William Nicholson’s portraits

A selection of celebrated personalities of the early 1800s (men, that is) sit for their portraits in a publication of etchings and engravings by William Nicholson (1781 – 1844) which makes up our latest Capital Collections exhibition.

It is notable that all the portraits are of men and this reflects attitudes towards the female sex during the early 1800s which precluded recognition of their contribution towards society and opportunities for women to gain an education and take up significant positions in Scotland. Our historic collections in Edinburgh Libraries reflect these attitudes and have impacted the make-up of our collections dating from the past.

Nicholson’s series comes with the somewhat grand title of Portraits of Distinguished Living Characters of Scotland, and although William Nicholson began the series in 1818, no date is given for this particular volume.

It’s a large book. The pages are embossed either from the typesetting or the prints, the endpapers are marbled, and the corners are rounded and worn. Usually it sits on a shelf in a closed access area of Central Library – down the back stairs, around a few corners – a companion to the darkness, dust and a lot of quiet.

Walter Scott, an etching and engraving by the artist William Nicholson

William Nicholson was born on Christmas day, 1781, in Northumberland. He was a painter and printmaker (not to be confused with the later William Nicholson (1872 – 1949), also a painter and printmaker), and he spent his early life predominantly in Newcastle and Hull. In Newcastle he studied in the studio of the Italian, Boniface Muss (or Musso); in Hull he painted miniatures – and around 1814 he moved to Edinburgh. By 1820 he was well settled there, and remained in the city for the rest of his life.

The prints use both the techniques of etching and engraving in the same image (etching is the chemical process of eating into the metal plate so that a groove is created for the ink to sit in; engraving uses only tools, without a chemical process, to change the surface of the plate). Especially at the edges of the pictures, it’s easy to see the looser marks of William Nicholson’s etching needle as opposed to his engraving tools.

For his subjects, he drew from his own paintings and from those of other artists’. Robert Burns, for example, is drawn from the famous Alexander Nasmyth painting (1787) in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collections; Henry Raeburn from his self-portrait (painted just prior to, or in, 1815, and is also held by the Galleries). And throughout the volume other Enlightenment heroes sit for their portraits, some with accompanying biographical text, some without.

Robert Burns, an etching and engraving by the artist William Nicholson

As well as his work as an artist, William Nicholson was instrumental in the founding and establishing of the Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which we now know as the Royal Scottish Academy. In 1826 he was elected its first secretary, and this involvement was something for which he was well-regarded at the time.

Have a browse on our exhibition on Capital Collections for a closer look at the pictures.

History of the house: Cammo House

In 1977, a fire ripped through Cammo House and the house that had been in disrepair for many years, was sadly no more.

Built in 1693 by John Menzies of Cammo, the house had over the years built up a strange and mysterious story.

It had seen many owners through the years, each making additions to the house. One of the owners was brewer Alexander Campbell whose city residence was number 6 Charlotte Square, now Bute House, the official residence of Scotland’s First Minister.

Over the years he would go on to collect memberships to the boards of various organisations in the city including being made an ordinary director of the Commercial Bank of Scotland in 1851.

Alexander Campbell died on 12th June 1887 at Cammo House, his retreat on the edge of the city near Cramond which his beer fortune had enabled him to purchase.

In the 1900s it had been bought by the Clark family. Margaret Louisa Tennent was born in Edinburgh in 1859. She married David Bennet Clark in 1887. Their first son Robert was born in 1892 and his brother Percival in 1898. By 1900 there was trouble in the marriage and they later divorced in 1910. When Margaret’s father died in 1891 his estate was valued at £80,000 (which equates to £10 million in 2020) Her father Robert Tennent had accumulated his fortune from sheep farming in Australia. When her mother died in 1914, her will stated that the trust set up by her father was to be left to Margaret.

After separating from her husband in 1909, Mrs Clark, continued to live at Cammo with her son Percy and adopted the name Maitland-Tennent. She dismissed almost all the staff and rented a portion of the estate to Cramond Brig Golf Club, moving herself and Percy into a caravan nearby. She left behind a house full of valuable paintings and antiques.

