The Countess of Mansfield was 17 when she first visited Scone Palace, the red sandstone house near Perth that would later become her home. “My father had bought me and my brother a pea-green Mini and we were dispatched to go on holiday and meet up with some of our relations that summer,” she recalls. “We were staying with a cousin and he said, ‘What do you want to do today?’”
Scone it was, the home of Alexander Murray, then the Viscount Stormont, heir to the Earl of Mansfield. “My brother was at Cambridge and Alexander was going to Cambridge, and my cousin thought it would be nice for them to meet.” Sophy Ashbrooke, as she then was, and Lord Stormont, as he then was, were friends for “many years” before they married in 1985 and had four children: Isabella, 30, William, 28, Iona, 25, and Louisa, 20. Scone (pronounced Scoon) has served them well ever since.
Sophy met Alexander when she was 17, and they were friends for many years before they married in 1985 CREDIT: CHRIS WATT FOR THE TELEGRAPH
The estate has been privy to more than its fair share of Scottish history. Originally an ancient gathering place of the Picts and the site of an early Christian church, Scone was home to the first Parliament of Scotland and a major Augustinian abbey in the Middle Ages.
It is also the historic crowning place of Scottish kings: Kenneth MacAlpin (said to be the first King of Scots), Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Robert the Bruce are among the 38 monarchs inaugurated at Scone. Charles II was the last, in 1651, but the crowning Stone of Scone was used for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 and now resides in Edinburgh Castle (the one at Scone is a replica).
The ‘Scone of Stone’ was used for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 and now resides in Edinburgh Castle; the one at Scone is a replica CREDIT: CHRIS WATT FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Since 1604, Scone has been home to the Murray family, promoted from the Viscount Stormonts to the Earls of Mansfield in 1776. The house that stands today is the epicentre of the Mansfields’ Perthshire empire. On their 25,000 acres they have a successful forestry business, opportunities for salmon fishing on the River Tay and a range of residential properties. The house is open to the public from April to October, and a three-bedroom apartment can be booked by the night.
The calendar is jam-packed: there’s an antiques fair in November, the annual Scottish Game Fair and spooky Spirits of Scone events over Halloween. When we meet, Lady Mansfield is putting in final preparations for a new set of loos; 100,000 people visit every year, thanks to Scone’s lucky location outside Perth, from where 90 per cent of Scotland can be reached within 90 minutes.
The house has over 100 rooms – including a 150ft Long Gallery CREDIT: CHRIS WATT FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Any more visitors and the house would be worn out, Lady Mansfield says. “The more things we can generate outside in the gardens, the less pressure is put on the house. It’s a very delicate balance.” You wouldn’t believe it to look at it, she admits, but “you can hear people on the floor below when you’re up above. Things do wobble.”
Her father-in-law, the eighth Earl of Mansfield, died in 2015, having moved out of Scone with his wife in 2010. Lady Mansfield admits that the timing of her generation’s inheritance is not ideal. A house like Scone needs “tiny feet and children charging around, and bicycles going up and down corridors, not two people rattling around in it.”
Scone has been home to the Murray family since 1604 CREDIT: CHRIS WATT FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Neither her husband nor her children spent their childhood in the house. “Our tenure will really be rather short,” she says. Next in line is her son William, Viscount Stormont, a former management consultant in New York who is studying for a business degree at Oxford. “He has been incredibly involved,” Lady Mansfield says. “I didn’t decorate a room without him checking it out. It would be madness to paint a room a colour that he didn’t like. We ask his opinion on everything.”
Lord Stormont will have a long to-do list on his hands, eventually. Were it not enough that the house has over 100 rooms – including a 150ft Long Gallery, and a reassuringly eccentric Inner Hall, in which stand two stuffed bears, shot in Siberia by Lord Mansfield’s great-grandfather Sir Lancelot Carnegie – it is also built of sandstone. “It crumbles and you end with a pile of sand on the floor,” says Lady Mansfield.
Around 100,000 people visit Scone every year CREDIT: CHRIS WATT PHOTOGRAPHY
Scone’s maze, in the shape of the five-pointed star from the Murray family emblem, also needs attention, and “takes forever, a whole week,” to cut. And then there’s her relentless preoccupation – picking up stones from the driveway that have found their way into the house. “I don’t think many stately homes have gravel that close to their dining room,” she says.
But there’s little outsourcing; she’s involved with everything. “I go up on the roof quite often!” she laughs. This is another job on the to-do list. “We’ve just done a section of it. I don’t want to think about how much it’s going to cost.” Patience is key, she says. “You don’t have the money to do everything at once. You have to think long term.”
To this end, she has recently planted 50 acres in the garden, not far from the Moot Hill where noblemen gathered to swear allegiance to the newly crowned king. “I won’t be enjoying them,” she says. “The next generation will.”