Sir William Bruce of Kinross, 1st Baronet (circa 1630 – 1 January 1710) was a Scottish gentleman-architect, "the effective founder of classical architecture in Scotland," as Howard Colvin observes. As a key figure in introducing the Palladian style into Scotland, he has been compared to the pioneering English architects Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, and to the contemporaneous introducers of French style in English domestic architecture, Hugh May and Sir Roger Pratt.
Bruce was a merchant in Rotterdam during the 1650s, and played a role in the Restoration of Charles II in 1659. He carried messages between the exiled king and General Monck, and his loyalty to the king was rewarded with lucrative official appointments, including that of Surveyor General of the King's Works in Scotland, effectively the "king's architect". His patrons included John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale, the most powerful man in Scotland at the time, and Bruce rose to become a member of Parliament, and briefly sat on the Scottish Privy Council.
Despite his lack of technical expertise, Bruce became the most prominent architect of his time in Scotland. He worked with competent masons and professional builders, to whom he imparted a classical vocabulary; thus his influence was carried far beyond his own aristocratic circle. Beginning in the 1660s he built and remodelled a number of country houses, including Thirlestane Castle for the Duke of Lauderdale, and Hopetoun House. Among his most significant work was his own Palladian mansion at Kinross, built on the Loch Leven estate which he had purchased in 1675. As the king's architect he undertook the rebuilding of the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse in the 1670s, which gave the palace its present appearance. After the death of Charles II Bruce lost political favour, and later, following the accession of William and Mary, he was imprisoned more than once as a suspected Jacobite. However, he managed to continue his architectural work, often providing his services to others with Jacobite sympathies.
Little is known of Bruce's youth, and his date of birth is unrecorded. He was probably born at Blairhall in western Fife, in around 1630, the second son of Robert Bruce of Blairhall and Katherine Preston. He may have attended St Andrews University in 1637-1638, which would suggest that his birth date was as early as 1625. The Bruces were a well-connected Episcopalian family, strongly loyal to the king, and descended from Thomas Bruce a cousin of King Robert II, who had been granted lands in Clackmannan and Fife. Bruce's first cousin Edward Bruce was created Earl of Kincardine in 1643.
Letters in the Earl of Kincardine's papers show that William Bruce was in exile in Rotterdam during the 1650s with his cousin, Alexander Bruce, brother of the Earl of Kincardine. As Episcopalians, William and Alexander would have sought refuge from the Puritan Commonwealth established by Oliver Cromwell. In Rotterdam, they were in contact with Sir Robert Moray, a soldier and natural philosopher close to Charles II, who then resided at Maastricht. William Bruce was a merchant, based in the Scottish community in Rotterdam, but travelling widely. He owned a ship with Alexander Bruce and John Hamilton of Grange, and was involved in the trade of wine, coal and timber between Norway, France, England, Scotland and the Low Countries. He is recorded as having a house and a mistress in La Rochelle. In 1658, William and Alexander travelled together from Bremen overland to Maastricht to meet Moray. Alexander Bruce and Moray were founder members of the Royal Society in 1660, and it is likely that architecture featured in their discussions, particularly the new town hall in Maastricht that Moray had recently advised on.
In 1659 Bruce acted as a messenger between General Monck, Cromwell's commander-in-chief in Scotland and the exiled King Charles II. A passport survives, issued to Bruce by Monck in September 1659, and giving him permission to remain in Scotland until his "returne to Holland," and it appears that the messages he brought from Charles persuaded Monck to march his army to London, a decisive event in the Restoration. The nature of their communications is not known, although it would appear that Moray selected him for the task. Sir Robert Douglas stated that Bruce "painted the distress and distractions" of Scotland before the General, and suggested to him "the glory that would be acquired in restoring the royal family."
Following the restoration, William Bruce was appointed Clerk to the Bills in 1660, and Clerk of Supply to the Lords in Council in 1665. Both were lucrative positions, involving collection of fees, from Parliament in the first case, and from petitioners to the Court of Session in the latter. Meanwhile, Sir Robert Moray had established himself as a courtier and scientist at Whitehall, London, and employed Bruce as a trusted messenger between Whitehall and the Duke of Lauderdale, Secretary for Scotland.
