Englishman driven from dream home
AN ENGLISHMAN who provoked worldwide protests from a leading Scottish
clan society with his plans to turn an ancient religious site into a
luxury house is selling up and moving out of the "dream home"
he bought only last year.
Peter Bennett, 54, from Lancashire, has instructed his selling agents
to market the Townhead of Cavers estate, near Hawick, for £695,000
after incurring the wrath of Douglas clan members in the United States
and Australia as well as the UK.
The US-based clan society mounted an internet "call to
arms" after Mr Bennett lodged a planning application for a
comprehensive scheme to restore Cavers church and convert it into a
They even accused him of desecrating graves should his proposals go
The semi-ruinous kirk, said to be in danger of collapse, was from
1622 onwards the burial ground for generations of Douglases who claimed
to be descendants of the Black Douglas, the trusted right-hand man of
Robert the Bruce.
Members of the extended Douglas family and descendants of Borderers who
emigrated to North America almost 200 years ago continue to make
pilgrimages to Cavers to visit the church with its Elliot vault and
However, a spokesman for the Galashiels selling agents, Edwin
Thompson, confirmed that Mr Bennett’s offer to hand over the kirk to
members of both families had been turned down. Now it is for sale for
offers over £25,000 as one of seven Townhead of Cavers lots.
But although Mr Bennett is moving to nearby Bonchester Bridge to
resume livestock farming, the conversion may still go ahead. It was
confirmed yesterday that Scottish Borders Council planning department
has been asked to reactivate the application, which will be considered
by an area committee before the end of August. Craig Miller, a senior
planning officer, said: "The department was prepared to recommend
approval for Mr Bennett in February and we will not be changing our mind
when his application comes before the committee."
He said there had been more than 50 objections, many of them sent by
e-mail and via the internet from overseas. Most of the protesters are
understood to have viewed the future of the building as a dignified
ruin, but the council is in favour of finding an alternative use.
Mr Bennett said: "We are not moving willingly from Cavers and
the attitude of a minority of people has been a factor.
"This was to have been my swansong, and I was going to be buried
He added that letters had been sent to the US clansmen who had issued
the so-called call to arms in an effort to set the record straight. But
there had not even been an acknowledgement.
He said: "I am not the nasty property developer some people have
branded me and the reason for seeking a decision on the planning
application is not to add value to the estate.
"But I’m fully aware of the tremendous historical significance
of the kirk and the only way to secure its future is to identify a use
for it. I have investigated possible funding sources to meet the cost of
repair and restoration but all I was offered was £1,000.
"The trouble is the church is in such a dangerous state the roof
could collapse if anyone ventures inside."
A spokesman for Edwin Thompson said: "Mr Bennett may decide to
retain ownership of the church unless there is a commitment to maintain
"There has already been a lot of interest in the estate,
although it has only been advertised for a week."
The Douglas family first owned Cavers in 1388, when the estate
covered 10,000 acres and included a large number of farms. It was
gradually sold off farm by farm until 1975, when the remaining 90 acres
were put on the market by James Palmer-Douglas, the head of the
"Black Douglas" clan.
Among those who protested at the church plans were Dr Margaret
Hellmann, from Colorado, who earlier this year told The Scotsman:
"There are no less than 70 different surnames buried at Cavers.
They are some of the British Isles’ most illustrious families such as
Buchan, Burn, Elliot, Ferguson, Laidlaw, Murray, Rutherford, Scott,
Stewart and Turnbull."
THE head of the "Black Douglas" clan, who was forced to
sell the Borders estate which had been in his family’s possession for
almost 600 years, has joined the fight to preserve an ancient Douglas
church and burial ground.
James Palmer-Douglas, 80, moved away from Cavers, near Hawick, in
1975, when the remaining lands of the once vast estates in Roxburghshire
were put on the market. Some 10,000 acres came into the hands of his
ancestors soon after the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, where the Earl of
Douglas was killed in a bloody clash with English forces.
Now Mr Palmer-Douglas, who lives in Caithness, has taken up the pen
rather than the sword in a bid to beat off plans by an English farmer
who wants to convert Cavers old kirk into a house.
Last week, The Scotsman told how members of Clan Douglas societies in
the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia had expressed
strong opposition to Peter Bennett’s proposals for the site where
generations of Douglases have been buried since 1622 .
Mr Bennett recently bought the 95-acre Townhead of Cavers estate and
says his £250,000 development would safeguard the future of the
decaying listed kirk. But according to Mr Palmer-Douglas, the church and
its surroundings should not be touched or altered. He is urging the
Borders planning authority to restrict any work to essential repairs and
maintenance and to reject the proposal to turn it into a private
"My views on Mr Bennett’s application are coloured by my
Christian faith," he said. "I am a Black Douglas, the head of
one of four Douglas families that can trace their ancestry back to 1170.
