Sale of ancient Darnick Tower to help children in Nepal

Fionna Heiton inherited Darnick Tower when she was 15 but has never lived in it. Picture: Contributed
Fionna Heiton inherited Darnick Tower when she was 15 but has never lived in it. Picture: Contributed

IT’S a story that spans 5,000 miles, six centuries and encompasses a giant of Scottish literature, a complex inheritance, a historic home and a charity helping thousands of Nepalese children.

When the 16th century Darnick Tower near Melrose is put on the market this week, it will be the first time it has been offered for sale in 600 years.

Fionna Heiton, with partner Durga and children Rhona and Jamie. Picture: Contributed

Fionna Heiton, with partner Durga and children Rhona and Jamie. Picture: Contributed

Owned by the same family, the Heitons, for all of its history, the latest in the line now feels that she has a better use for the value of the tower, which is for sale with Rettie and Co at offers over £735,000.

Fionna Heiton, who inherited Darnick from a distant relative when she was a teenager, says the proceeds from the sale will allow her to continue the charity First Steps Himalaya, which she set up with her partner to provide early years care in rural Nepal.

“Since the devastating earthquake earlier this year, the need for work has become even more desperate and selling Darnick to help us achieve that is the right thing to do,” she said.

Grade A listed, the sandstone tower features carved stonework and heraldic features, battlements, an inglenook fireplace, a wood panelled hall and an oak door reputedly from Mary of Guise’s palace in Edinburgh. Darnick has three bedrooms and an acre of landscaped gardens surrounding it.

The original tower was built in 1425 after the Heiton family were granted the land by James I. In 1526, the last great clan battle was fought here between Scott of Buccleuch and the Earl of Angus who had charge of the teenage King James V. The young king watched from the battlements of the tower as the two factions fought over his custody.

In 1545, Darnick Tower was attacked and partly destroyed by a retreating English army.

A new charter of the lands of Darnick was granted to Andrew Heiton, by Mary Queen of Scots in 1566, and the tower was rebuilt.

In the 18th century, a wing was added to the east side. It was later described by Sir Walter Scott as an exquisite example of a 16th century peel tower. Scott coveted the tower for many years but his old friend, John Heiton the Laird, refused to sell. The author was a frequent visitor, however.

Juliet Heiton, born in Perth in 1904, opened the tower to the public in 1927, following her father’s death. She served as a flight sergeant in the RAF during the Second World War and spent the rest of her life breeding Himalayan goats and travelling the world.

She was fiercely independent, and Fionna Heiton says this probably changed the course of the inheritance. “Having no children of her own she traced the line of succession back to where Darnick had been left to a younger son, and then retraced who would have inherited if that hadn’t happened. She arrived at my father, and after meeting me, decided that she would ‘like the wee lass to have it’.”

Juliet died in 2002 and Fionna inherited, but as the tower was tenanted ever since, she has never lived in it. Fionna, who has 12-year-old twins, Rhona and Jamie, now lives in New Zealand for most of the year where she and her partner Durga co-ordinate their charitable work.

The couple met in Nepal where Fionna was teaching English and travelling, having worked as a charity fundraiser in her earlier career in the UK.

The couple set up tour company Beyond The Clouds, but on starting their own family realised the lack of early years education in Nepal and set up First Steps Himalaya, their charity, as a response.

They began raising money – their first appeal was a speech made on the lawn at Darnick – and in the past decade they have worked in schools in 22 rural villages which they continue to fund.

Their earthbag building methods used in their construction of an early childhood centre proved resilient in this year’s earthquake and the Nepali government have adopted them in the ongoing rebuild; First Steps Himalaya run training workshops to help.

Fionna says: “It is strange that a building that has stood for so long – Darnick – will help us carry on our work, including creating buildings designed to be resilient no matter what, on the other side of the world”.

She thinks Juliet Heiton would not have objected to the sale of their family seat. “She wanted me to use the inheritance well,” she said.