The estate of Cambo was first occupied by John De Cambo who, it is thought, received it as a Norman land grant from the King in the 12th or 13th century. It was acquired by the Lindsays at some point and then sold to Thomas Merton in 1620.
In 1668, Sir Charles Erskine, Bt (d. 1677), the Lord Lyon King of Arms and brother of the 3rd Earl of Kellie, purchased the property from the creditors of Patrick Merton. The estate passed through the Erskine family to the 5th Earl of Kellie, who forfeited his lands after supporting the Jacobite rising of 1745. In 1759 Cambo was sold to the Charteris family, who bought it for their son who was studying at St Andrews University.
Thomas Erskine, 9th Earl of Kellie (c. 1745–1828), bought the estate back in the 1790s. A successful merchant in Sweden, he invested heavily in improving the estate, building the picturesque Georgian estate farms, and carrying out extensive land drainage. He commissioned the architect Robert Balfour to remodel the house in 1795.
The Earl invested heavily in the estate and it is suspected that he is responsible for many of the handsome Georgian farmhouses with fanlights over their doors, the pantiled cattle buildings, the construction of the dykes and “condies” (streams buried in stone built channels) and Cambo Farm mill pond. One of these condies you can see, exposed as a water feature, running just beside the 16th & 18th green of Kingsbarns Golf Links.
The 9th Earl was married but had no heirs through his wife. However prior to his marriage he had a daughter, Anna Eglehart. He and his wife adopted all his daughter’s children and the eldest one of them became the first baronet of Cambo in 1821 as he was unable to get the knighthood transferred being illegitimate. Both the second and first baronets of Cambo were clearly keen golfers and captains of the Royal & Ancient golf club in St Andrews. Kingsbarns Golf Links clubhouse has their portraits hanging in the lobby.
The original house was destroyed by a fire in July 1878 after a particularly raucous staff party when the family was away. After 5 different designs of what could be built from the remains, architects Wardrop & Reid recommended the remains be knocked down and an entirely new design was suggested. The only instruction from their employer was to ensure that the house was bigger than Balbirnie, the family house of the Erskine's friends, the Balfours.
From around 1918 to 1945 the estate was run by the formidable Sir Thomas. So brave he’d “fight his own shadow” and so fearsome employees and children would stay well away. He would patrol the estate on horseback and break poachers’ guns before them. A prolific woodworker, Sir Thomas would single-handedly fell and process mature trees from around the estate for his production of carts, furniture and boats.
Sir David succeeded after WW2 and came back from the Far East to run the estate. Sir David and Ann Lady Erskine started letting parts of the house in the late 1940s and during the 50s and 60s had many tenants often associated with the university. Increasingly apartments were let to students from September to June with holidaymakers in July and August.
In 1976, Sir David handed the estate on to his eldest son, Peter, and his wife Catherine. By the mid 1990s letting to students had ceased and serious investment in upgrading the apartments took place before the Cambo of today was born.
Peter and Catherine have worked tirelessly to make Cambo house not just a successful accommodation business but to turn the estate and gardens into a community hub with the foundation of the Cambo Heritage Trust (LINK) charity and subsequent stables renovation into a first class visitor attraction with inclusivity and education as its guiding principles.
In 2015, the family started to move towards a new system of governance for the estate, one that focuses on their mission to maintain an estate that is open to all and do this in a way that prioritises community, sustainability and fun.
In 2016, Peter’s eldest son Struan and his wife Frances took over the running of the estate and built Cambo House's reputation as an unrivalled wedding venue.
During this time, the family have had some frank and uncomfortable discussions of how Cambo came to be and how the family became landowners. As a family we feel strongly that the systems of power that have led to just a few families owning the land should never be repeated.
In 2022, we shifted away from primogeniture and formed the Cambo Trust. At present, the Trust owns Cambo Estate and is guided by the the five principles of community, opportunity, sustainability, heritage and fun.
We’re not there yet, but we hope that by making these changes now, listening and adapting as we go, we will help to bring more voices, representation and equity to the future of this wonderful estate.