That is why I have become so deeply involved in this issue."
The male line of the Douglas dynasty ended in 1878, when Mary Douglas
inherited the estates and married Edward Palmer, from Sussex.
When James Palmer-Douglas was born in 1922, the 10,000 acres remained
intact. But Cavers was a so-called "entailed" estate, which
meant while the owner could look forward to his descendants being
masters of the property for the foreseeable future, it was extremely
difficult to sell any of the land.
Changes in the law meant it became easier to market parts of entailed
estates and by the time Mr Palmer-Douglas inherited, the holding had
been reduced to 5,000 acres following sales of farms at Denholm and
"I went to war at the age of 20 in the Royal Air Force, and when
I left the services I was in no mood to go to university to study estate
management," said the former laird of Cavers. "The estate
continued to be sold farm by farm to pay the bills, and finally I sold
the remainder to Patrick Murray in 1975."
However, he says he has never lost his love for the place where both
his parents are buried, and describes ground near the west end of the
church as a private plot reserved in perpetuity. "The ancient
graveyard dates back to the 1600s and has associations for many Borders
In his submission to the planners, Mr Palmer-Douglas will claim local
roads were built in the days of horse-drawn travel and are totally
inadequate to take more traffic. The drainage system is unsatisfactory
and the electricity supply has little spare capacity, he will add.
"Mr Bennett also wants to build two other houses at Townhead,
but Cavers is no longer a village and it would be wrong to allow any
further development there," Mr Palmer-Douglas declared. "New
housing would clash terribly with the old properties in the area."
Source: The Scotsman, 25 Feb 2003
At the demolition of Cavers
House, the Borders, in 1952, James Palmer Douglas, the 23rd laird told the
press; “I tried to sell it – at any price. I advertised it up and down
the country, I approached the County Council and the Government. I asked my M.P., I offered it to the National Trust. I
suggested it might be an hotel, a holiday home, a school, a hospital, a
place for old folk, and I would have let it go for £4,000. They all said
that whatever happened it mustn’t be demolished, but nobody would take
it. So now it goes for what its insides will fetch as scrap, and I’ll be
left with a ruin”.
The final catalyst for
demolition was the scarcity of materials that were desperately needed for
post-war construction. This made it more commercially viable, in many
cases, to demolish the houses than to leave them empty. The result was the
large-scale demolition of many architecturally important buildings across
Britain, a loss which was “probably as great as that from the
destructions following the Dissolution of the Monasteries”. Every
possible element of the building was re-used; any fittings which could be
removed, and even the rubble whenever possible. At Cavers, they removed
and sold 450m² of roofing and 1280m² of flooring. Windows went for £1,
a door for 50 shillings, and fireplaces for 5-10 shillings. They also sold
mirrors, books, bathroom fittings, stairs, wall paneling, light fittings
and switches, central heating pipes and radiators.
How to mean well and give grave
(The Telegraph: 09/08/2003)
When Lancashire farmer Peter Bennett bought a remote smallholding in
the Scottish Borders, he hoped to provide a place of peaceful, Christian
retreat. Instead, he sparked a holy war. Hamish Scott reports
The past is sometimes best left undisturbed, as Victorian
ghost-story writers knew well. The new squire, who was invariably rational
and down-to-earth, had only to lop some ancient yew or displace a druidic
stone on his estate to unleash spine-chilling horrors. Within a night, his
modern gas-lit world would be disturbed by some primeval thing scratching
at his study door or tapping with a bony finger at his window. In such
Christmas Eve fireside tales, the spirit world functions as a kind of
conservation agency that has effective methods of frustrating the
|The ruined church at Cavers: founded by
followers of St Columba, according to legend
Today, earth spirits seem to have relinquished this part
of their job to council
planning officers and curses have given way to preservation orders,
although the rules involved may still remain as incomprehensible as runes.
Conservation is, however, a matter that is based far more on emotion than
on reason and some hint of the older system can still bubble to the
surface. There are parts of modern Britain where history and architecture
are intertwined with questions of identity and myth. Such places appeal
greatly to romantic sensibilities. But outsiders who buy into such dreams
must tread with care, for their plans may stir up forces they could never
Just over a year ago, Peter Bennett, a Lancashire farmer,
was surfing on the internet when he came across a property for sale in the
Scottish Borders. Townhead of Cavers appeared to be exactly what he and
his wife, Sally, needed to fulfil their dream - one, it must be said, that
was a touch unusual. As committed Christians, they were looking for some
special place, in peaceful, remote countryside, where, in Mr Bennett's
words, "knackered vicars could be sent by their parishioners to
replenish their batteries".
