The importance of Strathleven House derives from the fact that it was a rarity when first built and now, over 300 years later, is an even rarer survival. It was saved from dereliction and restored by SHBT as high-quality office accommodation over a 14-year period.
Architecture and Interior Decoration
Strathleven House is one of the earliest and best surviving Palladian country houses in Scotland. Completed in 1708, its symmetric formula of a central block, topped with a classical pediment and flanked by two lower wings later became typical for country houses across Britain. The design of the house is attributed to the architect James Smith (c.1645-1731). The intact nature of its original layout sets Strathleven apart from Smith’s other surviving buildings and gives it a national importance reflected in its Category A listing.
Inside are two rare examples of early-eighteenth century decoration: a beautiful carved staircase, with matching trompe d’oeil paintwork, and the panelled Oak Room, where paired Corinthian pilasters are topped by a classical cornice and intricate foliate frieze. The woodcarver likely responsible is William Morgan, who worked under James Smith at other properties such as Holyroodhouse and Hamilton Palace.
The Strathleven estate existed in some form from the early-14th century, when it first appears in historical documents under the name Kirkmichael. The story of the present house begins in 1677, when the estate was purchased by William Cochrane, 1st Earl of Dundonald. Upon the Earl’s death, it passed to his grandson, another William Cochrane, who commissioned the present house and renamed the estate Levenside. William Cochrane’s coat of arms, combined with those of his wife Grizel, remain visible today in the large pediment that tops house’s central bay.
Strathleven remained in the Cochrane family only until 1732, when it was sold to the Campbells of Stonefield. They owned it for a just under a century for before selling it to James Ewing for £110,000. Ewing was a wealthy merchant whose success led to him acquiring substantial property and political office as an MP and Lord Provost of Glasgow. His property included a sugar plantation in Jamaica, worked by enslaved people, and he was one of those who received a substantial government pay-out under the terms of the 1837 Slave Compensation Act.
Ewing was the person responsible for the house and estate’s final name change from Levenside to Strathleven. He expanded the estate and developed the gardens and outbuildings but, perhaps surprisingly, did very little to house, a fact that safeguarded its architectural significance. Strathleven descended through the Ewing family until it was compulsorily purchased by the Board of Trade in 1947 in order to build the Vale of Leven Industrial Estate.
Under government ownership, Strathleven House was briefly used as office accommodation before being abandoned. Subject to vandalism and water damage, the house’s demolition was first proposed in the late-1960s. Its Category A listing in 1971 helped to prevent this, but did not stop the deterioration. An outbreak of dry rot led to all important aspects of the historic woodwork being removed and placed in storage in 1979.
The plight of Strathleven was a key motivating factor behind the establishment of SHBT in 1985 and one of their first purchases the following year. Once they had acquired ownership, SHBT began to gather funding for the much-needed repair works and to formulate a viable plan for the building’s long-term use. Their plans were dramatically complicated in January 1993 when an extensive fire destroyed much of Srathleven’s already dilapidated interior as well as the roof.
Scottish Enterprise Dunbartonshire agreed to finance the entire cost of stabilising the structure and replacing the roof timbers, and work swiftly began. This was followed by a more complete restoration of the exterior, completed in 1996 and funded by the European Union (through Strathclyde European Partnership), Dunbartonshire District Council and Historic Scotland.
Focus then moved to the interior of the house; the surviving woodwork was assessed and repaired whilst a proposal was developed to convert the house into offices run by the Lomond Enterprise Partnership. Once again, funding was secured from Scottish Enterprise Dunbartonshire, Historic Scotland and the European Union, with additional funds provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
On-site work resumed in 1999 and was completed the following year. Interior finishes such as floors, ceilings, doors and shutters were completed to a high standard, as befitting the building’s A-listed status. Strathleven’s future use as an office necessitated the installation of lift, which was carefully placed in the centre of the building’s east side where it might have no impact on the surviving fabric. An additional grant from Historic Scotland was received in order to conserve and restore the historic paintwork on the staircase wall so that it might once again match and complement the re-installed balustrade.
The total cost of the project was £2.4million. Although delivered in three separate phases, a number of the same firms were employed throughout, including Nicholas Groves-Raines Architects, the Keillor Laurie Martin Partnership as quantity surveyors and on-site agent Hunter and Clark. This consistency allowed the contractors to gain a thorough understanding of each other and the building, contributing to the project’s overall success.
Strathleven House Today
Since 2009, management of Strathleven House has reverted to SHBT. The house continues to operate as a fully serviced business centre, with the magnificent Oak Room also functioning as a unique wedding venue.
Want to know more?
Head over to our Youtube channel for our 2021 Doors Open Day video of Strathleven, featuring more historic and contemporary images of the building.