hole in the ceiling and landing on mattresses below ("Lata Zanikajacej Nadziei" by former parachuter Zbigniew S Siemaszko Page 124). On the same page he refers to doing initial jumps from the parachute tower (at Lundin links) at the end of week one. So we can see the training was super-intensive. On page 127 he refers to the training period being shortened to less than 2 weeks. earlier accounts state it was 4 weeks long so clearly changes to the period of training at Largo House were altered and it would appear the change to less than 2 weeks happened mid 1943.

The badge that recruits got on passing the parachute course was also known as "Donkey Ears" in polish. I suppose when you look at the badge you can see why...

According to Zbigniew, he jumped from the 26 meter high tower a total of 12 times during training.

Some Local History About Largo, Fife

Largo means "beside hill". The towns of Lower Largo and Upper Largo are literally that, situated beside "Largo Law" a local hill. Former names of Largo are: Largach, Largauch, Largath, and Largav.

A picturesque town, it's beaches were popular bathing places in summer with a steam-boat that went twice a day between Largo and Newhaven in the summer and once in the winter. 

The industry in the area was farming as well as a mill, a brewery and the mining of aggregates. The "lands of largo: were therefore very profitable indeed and the Durham family controlled vast proportions of this.

From the above we can see that the Durham family exerted considerable local influence in Largo, therefore Largo House was, to some degree at one time, the epicentre of Largo.

Harbour

The harbour at the mouth of keil-burn area itself was greatly improved by General Durham to allow the steamboat to enter the harbour to embark and disembark passengers.

This was clearly a successful idea as the harbour came to have 3 boats that traded coal, salt, iron and sandstone with Campvere, Rotterdam and also wood to Norway.

Population

In 1831 there were only 479 houses in Largo with a population of 2,567. This means that there was an average of 5 people living in each house.

In 1881 records recount that there were 2 churches, a gas works, a post and telegraph office, a schoolhouse near the cemetery and a branch of the national bank.

Woods Hospital

One point that tickled me when I was researching this was that also in Upper Largo was Woods hospital (built by John Wood a descendant of Sir Andrew Wood who built the tower that was named after himself). If your surname was Wood you could go to Woods hospital and get free medical care as well as an allowance of £15 plus a supply of vegetables whilst there. An interesting place to live it seems.

1750 - 1935 A Very Short History!

At the time of writing, we have no day to day history of Largo House up until 1940. Do you have any information? Please contact us if you do.

What we do know is that the house was a major employer in its day. In 1755 the population of the Parish of Largo was 1,396 and this grew to around 2,500 by 1951. It's a fair guess that most families would have had a relative that worked or had worked at Largo House, whether in the house directly, on the estate or at one of the businesses or farms they owned.

We would love to have any info or photos of the people that worked there.

Pre-World War 2 - An Empty Mansion

Prior to World War 2, property taxes were were reaching an all time high. Obtaining staff for large country houses was also proving increasingly difficult as the old way of life slowly ebbed away. Even wealthy owners of large country mansions were divesting themselves of their properties in favour of smaller, more comfortable dwellings. 

Therefore, hard as it is for us to comprehend, large houses were systematically abandoned throughout the UK. This became true of Largo House too, in 1939, the house was vacated, however it's empty state was only to last a few months...

1940 - The MOD Requisition Largo House in Upper Largo, Fife

In 1940 the MOD became a tenant of Largo House. Presumably, it was requisitioned without any financial incentive being paid to the owners. It was surprisingly common for the army to take over large houses, even castles! During World War 2, the army was given powers by the government to requisition and take over almost any building that would have served war purposes. Many large country mansions were taken over and Largo House was just one of these such houses.

Initially, it was the 4th Cadre Rifle Brigade (Polish) that were stationed at Largo House.

This is one of the very few photos in existence of the front of Largo House whilst the Polish Soldiers were stationed there.

A Summary Of All The Owners And Occupiers Of Largo House

Sir Andrew Woods Tower & Mansion/Castle

  • 1490 to 1611 - Sir Andrew Wood (Owner)
  • 1611 to ???? - Peter Black (Owner)
  • ???? to 1662 - Sir Alexander Gibson Of Durie (Owner)
  • 1662 to 1663 - Sir Alexander Durham (Owner)
  • 1663 to 1667 - Francis Durham (Owner, inherited)
  • 1667 to ???? - James Durham Esq Of Largo & Anne Anstruther (Owner, inherits)

Largo House, Upper Largo

  • ???? to 1808 - James Durham Esq Of Largo & Anne Calderwood (Owner, inherits)
  • 1808 to 1840 - General James Durham (Owner, inherits)
  • 1840 to 1867 - Thomas Calderwood Durham (Owner, inherited from his uncle General James Durham)
  • 1867 to 1867 - Philip Durham (Owner, inherits)
  • 1867 to 1868 - William Johnston (Owner, bought it for £130K)
  • 1868 to 1900 - George Johnstone (Owner - Inherited from father, William Johnston)
  • 1901 t0 1904 - Lieutenant Charles Maitland Makgill Crichton (Owner)
  • 1904 to 1924 Mr Benjamin G Cox (Tenant)
  • 1924 to ???? - Captain Jeffrey & Mrs Jeffrey (Assumed Tenant)
  • 1928 to 1930 -  House is reported as tenantless by The Courier (13 Feb 1928)
  • 1930 t0 1939 - Mr John Key Hutchison (Tenant)
  • *Note: When the MOD took over Largo House it had only briefly been empty
  • 1940 to ???? - Requisitioned by the MOD (Tenants)
  • 1951 - Stripped out & declared derelict

Therefore the owners of Largo House today in 2018 remain as the Maitland Makgill Crichton family.

Some ancestry data available here.

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