for People with a Passion for Period Property
Period Property of the Month - December 2004
When John and Isabel bought a small country hotel in the Scottish Borders, it wasn't with a view to accommodating paying guests. Instead, they turned the stately property back into a family home.
In the deep midwinter
Part of this house's charm stems from the fact that it has evolved from a modest farmhouse to a magnificent mansion with all the architectural trimmings, including crow-stepped gables and heraldic stone carvings.

Fully restored, the minstrel gallery has an intricate gold-painted fretwork balustrade, while overhead a decorative stained glass cupola fills the gallery and hall below with light.Although small by hotel standards, most people would balk at having to furnish a baronial-style house with eight bedrooms, six public rooms, six bathrooms and more. But as John has been an avid collector from an early age and his business interests include an antiques shop and auction house, filling the elegant interior with beautiful things was never a problem. The catalyst for the move came the year before, when John bought Fitzgerald's Emporium, an antiques shop and auction house in the town of Biggar.

An electrician by trade, he grew up in a council estate in East Lothian and even as a boy he had a shrewd eye for business as well as a keen appreciation for the finer things in life. By the time he reached his teens, John had amassed a collection of rare soul music and was running a Sunday market stall selling household goods. "Music, fashion and interiors have always interested me," says John. "When I was fourteen I did up my bedroom at home, varnishing the walls and cutting the bed legs to make it look more up to date. I just like to be in nice surroundings."

In the main entrance hall walls are decorated with ornately framed mirrors and antiques are placed around the room in a relaxed fashion. The house wasn't always this size or this grand. Originally a small farmhouse, in the late-1800s the turret, reception rooms and first floor bedrooms were added. More rooms followed after the turn of the century, along with the columned entrance - both extensions cleverly worked to match the existing building. "The previous owners had spent a lot of money on the fabric of the building," he explains, "but when they later did away with the function hall and made other changes to the hotel, the business went into decline." Converting it back to a house involved removing everything associated with the hotel. Thereafter began the painstaking process of reinstating the minstrel gallery (which had been floored over during the hotel era) and replacing period features that had been lost over the years. Every room was then decorated and upgraded. Industrial kitchen fittings were replaced with butter-yellow Shaker-style wooden units hand-built by John's own craftsmen, polished porcelain floor tiles from Valencia were laid throughout most of the ground floor and furniture and accessories - Victorian, Georgian, French and Oriental - were sourced from around the world.

Although the extensions aren't detectable from the outside, inside they resulted in a complex layout with lots of winding corridors, rooms leading off rooms and two staircases. You can easily get lost, but as every surface displays quirky collections, memorabilia and works of art, the journey is punctuated with discoveries. There are no restrictions to John's collecting habit: like a magpie he gravitates towards anything that glitters. Curiously, for a man who places so much emphasis on his surroundings, he remains emotionally detached from it all: "I never form deep attachments to a house, perhaps because we've had so many. Once we've taken a property as far as it can go, I lose interest and want to move on," says John. Like its predecessors, this house could go on the market soon - and if someone wants to buy it lock, stock and barrel - John would be perfectly agreeable.

Unconventional yet practical, the kitchen has a porcelain floor and is fitted with cream-coloured Shaker-style units at one end - although it does have idiosyncrasies, like the music stand and hand-painted tin bath that stand in the centre of the room.His family are obviously used to keeping their treasured possessions well out of John's reach. He and Isabel - a nursery nurse - married young (both aged 20) when John was still an apprentice and have since had two children: Jonathan, 25, an electrician like his father, and Ashley, 22, a professional ballet dancer who still lives at home.

Names like Mulberry, Osborne & Little, Zoffany, The Print Room and Farrow & Ball trip off John's lips. Just as effortlessly, he can tell you where he bought everything, from paintings, ceramics and sculptures, to furniture and Victorian bric-a-brac. There are decorating themes in many of the rooms, including hunting scenes and game dogs and cherubs - this house is big on chubby, angelic-looking cherubs. Swathes of sumptuous curtain fabrics embellished with traditional swags and tails, fringed pelmets and tasselled tie-backs frame the windows, while ornate gilt-framed mirrors, pictures and ceramic plates decorate the walls. This prompts the question of dusting, carried out, John confirms, by a dextrous cleaner. It's the sheer diversity of contents, from crystal chandeliers to Victorian rise-and-fall light fittings, period chairs (from balloon back and spoon backed to buttoned armchairs), beds ranging from French antique to new reproductions and furniture legs of every conceivable shape, size and fashion.

Light floods this corner of the sitting room. In any other setting the Buckley's eclectic furnishings would simply overwhelm their surroundings. But here, the house's architectural and period features are distinctive enough to still steal centre-stage. There are grand rooms, like the ground floor dining room, morning room, family room and drawing room; smaller, less intimidating rooms, including the top half of the kitchen, where leather armchairs are grouped around a large wood-burning stove and unexpected, quirky rooms, like the master bedroom's Oriental-style en-suite bathroom, where a door conceals a staircase leading up to a secret turret dressing room, Isabel's own space. While Isabel's favourite room is the drawing room, John professes not to have a favourite space, although he makes special reference to the entrance and main hall. "These have worked out really well and are both pleasing to the eye," he says, typically underestimating their wow factor.

This is not a home in the ordinary sense. While you can imagine taking afternoon tea in the drawing room and nibbling wafer-thin bite-sized cucumber sandwiches, it's beyond the pale to think of lounging with your feet up on an antique French sofa. There are flashes of more conventional family life, such as the plasma TV in the kitchen, the one room that does have a cosy corner. Should the Buckleys decide to sell one thing is certain; whoever buys this house will have nothing more strenuous to do than position the furniture. And if they need more, Fitzgerald's Emporium could be a good place to start.