Stories began to spread about the family, with Mrs Maitland-Tennent being called by locals the Black Widow, as she was only ever seen being driven in a black car, on regular visits to the bank in Davidson’s Mains.

In 1955, Mrs Maitland-Tennent died aged 95, and was buried under the lawn to the west side of the house. After she died, her estate was estimated to be £500,000.

Between 1955 and 1975 Percy lived in a farmhouse located near the main gate. The farmhouse was home to the tenant farmers a Mr and Mrs Little, who looked after him and cooked his meals.

Cammo Tower – 1960

Percy stayed on becoming more and more of a recluse, only being seen with his pack of dogs that were given free run of the house. Cammo House was deteriorating fast, and the furniture and floors were collapsing.

Over the next few years Cammo suffered several break-ins where paintings and silver were stolen.

Percy died in 1975 and is buried in the family plot in Dean Cemetery. The estate was passed on through his will to the National Trust for Scotland. In 1977 Cammo House was destroyed by fire and in 1980, the NTS feud the estate to the district council. By this time, it was so severely damaged that most of the house was demolished.

In 1980, Cammo Estate became the UK’s first Wilderness Park and was handed over to the public in an official ceremony involving representatives of the National Trust, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, the local MP and local residents.

Although little remains of the house itself, one remainder of Cammo House still remains, the early 19th century fresh water tower built to supply water to the house.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Cammo Estate nowadays, visit Friends of Cammo.

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: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: North British Hotel


Ashlea House in the Borders

We’d like to introduce you to a unique set of images we have in our collection, made available to view on Capital Collections.

The images are taken in the grounds of Ashlea House in Stow, in the Borders. Ashlea House was the summer home of the well-known Edinburgh bookseller, James Thin. Born in Edinburgh in 1824, he served as an apprentice to bookseller James McIntosh who had a shop at 5 North College Street. In 1848 he founded the book shop that bore his name. Situated on South Bridge, opposite the University’s Old College, Thin’s was the main academic bookshop in Edinburgh for 150 years, remaining in the same family until 2002 when it was taken over by Blackwells.

Ashlea House, Stow – c1910

In 1849 he married Catherine Traquair and they had seven sons. Catherine died in 1869 aged 47. In 1870, James Thin purchased a plot of land in Stow in the Scottish Borders, and had a house built, which was completed in 1873 and named Ashlea.
In 1885, at the age of 61 he married a farmer’s daughter Elizabeth Darling who died in 1905. James Thin died on 15th April 1915 at his Edinburgh home in Lauder Road aged 91.

James Thin in the garden of Ashlea House – c1910

The images gathered her are all autochromes, a type of early colour photography which gives the pictures a beautiful painterly quality. Autochrome was patented in 1903 by the Lumiere Brothers in France and first marketed in 1907. Before then colour photography remained in its infancy and the process was clumsy and complicated. Their new technology quickly took the world by storm to become the first viable method of creating images in colour.

Stow Parish Church and Ashlea House – c1910

Stereoscopic Autochromes were especially popular. Usually of a small size, they were most commonly viewed in a small hand-held box type stereoscope. Having made the Autochrome Lumiere technique portable the brothers’ invention meant photographers could travel all over the world capturing images of cultures never seen in colour before.

Garden of Ashlea House – c1910

We hope you enjoy the few images we have featured here, to see the complete set, visit the exhibition on Capital Collections.

The house that Jack built

Capital Collections provides a window into Edinburgh Libraries’ Special Collections and gives the public opportunity to view photographs, illustrations and books in a manner that makes them much more accessible to a wider audience. The latest Capital Collections exhibition displays a digitised view of one such special book, ‘The house that Jack built’ brimming with gorgeous, colourful images by the celebrated artist Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886). This book, along with several others by the artist, was created with children in mind and its style became synonymous with Victorian children’s literature, a period considered the ‘golden age’ for this genre of books.

