The Big White House | Relics of the Old Decency
Holy (pronounced “Holly” as in Holywood, Country Down) Hill House is a Planter’s house of comfortable grandeur. Set in the wilds of Tyrone, its shining white walls are testimony to the efforts of Hamilton and Margaret Thompson. They purchased the estate in 1983. “My family were tenant farmers here with 20 acres, half of which was peat land,” Hamilton reminisces. “We bought the house along with 230 acres. But we didn’t want anyone overlooking us so we bought a few surrounding farms too!”
“The last in the line of the Sinclair family was Will Hugh Montgomery, High Sheriff of Tyrone,” says Hamilton. “He was a confirmed bachelor until he met Elizabeth Elliott, a doll from Philadelphia.” Will died in 1930 but Bessie continued to live here along until 1957. Bessie was a snob! She wanted to marry someone with a title and army rank and with Will she got both.” Upon her death in 1957 the estate was inherited by a Sinclair relation, General Sir Allen Henry Shafto Adair, who subsequently sold it to the Thompsons. Hamilton notes, “The Castle of Mey was a Sinclair property. They’d quite a few bob between them. One of their other former homes has been in the news lately: Anmer Hall, Prince William and Catherine’s home. Adair Arms in Ballymena is named after them.”
“The very doghouses are listed!” he exclaims. A village of early 19th century limewashed rubble stone outbuildings embraces the rear elevation of the house. The laundry still has its mangle; tongue and groove panelling lines the coachman’s house; and the stable stalls are fully intact. A saw mill, forge with bellcote, byres and walled garden add to the complex. “I wanted to keep it as authentic as possible,” says Hamilton. “The estate would originally have been self sufficient. Years ago there weren’t any supermarkets!” Metal cockerel finials top the stone entrance piers to the courtyard.
Holy Hill House bears a passing resemblance to Springhill, the National Trust property in Tyrone. The harled front, a roughly symmetrical grouping of windows centring on the middle bay, slates on a secondary elevation, a Regency looking bay window and so on. But while Springhill is gable ended, the double pile hipped roof of Holy Hill swoops down from the chimneys to the eaves like a wide brimmed garden party hat. The roof contains one of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. More anon. Single bay screen wings topped by ball finials elongate the entrance front. A 1736 map by William Starratt in the library shows the main block of the house. So it’s at least early 18th century but the rear part likely dates from the previous century. Sir George Hamilton, brother of the Earl of Abercorn at Baronscourt, built a house here but it was destroyed in the 1641 Massacre of Ulster. Reverend John Sinclair then bought the estate in 1683 and the building he erected was to become the family seat for a quarter of a millennium. That is, save for a sojourn when the Sinclairs retreated behind the Walls of Derry during the Jacobite conflict.
The glazed entrance door set in a lugged sandstone architrave opens into the entrance hall which leads onto the three storey staircase hall. The Thompsons, though, use a more informal entrance through the left hand screen wing. Antlers and maids’ water cans hang from the white walls of this hallway. Above a sofa is the first of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. A stained glass window of great provenance. Over to Mr Thompson, “I found the 10 stained glass windows in a shed outside. They’re from Ballymena Castle, once home to the Adairs. When the castle was demolished in the 1950s, Sir Allen brought the windows with him to Holy Hill.” They are now installed throughout the house: some as external windows; others as internal doors. Each stained glass panel is a story board telling the history of the Adair family in their Ulster Scots context. A low ceilinged sitting room in the older part of the house is made even lower by a colossal timber beam. ‘Count Thy Work to God 1900 Everina Sculpsit.’ So engraved the evident carpenter and Latin scholar Miss Sinclair.
Hamilton put back the separating wall between the entrance hall and drawing room. The ante room – “Ideal for a glass of sherry!” – is now the library. Delicate ceiling roses and cornicing have been reinstated where missing. “The entrance front faces east,” says Hamilton. “So we generally keep the window shutters pulled.” A new kitchen was installed in the former library at the back of the house. This allowed the basement Victorian kitchen to be retained as a museum piece. Clocks chime on the multiplicity of skyward landings on the 19th century staircase. Time doesn’t stand still, not even at Holy Hill. The dining room is pure magnificence. Crimson flock wallpaper; a higher ceiling; that bay window; and the dining table from Flixton Hall, another former Sinclair residence.
And now for Holy Hill’s highest hidden glory. The front top floor bedrooms have extraordinarily high coving which swallows the roof space above. The top floor bedrooms to the rear have domes instead. As a result, on what would normally be the nursery floor is a lofty suite of cathedral guest rooms. “Adrian Carton de Wiart stayed here in the 1920s,” says Hamilton, pointing to a copy of Happy Odyssey by the author. “Mrs Sinclair liked entertaining. She had 15 staff. Five lived in the house.” Down to the ground floor. The lowest hidden glory is a Victorian loo. “The Sinclairs built a passageway to a privy,” smiles Hamilton, “so when nature called they didn’t have to run to the end of the garden.” Off said passageway, stone flagged steps lead to the rabbit warren of former servants’ quarters and cellars. “We’re seven feet underground,” says Hamilton in the billiard room, once a servants’ hall. The vegetable store has an earthen floor. “Bessie buried the family silver under here in case of a German invasion.”
It’s been a sad year for country houses of Ireland. Dundarave, Glin Castle, Markree Castle and Mountainstown all sold for the first time in their history. Most of the contents of Bantry House and some of Russborough at risk. Not so Holy Hill House. It has never looked smarter, gleaming inside and out, even on a drizzly Ulster summer day. The big house stands tall and proud, surrounded by an apron of soft emerald banded lawn.
John Sinclair was agent to the Earl of Abercorn. On 20 June 1758 he wrote, ‘Inclosed I send your Lordshipp an account of the halphe years rent due at May 1757 which I hope will please. William McIlroys I think I may get, but I fear Harris Hunter never will pay; about five weeks agoe he went to Scotland and is not yet returned; his mill is in bad repair. Gabriel Gamble is returned in arrear; he will not take a receipt for his halph year’s rent; he says the boat cost him much more and expects to be allowed all his cost; Mr Winsley has not paid for his turf bog for the year 1757; he has three acres, a part of which he hopes your Lordshipp will allow for his house, fire and desired me to let your Lordshipp know he was willing to pay what you pleased to charge him but did not incline paying untill I acquainted you. James Hamilton of Prospect has one acre and a halph, a part of which he also hopes you will allow him for his fire; the remainder he is willing to pay what your Lordshipp pleases. If the manner in which the account is drawn is not agreeable I hope your Lordshipp will excuse me as I am not acquainted with the proper method but shall for the future observe your Lordshipp’s directions if you will please to instruct me.’