John Murray, Scottish landowner and Member of Parliament, sought all the accoutrements of a fashionable gentleman. He commissioned Joshua Reynolds, a painter known for his high-society patrons, to paint his portrait. Reynolds painted Murray in the red waistcoat of a British officer. He stands in a casual, jaunty pose, leaning on a riding whip. He looks away into the distance, absorbed by plans for progress.
That proud, ambitious man built Cally House. The British nobility rejected the excesses of Baroque architecture that was so popular on the continent. Instead, they preferred the clean lines and elegant porticos of classical architecture. Murray worked with Robert Mylne, an architect he met on a Grand Tour of Italy, to build Cally House in the classical style. He had massive granite pillars hauled across the Scottish hills so that his home could evoke the grandeur of the Parthenon.
A gentleman’s “pleasure grounds” were nearly as important as his house. Murray reshaped the surrounding landscape to meet the ideals of a pastoral painting. He covered each rocky crag with a grove of trees. He dammed a brook to form a placid mirrored pool. A high wall surrounded a park stocked with deer and half-wild Scottish cattle. Greenhouses overflowed with exotic herbs and flowers, and the orchard was so abundant that it supplied fruit for miles around. A belt of woodlands enclosed his artificial paradise.
Agriculture in rural Scotland was suffering. Murray needed to keep peasants from moving to the growing cities, or else the rents that he needed to sustain his family’s income would disappear. So, he took on the role of a social engineer. He built a village just a mile from his new mansion. He laid out two streets and promised low rents to industrious peasants if they built their own shops and houses. In just a few short years, Murray nurtured Gatehouse on Fleet into a thriving manufacturing town. He owned a stake in the new brewery, and six mills processed cotton unloaded from American ships. Murray kept a firm grip on the aesthetics of the village. He required that all the houses were built of stone in a simple, unadorned style. The village became “more orderly in its arrangement, more uniformly handsome in its buildings, happier in its situation, than perhaps any other village in Galloway,” wrote an admiring visitor.
Despite his taste for progress and politics, Murray was a romantic. Hints of his sentimental side live on at Cally. To decorate the view from the house, he built a Gothic-style tower complete with decorative battlements and arched windows to evoke the chivalric tales of Medieval knights and their ladies. Before he married, he had an illegitimate child whom he brought into his household. Murray’s wife, Catherine, took care of his natural child as though she were her own. Murray and Catherine began their marriage in harmony, but their relationship suffered as the years ground. Their only child died.
When Murray reached middle age, he approached the uncomfortable truth that his political career was fading. So he threw his career overboard and eloped with his political rival’s sister. Grace Johnston was a kind, generous woman many years his junior. Society was more shocked that he insisted on standing by her when she became pregnant than that the young woman caught his eye. But ridicule, social norms, and his wife’s pain did not bother Murray. He and Grace had four children together. At first, they lived abroad, but in the 1790s they came to live at Cally House. He raised the pavilions to make room for his large family. He left Cally House to their only surviving child, Alexander.