The House that Jack Built, front cover

Despite his relatively short life time, Caldecott’s work is considered to have been transformative in the nature of children’s books and illustration in the Victorian era with his influence still resonating today. Caldecott is considered part of the influential ‘nursery triumvirate’, along with Walter Crane and Kate Greenway. Following the popularity of these authors it became the norm for children’s books to be dominated by image over text.

The work showcased in this exhibition is the first in a collection of books originally published in 1878. The book tells the story of the goings on in and around a country house built by Jack with a myriad of delightful characters making appearances. His illustrations were exercised with a manner of humour and full of life, reflecting his own personality. His images, although often not predominantly meant to make a person laugh, are extremely entertaining and good fun. Stylistically, ‘The house that Jack built’ is written in the form of a cumulative tale. This is when a tale is told by repeating dialogue that builds up to allow the story to progress. As a cumulative tale it does not tell the story of Jack’s house, or even of Jack who built the house, but instead shows how the house is indirectly linked to other things and people, and through this method tells the story of “The man all tattered and torn” and the “Maiden all forlorn” as well as other smaller events, showing how these are interlinked. ‘The house that Jack built’ became a world renowned piece of work, referenced in both political satire and popular culture.

“This is the Cat,
That killed the Rat”
from ‘The house that Jack built’

The Capital Collections exhibition attempts to highlight the brilliance and vibrancy of Caldecott’s work. His ability to express true meaning and subtleties of thought through primarily image and minimal text is something of great admiration and ‘The house that Jack built’ is a perfect example of this. The delightful style and bright colourful images in this book are full of life and can be enjoyed by young and old alike, those with an interest in the history of children’s illustration and those who simply appreciate Caldecott’s artistic style. The exhibition’s accompanying text provides a little more detail into the message of the image and the artist in question, although the images are so detailed and charming that they can be enjoyed and admired just as they are.

Browse all the pages from this delightful Victorian illustrated children’s book on Capital Collections.

Blair’s Edinburgh Views

Our current exhibition on Capital Collections is a collection of atmospheric scenes of late 19th century Edinburgh landmarks and landscapes, taken from watercolour paintings by artist John Blair.

The Old Town from the Waverley Bridge

The images are taken from a volume of loose lithographic prints dated 1892 which were printed in Paris and published by Aitken Dott of Castle Street. Many of the pictures contain moonlight or fading light and evocative weather conditions. The views are scenes of Edinburgh’s famous streets populated with typical residents of the time or picture postcard vistas looking from different geographic points towards the city’s famous skyline.

There is one picture however, which sits apart from the rest. It is a view of the Scott Monument looking east along Princes Street. The street characters seem in this view more defined and there are three men walking in a line towards the viewer each wearing sandwich board advertisements. On closer inspection, the signs are promoting a Castle Street exhibition of watercolours by John Blair – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the artist himself and his publishers.

The Scott Monument and Princes Street

View the full set of thirteen plates on Capital Collections.

History of the house: Falcon Hall

Continuing our History of the House series, we move a wee bit out of the city centre and travel south to Morningside. The house (rather a large one) is Falcon Hall. Built in 1780 by Edinburgh hosier and future Lord Provost, William Coulter. Originally called Morningside Lodge, it stood in what was then the Canaan Estate.

Falcon Hall ,1907

Coulter was born in Edinburgh in 1754 and had a house and shop at the head of Jackson’s Close on the Royal Mile. As well as serving as a Dean of Guild from 1806, he was also Lord Provost between 1808 and 1810, dying in office at the age of 56. He was by all accounts something of a character. When he died he was honoured with a public funeral. A look in our resource the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) features a page from the Scots Magazine from 1820 describing the funeral procession, with the 1st Regiment of Royal Volunteers leading the funeral procession “firing three vollies over the grave while the earth was putting on”.

Following Coulter’s death, the house was bought by Alexander Falconar. At one time a Chief Secretary to the Governor of Madras, Alexander settled with his family in Edinburgh in 1811, on his retirement from colonial service. In 1814, he bought Morningside Lodge, and nine acres of land surrounding it, and with the help of architect Thomas Hamilton, refurbished and enlarged it, renaming it Falcon Hall. Featuring elaborately styled wrought iron and stone piers, with large stone falcons, they were a magnificent sight to behold. Life-sized statues of Nelson and Wellington – both immensely popular figures of the era – flanked the main entrance to the house itself.

