In the 1540s, Henry VIII mounted a military campaign to intimidate the Scots into agreeing to the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to Henry’s son, Edward. Henry’s troops had instructions to ‘put all to fire and sword’. This so-called ‘rough wooing’ did not succeed but at the beginning of the 1600s, the city of Edinburgh was still recovering from the damage caused by the English forces.
The land available for building was constrained by the city walls and the answer was to build upwards, resulting in buildings of 8 to 12 storeys appearing on the slopes down to the walls. During the 1600s, the city also had a series of major fires and in 1700 a huge fire in Parliament Close spread up the High Street destroying some 15 storey buildings.
At the same time, the population was increasing and the demand for housing was rising. In 1700, Edinburgh had some 25,000 citizens, a populace which grew to 50,000 by the middle of the century and to over 80,000 by 1800. (To give some contemporary context to these numbers, Murrayfield Stadium can accommodate 67,000 people.)
Many of the old houses were in a state of collapse, streets and closes were dirty and in need of maintenance. New regulations were introduced to widen and improve entry to the closes and wood could no longer be used for the framework of buildings. The Council used its powers of compulsory purchase to acquire land for new developments. They intended to imitate the style of one of the Old Town’s more desirable locations: Milne’s Court.
Milne’s (or Mylnes) Court was built in 1690 by Robert Milne of Balfarg, the Royal Master Mason, and the 7th member of his family to hold the title. The development had an open central court instead of narrow closes and was the first of its kind in Edinburgh. (You can see the date 1690 above the entry to the court from the Lawnmarket.)
At the time the building was an example of the best in desirable accommodation and the 1694 Poll Tax return indicates that many of the residents were middle-class professionals. James Court, built between 1723 and 1727 by James Brownhill was intended to imitate the style of neighbouring Milnes Court, offering exclusive apartments round a courtyard.
Some Milne’s Court residents of that time also have a connection with the ill-fated Darien Company. In the 1690s, Scots were buying goods from the East valued in today’s prices at more than £10 million. Seven residents, James Balfour, Merchant, Cunningham, Solicitor, McLurgg and Allan, Deans of Guild, Alexander Gibson and Milne, and James Byers in 1695 were among the original investors in the Darien Company to trade with Africa and the Indies from Panama. The venture, however, was doomed from the start due to a lack of knowledge of the requirements to operate in the region. A mixture of inadequate supplies, tropical diseases, hostile local tribes and Blockades by the English and Spanish Navies resulted in the total collapse of the Company. The failure had a severe effect on the Scottish economy which was reduced by around 25%.
However, by the mid 1800s, Milne’s Court had lost its middle-class residents and was a far less desirable place to live. The last person of rank to be recorded as living at Milne’s Court was Lady Isabella Douglas in 1861. The 1871 Census described it as ‘a densely populated square… very dirty’.
If we examine part of the Public Census for 1901, around the time the above photograph was taken, we discover how diverse the occupants were. Looking at 17 of the properties at no. 1 Milne’s Court, 14 have only one outside window while the other three have two.
The ages of the residents vary from 8 months to 72 years. There 22 males and 29 females. Looking at a few of the residents in more detail –
Marie Balie (22) and her sister Catherine (18) live together with no other family members and work at a cone factory.
Jane Williamson is a widow aged 67 living alone and she works as a hardware hawker.
George Mackay (34) lives with his wife Caroline (31) and children, Thomas (7), George (4), and Catherine (1). He is a furnace man.
Margaret McGabie (46) a widow lives with her daughter (19) and a boarder Annie Warrington (20). Margaret and Annie are rubber shoe makers and Mary is a machinist in the rubber industry.
William Tullis (56) is a house painter living with his wife Isabella (49). The members of their family are Robert (22), a plasterer, George (20), a vanman and Isabella (17) a painter’s machine girl, John (15), a message boy and Agnes (12 ), a scholar.
Andrew Jack (68), a self employed vermin exterminator lives with his wife Helen (64) and two boarders, James Tait (16), a message boy and James Logue (7), a scholar who was born in Lanark.
The state of the buildings continued to worsen and in 1960 the City Engineer declared the north-east part to be unsafe and issued a 21 day warning for its demolition.
The University of Edinburgh expressed an interest in acquiring the building leading to plans to stabilise it being drawn up and passed by the Council Planning Committee in only 10 days. Aided by donations from Harold Salvesen and Philip Henman, Milne’s Court was restored as student accommodation which opened in 1969 and remains as such today.
Read more articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Bowhead house
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: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: North British Hotel
Are you interested in discovering the history of your home? The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection at Central Library has a vast collection of material which can help you.