History of the house: Bowhead House

The West Bow used to be the main entrance to the city of Edinburgh from the West. After passing through the Grassmarket the zigzag road climbed steeply to the Lawnmarket and the Castle. The tenement at the top was long known as the Old Bowhead or Bow Head House.

When the Town Council drew up plans for a new road, the middle section of the West Bow was demolished to make way for it. The new Victoria Street was established in 1829 cutting across the former West Bow and connecting George IV Bridge to the Grassmarket.

The West Bow, from the Lawnmarket by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, 1829

Bowhead House stood firm at the top of the Bow and had many occupants during its long life, some of whom will remain unknown as there are few records available.

The Thomas Nelson bookshop and publishing company have connections with the site. Under the original name of Thomas Neilson, the company began by selling second-hand books before expanding into publishing. The firm was sited at the West Bow for many years, where they even incorporated an image of Bowhead House within their publisher’s imprint. The business moved to custom-built premises in Edinburgh’s southside around 1845.

Edinburgh company, William Waugh, who have been involved in the recycling industry since the middle of the 19th century, were at Bowhead House around 1870.

J Waugh’s Woolen and Rag Store, Lawnmarket and head of West Bow, c1870

Bowhead House had survived the changes to the road layouts round about it, but was demolished in 1878-79. The demolition is described in James Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh:
“One of the finest specimens of the wooden-fronted houses of 1540 was on the south side of the Lawnmarket and was standing all unchanged after the lapse of more than 338 years, till its demolition in 1878-9.”

West Bow, Bowhead House (demolished) c1878

The Scotsman edition of 8 February 1878 also noted the demise of the distinctive ‘inverted pyramid’ building:
“… in a few days modern improvement will lay its remorseless hand upon the well known tenement at the corner of West Bow and Lawnmarket. This latter house whose gables and eaves are richly carved has long been regarded as a most characteristic relic of old Edinburgh. Its quaint timber framed facade, irregular dovecot gables and projecting windows have been a favourite subject of study alike for the architect and artist’.

Head of the Bow and the Lawnmarket, c1950

Have you ever thought about investigating the history of your home? Edinburgh Libraries has many online resources and physical collections to help you!

Get in touch via informationdigital@edinburgh.gov.uk if you want to find out how to get started.

Read other articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Nicolson Square and Marshall Street
History of the house: White Horse Close
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket
History of the house: Stockbridge Colonies
History of the house: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: North British Hotel

5 thoughts on “History of the house: Bowhead House

  1. On my grandfather’s birth certificate it says that he was born at 100 West Bow in 1888. His mother didn’t live there but I can’t find out why he would have been born there. Was there a midwife living there? I have checked the 1881 census and don’t recognise any names. Is there anywhere I can find information on the history of this building? His mother’s maiden name was Hamilton and we believe his father’s name was Waterston.

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    • Hello Frank
      Thanks for getting in touch. We can have a little look at this for you and see if we can come up with some suggestions.
      Can you give us your grandfather’s full name? And if possible, his mother’s full name?
      Thank you

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      • My grandfather’s full name on his birth certificate is Francis Waterston Hamilton, his mother’s name was Margaret Hoy Hamilton. My grandfather was born 12th February 1888.
        Thanks

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  2. Really interesting. used to live across the road from this place and loved the stairs to the west Bow. As a childplayed in James’s Court.

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