Falcon Hall , interior 1907

Searching Find My Past we can see that the first recorded Census taken on 6 June 1841, finds Alexander and his five daughters living in Falcon Hall, together with his son-in-law Henry Craigie, husband of the only married daughter, Jessie. Alexander’s wife, Elizabeth had died in 1831.

The census also records that Falcon Hall, had 1 male and 6 female servants, a conventional number at that time for a gentleman of Alexander Falconar’s wealth and social status. Alexander continued to live at Falcon Hall until his death on 10 December 1847.

As Morningside began to change and develop over the course of the 19th century, so did the fortunes of Falcon Hall. The gate pillars and falcons were removed in 1874 and repositioned on the slopes of Corstorphine Hill where they form the entrance to Edinburgh Zoo. The house remained in the Falconar family ownership until the death of his last surviving daughter, Margaret in 1887. It lay empty for a while before reappearing as a boarding school and ladies’ college.

Edinburgh Zoo gates showing falcon from Falcon Hall

The last inhabitant of Falcon Hall was Dr John George Bartholomew, a co-founder of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and the owner of the map making company John Bartholomew & Son Limited. John enjoyed close acquaintance with many leading academics and travellers of the time, including Ernest Shackleton, Henry Stanley, and Cecil Rhodes, working with many of them to represent their work and discoveries in map form.

George lived in Falcon Hall with his family from 1899 to 1907 before it was demolished in 1909. When John Bartholomew & Co moved from premises in Dalkeith Road to an entirely new building in Duncan Street in 1911, the entire facade of Falcon Hall was transported from Morningside and re-erected in Duncan Street along with the entrance hall and staircase gallery with ornamental bronze balustrade which once formed part of the Morningside mansion house. Another feature is the domed roof which is ornamented with four great sculptured falcons.

Facade of Falcon Hall used in the building of John Bartholomew and Co, Duncan Street

The name Falcon was subsequently given to the Morningside streets later developed on the property’s former site.

You can discover more about Duncan Street, home to the Bartholomew mapmaking firm from the National Library of Scotland’s Duncan Street Explorer website.

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.

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: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: North British Hotel
History of the house: Cammo House

A Day in a Child’s Life

Tucked away backstage, in a room in Central Library, is a copy of Kate Greenaway’s A Day in a Child’s Life. It’s an illustrated children’s song book with page after page of quaint colour wood engravings from the 19th century (the book was first published in 1881).

‘A Day in a Child’s Life’, an illustrated children’s song book

The pictures are quintessentially delicate and gentle. They skip along, lightly, gracefully; and every child that Kate Greenaway drew – and she drew many all through the book –  she drew them in historical costume, historical costume for the time, that is. The costumes date from decades before, from the early 19th century and Regency-era.

Playtime, an illustrated page from ‘A Day in a Child’s Life’

Kate Greenaway’s mother owned a millinery shop in Islington and the shop later developed into a ladies’ outfitters. Kate Greenaway, not unsurprisingly, learnt to sew, and she began to make the costumes for her child models to wear. Her illustrations were such a success that Liberty’s, the London department store, even introduced a line of children’s clothing based on them.

Behind the millinery shop was a garden, which as a child Kate Greenaway spent many hours in, and her pictures, as well as featuring children, feature flowers. Flowers drawn with thought and detail, picked and placed like a florist might for the best composition. Slim-leaved daffodils look particularly tall and upright beside a line of standing children, hands behind their backs; and in another illustration, big-faced sunflowers stand like shining suns to either side of a child (who has a head of golden curls) and is just about to wake up…  There was big public interest in flowers in Victorian times, floral dictionaries were enjoying a boom, and a few years later, in 1884, Kate Greenaway’s own The Language of Flowers became very popular.

