Cairndhu House – Wealth, Charity, Dereliction & Hauntings
Cairndhu House Now
Even in its derelict and ruinous state, Cairndhu House is an impressive building. Its many pointed roofs and ornate Gothic ironwork hark back to a time of luxury and glamour.
However those passing the ruin today do not recall the grandeur, genteel country pursuits and benevolence of previous days. Instead they hope (or fear) catching a glimpse of one of the old house’s spectral occupants!
Cairndhu House Then
Location and Description of Cairndhu House
Set in an estate of 100 acres on the Antrim Coast Road, Cairndhu House was built as a summer retreat for the Clark family. Mr Stewart Clark, from Scotland, had a successful textile business in Renfrewshire. He bought the land in 1878 from a landowner named Robert Agnew. The existing building, Sea View, was demolished and Cairndhu House constructed.
This 2 storey, holiday home, just outside of Larne, has been extended a number of times, which has led to its asymmetrical appearance. It has a wooden veranda and balcony wrapped around the front. Openwork bargeboards decorate the many gables. The property sits on an elevated site above the sea and originally had magnificent views over the Antrim coastline.
The interior of the mansion was, as expected, extremely grand. The main door was on the north side of the building. The entrance hall has been described as very large and dominated by a massive oak chimneypiece. This was intricately carved with a scene from the life of Mary Queen of Scots.
The ground floor also featured a huge drawing room, billiards room and smokeroom. To the rear were the schoolrooms and the housekeeper’s quarters.
In total, the house boasted 60 rooms.
The terraced formal and ornamental gardens were planted with a range of trees, shrubs and flowers. There were also extensive manicured lawns. To the west of the main building were greenhouses and a kitchen garden. There was also a gate lodge, stables and a boat house.
Today the northern section of the grounds is now Cairndhu Golf Course, while another portion of the estate is Carnfunnock Country Park.
The Clark Family
Mr Stewart Clark and his wife Annie [nee Smiley] were involved in many local charities. Annie herself was from Larne. The couple had gotten married in the town on 25th April 1860. They had five children – Anne, Robina, John, Nora and Edith (who was later to become known as Lady Edith Dixon).
Annie Clark was especially involved with the Irish Women’s Temperance Union, and was president of the Larne branch.
In 1898 Cairndhu House was extended by architect Samuel P Close. Samuel was born in County Mayo and became an articled architect while employed with the Belfast firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon. He later set up his own business at 53 Waring Street. Close worked mainly in counties Antrim and Down. Some of his other designs include the McGarel Buildings (1872) and Olderfleet Hotel (1878) in Larne and the Methodist Church (1892) in Carrickfergus. Dundas Castle – Another Stewart Clark Purchase
In 1899 Stewart Clark bought Dundas Castle plus 1,500 acres of land in Lothian, Scotland. His son John Stewart-Clark was made a baronet in 1918. That castle still belongs to the Stewart-Clark family and is an impressive and popular wedding and events venue.
Cairndhu House was put up for sale in 1917.
Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon
Purchase of Cairndhu House
On 7th February 1906, the Clark’s youngest daughter, Edith, married Sir Thomas Dixon. The ceremony took place at Dalmeny Church, South Queensferry. Thomas was the eldest son of Sir Daniel Dixon, a successful Belfast timber merchant and shipping magnate.
The Dixon’s returned to Ireland, living in various locations, until in 1918 they purchased Cairndhu House for £8,000. The couple renovated and redecorated the house and added a servants dining hall for the large number of staff.
The wealthy Dixons also purchased adjoining lands – Droagh from Sir Edward Coey and Carnfunnock from William Chaine. Their substantial estate now consisted of some 500 acres. It was comprised mainly of arable land for cattle and sheep.
During this time Lord and Lady Dixon were renowned for their fashionable social events. From grand dinners, garden parties and galas attended by socialites and local dignitaries. They also held grouse shooting events in the Antrim Hills.
Cairndhu – World War 2
With the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, Lord Dixon, then the Lord Mayor of Larne, gave over Cairndhu House as a War Hospital and Supply Depot. The Dixon’s kept a separate apartment in the house as their own residence. The gardens were turned into vegetable beds.
Lady Dixon worked tirelessly to raise funds for the war effort and in 1940 had one of the Rolls-Royce’s converted into an ambulance.
