Our family has lived at Kemnay for over 300 years
About the Archives
We are very lucky to house an extensive archive of correspondence relating to the Burnett's of Kemnay, and dating back to 1688. Topics covered are: agricultural reform, local politics, court letters, philosophical communications, legal documents, personal notes and photographs from the Victorian period onwards.
The Archives have been catalogued by two very knowledgeable local historians, who have worked here for over 10 years and are a font of knowledge.
We are open to visitors using the archives for research purposes, and have received requests from as far afield as the University of Tasmania.
Please contact us to view the catalogue or arrange a supervised visit.
Georgian exterior view
About the House & Family
Kemnay House started off life as a simple tower house used to survey the outlying lands of a large estate. In the 1630s the house was extended into an L shaped building and courtyard.
This was how Thomas Burnett (nephew of Thomas Burnett, the 1st Baronet of Leys, who owned Crathes Castle) bought it from Sir George Nicholson in 1688. The meager 4000 acre estate was just right for his son, also named Thomas, and meant the Edinburgh based legal family had a country estate to pass on.
Unfortunately, Thomas 1st didn’t live to enjoy his acquisition, dying within a year of purchasing Kemnay House. Thomas 2nd was also far too busy enjoying life at the Court of Sophia Electress of Hanover - making friends with leading philosophers of the day and helping secure the succession of George I to the British throne.
Kemnay languished under the watchful eye of a factor until Thomas returned, marrying the beautiful Elizabeth Brickenden and starting a family in 1714.
His oldest son George (named after the Monarch) didn’t share his father’s wander lust, spending most of his life at Kemnay after inheriting it at the early age of 14 in 1729.
He enjoyed a prestigious career in local politics, becoming the first Provost of Inverurie, and revitalized the estate from the 1730s onwards with an extensive improvement plan, which included: planting formal gardens, woods and avenues, as well as extending the house itself in the 1750s.
More formal drawing rooms and halls were added and lavishly furnished, making it a home fit for a Laird and his lovely Lady, namely his 1st wife - Helen Burnett of Leys (also from Crathes).
While George devoted his life to running Kemnay, his eldest son Alexander, who had inherited his Grandfather’s taste for foreign adventures, busied himself at the Court of Fredrick the Great as Secretary to the British Ambassador, Sir Andrew Mitchell.
After surviving the grueling campaign of the 7 Year War, serving under Fredrick the Great, Alexander returned home in 1772, inheriting Kemnay from his father in 1780, just before his marriage to Christian Leslie.
Alexander continued improvements to the estate, seeking advice from many horticultural experts, such as Francis Masson, who had trained at Kemnay under George and who went on to become a renowned plant hunter for Kew Gardens. Alexander was a committed, hard working Laird to the end, leaving John, his eldest son, a substantial legacy in 1802.
John, however, was still studying in Edinburgh, and it was his mother Christian who successfully took over the running of the estate until 1814, when John returned and married Mary Stuart of Dunearn,
The young couple quickly filled the house with children, 8 in total, and settled down to oversee the farms and House. Apart from estate matters, John’s other great interest was more spiritual. He wrote numerous religious tracts, influenced by the Temperance Movement and other Evangelical ideologies of the time.
John Burnett followed in his predecessor’s footsteps, doing much to improve the estate by planting even more trees, modernizing farms and buildings, as well as investing in extensive alterations to the house.
The Aberdeen City Architect, John Smith, oversaw the updating of the kitchen, bathrooms, dining room, library (as it is seen today) and water tower (where water was hand pumped from the woodland well to a tank 3 storeys up). John Burnett also built the fine porch and front door, using stone from local quarries.
After John’s death in 1847, his wife Mary remained at Kemnay as his eldest son Alexander George was yet to marry. She was greatly loved and lived until 1872, a date that has been scratched into a window in the Tower House.
Alexander George (or AGB) was the first Laird to be remembered in a negative light, due to possessing even more pious religious views than his father, and displaying a propensity to fall out with the locals. As his mind was focused on higher matters, as well foreign travel, investment in the Estate dwindled and Kemnay House’s heyday began to draw to a close.
AGB lived into his 90s, marrying 3 times and fathering 10 children, the oldest son being John Alexander, who was born in 1852. Although John was a keen sportsman (playing cricket for Surrey, as well as captaining the Scottish Curling team) as well as adventurer, he was not equipped to be an effective laird, losing money and leaving his wife and young children.
However, some remember him as a jovial character who was kind to his grandchildren and lots of fun. Much was sold during his stuardship, and the house lost valuable land and antiques to pay debts. The next laird’s task was the most difficult yet.
Arthur Moubray Burnett (born 1878) retired to Kemnay in 1934, after pursuing a successful career in India as a Jute trader. He and his wife, Murial, managed to rescue the house from being sold, running the Estate far more efficiently than the previous 2 generations.
During the 2nd World War, Arthur commanded the local Home Guard and welcomed Czech airmen into his home in order to recoup. He is remembered as being a kind hearted, generous man, leaving the estate to his oldest daughter Susan Burnett in 1948.
The first Lady of Kemnay was in South Africa at the time, raising a young family on a farm in the Orange Freestate, and only coming back to Kemnay in the 1960s.
After over a decade of being unoccupied, she returned to find the house in great disrepair. Dry rot and damp had caught hold, meaning a costly refurbishment was needed throughout the Georgian wing.
Her investment and style are still on display throughout the house today, especially in the paneled parlor, which exhibits beautifully reinstated decorative panels which she lovingly restored after finding in the attic.
Susan ran house and estate, with the help of her family, up until her death in 2015 at the great age of 91. She restyled the gardens, and did in-depth archival research while writing a comprehensive history of the Burnett’s of Kemnay (Without Fanfare). With the support of relatives and friends, she also opened up the house to visitors, hosting concerts and exhibitions that showed her love of music and botanical painting. She has left an artistic legacy that we hope to honor in the future.
The house is now occupied by two generations of Burnetts – Letitia (10th of Kemnay) and her daughter Alexandra, as well as their family. This family home has had further interior work since 2015, installing central heating and mains water.
We wish to continue developing Kemnay House as a centre for the community and visitors to engage with local history and the arts. All profits from sales go into a Maintenance Fund for such work.