Sunday, 9 August 2015

The hidden life of Edinburgh's Muirhouse Mansion

Muirhouse Mansion today complete with classically  designed wheelie bins

If you proceed ( in the words of every comic policeman since the force was founded) from Cramond to Silverknowes beach then along Marine Drive as far as the Edinburgh Caravan Club you will see a large building opposite the club that should be a stately home and indeed has the name Muirside Mansion. It has been described as

"an extravagant Gothic Tudor Mansion built 1830-32, with a plethora of ornamental chimneys, windows and gables, full of Gothic detail, and is crowned by a battlemented tower."

The house is a relative newcomer, a mere infant but has already achieved the status of a listed building and is owned by the local council who rent it out. Like a retired sea captain it has an interesting history.


The name Muirhouse probably comes from the Scots for House by the Wardie Muir, a moor with a hint of wetness, since the word muir comes from Old English mōr meaning

barren open country, uncultivated heathery land considered part of an estate; a tract or expanse of heath; a peat moor; a tract of unenclosed common land held by a town or village; a market green[2]

and house also comes from Old English, which is known to have influenced the development of the Scots Language

Muirhouse seems to have started life as a hunting ground for Scottish royalty and may have been a royal residence. Around 1318 Robert the Bruce took some land in Kincardineshire from his loyal supporter Sir William Oliphant of Abergaldie and in compensation gave him the Muirhouse estate, along with nearby Cramond Regis (William's son Walter later married Bruce's daughter). Unfortunately there seems to be no image of this charter online so there is no clue, at least online, what the the estate was called then.

The Oliphants kept the estate for some 300 years. In 1616 the fifth Lord Oliphant sold it to a Judge, Sir William Oliphant of Newton who died in 1628 passing the property to his son Sir James Oliphant, who was also a judge (till he murdered his gardener). Sir James son James then became the owner but having learned bad habits from his father stabbed his mother to death then, sensibly, fled the country. We can infer the family may have been slightly dysfunctional, even by the standards of the time.

In 1630/31 an Edinburgh apothecary, William (or maybe John ) Hamilton, bought the estate: presumably James Oliphant needed the money more than the land. Doubtless there were grumbles from the old aristocracy of the area about Nouveau Riche vulgarians buying the property of decent folk.
William Hamilton sold the estate to John Denholm of Muirhouse whose son Robert sold it to on James Hunter around 1672. Hunter died bankrupt in 1697 and the creditors sold the barony of Muirhouse to an Edinburgh merchant called Robert Watson, and in 1776 debts forced his grandson, General (or perhaps Lieutenant-Colonel) Watson to sell it to William Davidson, a merchant trading in Rotterdam, who gave his name to nearby Davidson's Mains, formerly called Muttonhole.
Old Muirhouse when it was old, from
The Ancient and Modern state of the Parish of Cramond, 1794

Around 1670 the earliest recorded house, Old Muirhouse or Murrais or Murrize was built possibly on the site of an older castle and maybe using bits of it [1]. Who built it is unclear, though given the timeline Hunter must be the prime suspect, with Robert Denholm as a less likely candidate. Note that [4] gives the date of erection of the Mansion of Muirhouse as 1690 and says it was demolished to provide material for the present building. Admirable economy and doubtless ecologically sound but it may have been better not to build the present Mansion.

An engraving from 1794 shows what may be an L-plan tower house, extended to the north with a three storey wing flanked by narrow round towers. It was approached by avenues from the west, north and east, each lined with old oaks, limes and other trees. The main approach was that from the east, where there were gateposts topped off with griffins.
Old Muirhouse was demolished around 1832 or 1833, following the building of a new Muirhouse nearby for Captain William Davidson. The two circular stair towers from the old house were still to be seen as ruins within the garden until they were demolished in 1950 (some say 1954) on safety grounds. The griffin gate pillars were demolished around 1960 by someone with no sense of history or aesthetics. Doubtless a council official since this species seems to have had these qualities surgically removed.
Nothing now remains, and the site of Old Muirhouse lies under Muirhouse Parkway, which was once the eastern driveway to the old house.

The building of new Muirhouse was not without friction[5]. In his autobiography, something all modest people are obliged to write, he wrote of the overseer of the work, a Mr Bell

'In the course of some time I found, but to my great displeasure that the said contractor was actually a very near relation of the architect, who (the contractor) turned out to be, what people call, a complete rascal, - a cheat, - a drunkard, - and, finally, a cut throat, - having patriotically cut his own, and thus dispatching himself, defrauded the hangman'.
There are some indications that William Davidson, having gone bankrupt, staged his suicide by drowning in 1834, but no real evidence for this. It seems that, from around 1660 to 1834 Muirhouse was steadily contributing to bankrupting its owners. In 1870 the house passed to the Earl of Morton.
In 1953 most of the Estate was sold, apparently to the local council. The Griffin topped gates were demolished in 1960. Much of the estate became a notorious council estate such that employers reflexively rejected candidates from the Muirhouse council estate. In 2002 there were plans to turn it into a company headquarters, rather than letting the A-Listed building fall into disrepair.
Wrapping up
This preliminary investigation of the history behind an unremarkable listed building has shown a period from the mid seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century where the house seems to have forced its transfer to new owners by bankrupting them.

Old Muirhouse is gone but mentions of an  even older castle are intriguing, like the older castle seen on old maps of Heidelberg in Germany and suggest a continuity of occupation perhaps going back to Robert the Bruce, but more research is needed. Unfortunately any archaeological evidence is buried under Muirhouse Parkway and records of any rescue excavation are buried in archives somewhere.

The original name of the estate is unclear but something that sounded like Muir House is probable given the influence of Old English on the development of the Scots language.
Today the Mansion is largely disregarded but is said still to boast a large redwood tree in the gardens (assuming the council have not had it demolished). Pictures of the towers and the Griffin topped gates can be found in reference [6] which has mentions of a tunnel leading to the Mansion and a well, now probably lost. Legends of tunnels are common in connection with old buildings so for now this can be taken as folklore rather than fact.
And all this from a staid old dowager of a building.