Lord and Lady Dixon were famous for their philanthropy, donating more than £100,000 between them.
Edith (1871-1964) in particular, was concerned with the provision of medical services for the poor. In 1921 she had been awarded the title Dame Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her charitable works.
She was a patron of the Benn Hospital on Clifton Street in Belfast and presided over the Larne branches of the Nursing Society and St John’s Ambulance Brigade.
The Thomas and Edith Dixon Hospital
On 29th May 1947, Sir Thomas’s 79th birthday, the Dixon’s announced their intention of donating Cairndhu House to the government to be used as a convalescent home and hospital. Mr William Grant, the Minister of Health, declared the new facility would be known as the Thomas and Edith Dixon Hospital. The convalescent hospital was officially opened by Lord and Lady Dixon in 1950.
This hospital was the first of its kind to be owned by the Northern Ireland Hospital Authority. It could accommodate up to 40 recuperating patients. As well as examination rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms, there were separate lounges and dining rooms for male and female residents. There was also a library, a billiards room and a putting green.
Cairndhu Closure and Dereliction
In 1986, due to funding issues, the hospital at Cairndhu House was closed. Various suggestions for its redevelopment were put forward but, to date, none have come to fruition.
The latest proposal in 2020 was to turn Cairndhu House into a retirement village.
In the meantime, the beautiful building has been left to rot. Ceilings have caved in and floor boards disintegrated, the ornate staircase and feature fireplaces have been destroyed due to damp, neglect and vandalism. Access to the property is now prohibited.
(The crumbling Victorian mansion was used in the Ridley-Scott, science-fiction thriller Morgan, released in 2016. It also featured in the horror movie The Last Light in 2011).
Cairndhu House more recently, however, has made something of a reputation for itself among ghost-hunters to the extent that it is now considered to be the most haunted house in Northern Ireland.
Numerous people claim to have seen ghostly faces at the windows or phantom figures strolling in the grounds. Caretakers, employed to oversee the empty house have told of strange noises emanating from beneath the floorboards.
A newly married couple, who chose Cairndhu House as the backdrop to their wedding shoot, were horrified, on receiving their photographs, to see a pale face staring at them from a window. It was the figure of a woman wearing a nurse’s uniform. The sadness of her face gave them shivers.
Dog walkers claim their pets won’t go near the house, or bark frantically at some ‘unseen presence’.
Another wedding party in the grounds were amazed to see a child in Victorian dress appear in one of the photographs. No one remotely similar had been present at the event.
In May 1997, a group of paranormal investigators were unable to open the front door of Cairndhu House, despite various attempts. A passing worker however, opened the unlocked door for them with ease.
Wilmont House and Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park
In the late 1950’s Lady Dixon gifted Wilmont House and its 140 acres of land on Belfast’s Upper Malone Road to the city, asking that the house be used as a hospital, convalescent home or old people’s home. The subsantial gardens were to used as a public park.
As requested, Wilmont House became a home for the elderly until it’s closure in 1992.
Although used for events on a few occasions the grand old house is now derelict. The Grade B1 listed country house is designated a ‘Building at Risk’ and appears to be echoing the shameful fate of Cairndhu House despite protests from those seeking to bring the property back into use.
The fate of Wilmont House remains a source of controversy to this day.
Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park
Meanwhile, the ‘Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park’ surrounding Wilmont House was opened to the people of Belfast in 1959. It was dedicated to the memory of Lady Edith’s husband, the late Sir Thomas Dixon.
This popular South Belfast park is a delightful place to visit and features meadows, woodland, riverside fields, formal rose gardens, a walled garden as well as a children’s playground, coffee shop etc.
Lady Edith Dixon died in 1964 and was acknowledged for her lifetime support of charities and those suffering from ill-health.
Cairndhu House Today
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, Cairndhu House certainly has a haunting atmosphere. Even in it’s ruined state, it remains an impressive building in a beautiful, if overgrown, setting. It is a particular shame that these properties, gifted for the benefit of others, are allowed to fall into such a state of desrepair that demolition is inevitable.
Whatever the future holds, it would be wonderful if the old façade could be restored & retained, the gardens renewed and the property brought back into use.
Our architectural heritage should be respected and protected for future generations rather than facing the developers bulldozers.
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