Introductory image for ‘A Day in a Child’s Life’, an illustrated children’s song book

In terms of its production, A Day in a Child’s Life, was at the forefront of Victorian printing. It was engraved and printed by Edmund Evans, (who printed books by other illustration greats including Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott). He was pre-eminent in his work, pushing forward printing technologies by using a woodblock technique known as chromoxylography, and printing toy books and picture books that filled the floors of Victorian nurseries. It was also Edmund Evans’ nephew, Miles Birket Foster, who wrote the music for the song book.

Kate Greenaway, who has given her name to our own contemporary illustration award, the Kate Greenaway Medal, has been an influential figure in illustration. The artist and critic John Ruskin wrote of her:

“The fairyland that she creates for you is not beyond the sky nor beneath sea, but near you, even at your own doors. She does but show you how to see it”.

They were friends, John Ruskin and Kate Greenaway, and their correspondence with each other lasted until Ruskin’s death in 1900.

Do have a look on our Capital Collections exhibition to browse over more of these wonderful pictures.

History of the House: Melbourne Place

Today the site is occupied by a bank and a hotel, but step back nearly 200 years and the corner of George IV Bridge was very different. For one thing it was called Melbourne Place, named after the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, who was Prime Minister from 1835-41.

Melbourne Place and Victoria Terrace

Searching through copies of Post Office directories, which are available from our Edinburgh and Scottish Collection within Central Library, we can see that it was home to various businesses including in 1837, Alex Ferguson, Wholesale Confectionery and Lozenge Manufactory, who had its premises at Number 1 and 2. As well as making various confections ranging from medicated lozenges and boiled sugar sweets, it was there that the famous Edinburgh Rock was manufactured. Packaged in tartan boxes and different from the normal lettered Blackpool Rock, it had a crumbly texture and came in various pastel colours.

Another well-known name appears in the 1846-47 Post Office Directory, Kennington and Jenner. One of the other resources available to library users is Findmypast. In the 1851 Census, in number 7, the head of the household is listed as a Charles Jenner, unmarried aged 40 and stating his occupation as a Draper Master employing 35 men, 28 women and 9 boys. We know that when fire destroyed the original Jenner’s Department store in 1892 there were around 120 people employed by the firm who were housed on the premises. Was this an earlier “boarding house” for employees? Listed in the Census, together at the property with Charles was a Housekeeper, a House Porter, a Chambermaid, a Table Maid, a cook and 30 Drapers Assistants!

Demolition of Melbourne Place

By 1852 The Royal Medical Society had taken over number 7 Melbourne Place. The RMS was formally constituted in 1737, providing a meeting place for medical students with the purpose of enhancing their education, and flourished in its educational and social provision. Its contribution to medicine was recognised with the awarding of a Royal Charter 1778. It remains the only student society in the United Kingdom to have attained this distinction. The Society retained its position at number 7 until 1965 when the buildings on Melbourne Place were demolished to make room for office buildings of the Midlothian County Council.

Lothian Regional Council Chambers from Victoria Terrace

In 1975 the building became Lothian Regional Council Chambers and when Lothian Region was dismantled in 1996 the building was taken over by the City of Edinburgh Council, and provided a temporary home for the Scottish Parliament from 1999 until 2004. This building was demolished in 2007 to make way for a new Missoni Hotel (now Radisson Collection Hotel) complex and the largest Bank of Scotland branch in Edinburgh together with two Royal Mile shops and a Pizza Express restaurant.

Hotel at corner of George IV bridge and Victoria Street

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.

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: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: North British Hotel
History of the house: Cammo House

Mary Webster – watercolour views of Scottish travels

Girls and young women of upper class families of the 18th century didn’t usually learn domestic or academic skills but were coached in what were known as ‘accomplishments’.

These would be learned either at boarding school or from a resident governess. In Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, the snobbish Caroline Bingley lists the skills required by any young lady who considers herself accomplished:
“A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages…”

During the 19th century both landscape painting, as a subject matter, and the medium of watercolour became a popular pastime and were included in the Royal Academy and Royal Scottish Academy summer exhibitions. Queen Victoria’s interest in watercolour made the practice attractive to both professionals and amateurs and another suitable artistic accomplishment for a refined young woman.