Cavers seemed ideally suited to this brief. The property
consisted of a rambling house, converted from old stables, surrounded by
some 90 acres of parkland and woods that provided absolute seclusion. And,
aside from a pair of cottages, there was an ancient, ruined church that
could be renovated to provide additional accommodation. "I was
astounded when we came up here and saw it," Mr Bennett says.
"The silence was almost overpowering."
It would be hard to imagine a more suitable retreat.
Within a fortnight of their visit, the offer that they made had been
accepted. But, as they soon discovered, the Bennetts had bought rather
more than they had bargained for.
Although Cavers is now little more than a smallholding,
it was once the heart of a huge, historically significant estate. From the
14th century, it was a stronghold of the Black Douglas clan, one of the
most powerful and ferocious of all the Borders families. But the church is
older still. Local legend claims that it was founded by followers of St
Columba 1,400 years ago. Parts of the present structure are certainly
medieval, despite a date-stone reading 1662. And generations of Black
Douglases are buried there, in a sealed vault beneath the aisle. The
family has lost their lands and their nearby castle is in ruins - but the
shade of their presence still hovers over Cavers.
Trouble started from the moment the Bennetts submitted
plans for the restoration and conversion of the church. The planning
officers were sympathetic, since the building had not functioned as a
church since 1822 and has been derelict for more than 30 years. But some
local residents were outraged, as were members of the Douglas family.
A "Call to Arms" was issued on the internet and
the cause was taken up by the Clan Douglas Society of North America. There
was talk of sacrilege and desecration and comparisons were made with
pillaging by English reivers in the 16th century. In a mysterious,
nocturnal raid, unknown opponents of the scheme sealed off all access to
the Douglas vault. One message on the clan website suggests, almost
plaintively, that "there must surely be some curse" that might
prove useful to the cause, as though necromancy still remained a valid
method of dealing with the auld enemy.
It is not pleasant to become the target of such
international wrath and the Bennetts are a mild-mannered couple who have
no appetite for fights. Bewildered by the controversy, they have bought a
stock farm a few miles down the road, where they are looking forward to a
rather more obscure and down-to-earth existence.
But the row over Cavers will not end with their
departure. The property is being sold in up to seven lots. The house,
cottages, building plots and farmland are all, understandably, attracting
interest from potential buyers. But it is the smallest, cheapest and most
problematic of these lots that engages the imagination of everyone who
comes to visit. The passions that Old Cavers Church has aroused seem only
to add to its appeal.
It is certainly an astounding place, as Mr Bennett
recognised the moment he first saw it. Almost smothered in encroaching
woodland, the ancient structure has a secretive mystique, like some shrine
that has been hidden and forgotten through the years. Peering through a
lepers' window, the outline of a tomb emerges from the gloom and I could
hear a strange rustling that was probably just bats.
Behind the building, graveyard yews have assumed
contorted, almost animated shapes and one aged tree has even wrapped a
mossy arm around a toppling obelisk, as though about to carry it away.
With dusk approaching, the silence was palpably intense and the hairs on
my neck began to tingle in response. Despite the solitude, I had a feeling
I was not alone. I almost jumped out my skin when Mr Bennett stepped from
behind a grave.
"Another winter and the roof will go. Then the
lintels will collapse. It has stood here for 800 years, but unless work
starts soon, there is going to be nothing left to save," he said.
There was sadness in his voice as he explained how his plans had been so
unexpectedly frustrated. He insists that he has never been a property
developer out for a quick profit. "A building has to have a purpose.
That's the only way it can survive. No one's going to pay to conserve it
as a ruin. Once it is unsafe, it will have to be bulldozed."
The thought of this is shocking. But, equally, it does
seem rather inappropriate to transform such a strange and special place
into a 21st-century home. Aside from other problems, the Douglas vault
would have to be preserved behind the bedroom wall. The neighbours should
at least be very quiet, or so you would hope, but all the same you would
not want them dropping in for tea.
This is a conversion that demands huge determination and
considerable skill but definitely not too much imagination. As we left the
brooding ruin to the silence of the trees, I glanced back over my
shoulder. I could have sworn I heard that rustling noise following along
• Townhead of Cavers, near Hawick, is for sale as a
whole at offers over £695,000. Alternatively, Cavers Old Church can be
purchased as one of seven lots, priced at offers over £25,000. All bids
must be in by August 15. Contact Edwin Thompson, chartered surveyors
Douglas of Cavers