It started life as a tower house, built in 1487 by the Hoppringill (Pringle) family. Like all such buildings Old Gala House was later extended and improved, firstly in 1583, then in 1611 and in 1635, with further improvements in the 17th and 18th centuries when the building more or less as it is today emerged. From a beginning where the building was for defence, to keep rampaging enemies away from your livestock – incarcerated on the ground floor – and your servants and family – ensconced on the upper floors – until the enemy was defeated, gave up or overran your tower with superior manpower or weaponry.
When raids across the border became fewer and life turned to more peaceful pursuits, those who had the desire and the money could indulge themselves. First on the list would be the status symbol that would shout to others of your position and wealth. Your tower would be extended, remodelled, furniture and furnishings such as tapestries added to make the place more comfortable, more homely. And that process has continued through the centuries. So today many of the tower houses and grand homes have evolved from fairly humble origins, added to as circumstances and finances allowed.
A bit of excitement at the end of last week when I received the proof copy of my new book Any news from India? One of the characters in the book is Aitken, owner of a house in the Borders, originally a small cottage that was added to over the centuries by members of his family. Aitken is devastated, wracked by guilt at the impending sale of his crumbling family home that he feels encapsulates the essence of his being. Seeing the wonderful structures such as Old Gala House, and many others around here, the reaction of my character is understandable.
Today Old Gala House in Galashiels is a museum and exhibition space with rooms for meetings. Part of the space is devoted to information on Thomas John Clapperton, a renowned yet little known sculptor, son of a Galashiels photographer. John sculpted many war memorials for the first world war, as well as capturing in bronze a raft of well-known and not so well-known figures. John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir, author and Governor General of Canada, was sculpted by him, as was author and wanderer of the South Seas Robert Louis Stevenson.
Clapperton collaborated with C L J Doman on the colossal, figurative frieze representing Britannia with the Wealth of East and West for Liberty’s department store in London, and was responsible for the statue of Robert the Bruce at the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. Topping the dome of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow is his Allegorical Figure of Literature, known affectionately by folk in the city as Mrs Mitchell. He also did work in New Zealand, Canada and California.
Extensions and remodeling, adding a bit of comfort and style, got you hooked onto the fashion ladder. Between 1580 and 1640 any Scots laird or merchant who wanted to cut the mustard as a man of the modern times sought out an artist who could paint a ceiling. Sometimes done to add that extra something or to please the lady of the house, but often done to commemorate an event such as a wedding.
Old Gala House boasts a painted ceiling, depicting fruit and flowers, what looks like cherubs though may well be the couple being married (wings may be high collars), and initials, the date (1635), as well as squiggles and scrolls between the oak beams and on their sides.
The Old Gala House ceiling, hidden beneath subsequent ‘renovations’ until 1952 when it was uncovered, celebrates the marriage of Jean Hoppringill to Hugh Scott, Jean’s father having removed himself to his family seat of Smailholm Tower – another famous Borders towerhouse.
The painted ceiling at Old Gala House is one of only forty such ceilings now remaining in Scotland.
This enormous chunk of sandstone was the lintel above a fireplace and is dated 1611.