Moray later served on the Treasury Commission for Scotland, as did Alexander Bruce, now Earl of Kincardine. Bruce reported to this Commission as a revenue collector, and benefited from the patronage of its members. The Commission had responsibility for the King's Works, and in 1667 Bruce was appointed Superintendent and Overseer of the Royal Palaces in Scotland. Four years later he was made Surveyor General of the King's Works in Scotland, with a salary of £3600 Scots (£300 Sterling), for the purpose of rebuilding Holyroodhouse. In March 1671, Bruce was part of a syndicate which bought the rights to collect taxes over a five-year period, paying £26,000 Sterling for the privilege. As such, it would appear that Bruce was not only the architect of Holyroodhouse, but one of the principal financiers of the £21,000 project.
As a key figure of the Restoration administration, he became close to other Stuart loyalists, who included such powerful patrons as the Duke of Lauderdale, Lord Haltoun, and the Earl of Rothes. In 1667 he undertook his first building work for Lord Rothes, overseeing the extensions to Leslie House, and later worked on several of Lauderdale's properties, concurrently with Holyroodhouse. In 1668 he was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia.
From 1669 to 1674 Bruce sat in the Scottish Parliament as shire commissioner for Fife, and from 1681 to 1682 as a shire commissioner for Kinross. From April 1685 to May 1686 he reached the peak of his political career, as a member of the Privy Council of Scotland. But, in 1674, he became embroiled in factional rivalry between his patron Lauderdale, and his rivals the Duke of Hamilton and the Earl of Tweeddale. His actions, which apparently included passing information to Hamilton, invoked the fury of the Duchess of Lauderdale, who tried to persuade her husband to deprive Bruce of his offices. Bruce survived, although his relationship with his patron was damaged. Lauderdale described him as "the bitterest factionalist partie man of his quality in all Scotland". This breakdown resulted in Bruce's eventual dismissal as Surveyor General of the King's Works, on the false pretext that Holyroodhouse was finished.
Bruce's earnings from his offices had made him a wealthy man, even by the standards of his patrons. This wealth allowed him to purchase the Balcaskie estate in 1665, and to extend the house and gardens. In 1675 he purchased the larger estate of Loch Leven, Kinross, from the Earl of Morton, which brought him the hereditary sheriffdom of Kinross-shire. In the late 1670s Bruce took on his first architectural projects for entirely new houses.
Following the accession of James VII in 1685, Bruce gradually fell from favour, and was distrusted by the new regime. After the Revolution of 1688, and the accession of William of Orange as King, he was once again at odds with his Protestant rulers, and he refused to take up his seat in Parliament. As a staunch Episcopalian, Bruce was considered a potential Jacobite threat. In 1693 he was briefly imprisoned in Stirling Castle for refusing to appear before the Privy Council. He was incarcerated again at Stirling in 1694, and from 1696 in Edinburgh Castle. Bruce was expelled from parliament in 1702, his seat passing to his son John Bruce. Despite these imprisonments, he continued his architectural work, indeed the 1690s and 1700s were his most prolific years. Bruce was imprisoned at Edinburgh Castle again in 1708 and was only released a short time before his death, at the beginning of 1710. He was buried in the family plot at Kinross Kirk, the ruins of which still stand beside Kinross House.
Bruce's surviving account books show purchases of books on music, painting and horticulture, as well as numerous foreign-language works, suggesting that Bruce was a learned man. He studied horticulture extensively, and applied his knowledge of the subject in his own gardens at Kinross. He was a friend of James Sutherland of the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, and may have known John Evelyn and other English horticulturalists.
Around 1660 William Bruce married Mary Halkett, daughter of Sir James Halkett of Pitfirrane, Bt. They had two surviving children:
* Sir John Bruce, 2nd Baronet of Kinross, (before 1671 – 19 March
1710) married Christian Leslie, widow of the Marquess of Montrose and
daughter of the Duke of Rothes. He left no issue.
* Anne, upon whom Sir William had entailed his estates if her brother failed to leave issue. She married twice, with issue to both husbands.
After the death of his first wife, Sir William Bruce married Magdalen Scott, widow of an Edinburgh merchant called George Clerk, in 1700. They had no issue. Magdalen lived until 1752, and gained a reputation as a Jacobite, establishing a Jacobite cell at her home in Leith Citadel.