Glen Rosa, Isle of Arran, 1836

By the mid 19th century, transportation was getting much easier with the railway network flourishing. By 1852 there was 7,000 miles of rail track in England and Scotland. With the advent of the railway, there was in turn, the need for accommodation. During the Victorian era, when you stepped out of a railway station in any self-respecting town or city, the first building you would set eyes upon would be the railway hotel, providing a relatively safe option for a young woman travelling alone.

We have a fine collection of watercolour paintings by a woman named Mary Webster which span the period 1824 to 1863. She seems to have greatly enjoyed travelling Scotland and further afield sketching her adventures. Sadly, despite exhaustive searches we have been unable to find out much about Mary’s life, other than the few clues that are contained in the pictures themselves.

‘Views from Nature’ by Mary Webster (title page)

One of our volunteers, John, began the search to find out more. There was a short entry in The Dictionary of Scottish Art and Architecture which stated that her work had been exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy. However, searching the RSA Exhibitors Catalogues from 1830 to 1860 failed to turn up any trace of Mary and we were unable to verify this assertion.

He discovered that Reading Museum also hold a painting by Mary – A naïve view of the ruins of Reading Abbey’ – but they hadn’t been able to find out any more about the elusive Mary Webster either.

By looking through our collection of paintings, John created a timeline of Mary’s work tracing her movements from her paintings. The dates of the paintings and pencil drawings date from 1824 to 1863 and the majority of the paintings had been bound together in an album titled Views from Nature. 1830 was a particularly busy time for Mary as 44 are credited to that year alone! Of the 150 paintings in the collection, all but 9 feature Scottish views. Her painting travels took her far and wide, including to the Borders, Perthsire, Fife, the Highlands and Dublin. We don’t know if Mary was Scottish, or whether she simply enjoyed taking artistic tours of Scotland. A lady in a red dress appears in many of the watercolours, sometimes even sketching, could this be a companion or even a representation of Mary herself?

Dublin from the Phoenix Park, 1833

Apart from one painting dated 1845, there is a gap in Mary’s timeline of 17 years between 1830 and the next batch of paintings covering 1847 to 1863. In that 17 years, was her time spent bringing up a family? Or is there perhaps another collection hidden somewhere else?

Ruins of St Andrew’s Castle, 1863

The last year for our paintings is 1863 attached to two watercolours done of St Andrews. By that time 39 years had elapsed since the first batch in 1824 and by then she would probably have been in her mid to late 50s at least. Mary Webster has left little trace of the detail of her life, but she has left a remarkable record of 19th century Scottish scenes and locations still popular and recognizable today.

You can view the full collection of Mary’s paintings on Capital Collections.

Libraries Week focus: Capital Collections

Where can you find a Dalek alongside The Fonz?

A record of the changing face of the city and a view of the castle from all angles?

Or a teddy bear named Gilmour and a half-completed Scott Monument?

Family histories and sporting moments?

Vintage children’s book illustrations and a priceless Japanese scroll?

Fashion tips from the Georgian Lady’s Monthly Museum and a pair of early eighties platform shoes?

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And quite possibly, the best online collection of photographs of old Edinburgh?

You’ll find all this and much more on Capital Collections, Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries online image library. There are over 20,000 digitized images and dozens of online exhibitions to explore. What will you find?


History of the house: Milne’s Court

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.

Perspective view of the Castle and City of Edinburgh, with the towns of Leith, Burntisland and Kinghorn. (Click to zoom in.)

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.)

Milne’s Court, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, c1910

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’.

Entrance to Milne’s Court, Lawnmarket, c1903. On the left of the picture above, taken at the entrance to Milne’s Court, is Blake and Co., a plumbers and gasfitters at no. 519 Lawnmarket and on the other side is J. Gilchrist, greengrocer at no. 515.

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
History of the house: Cammo House

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.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry

Our latest Capital Collections exhibition showcases a wonderful collection of photographs of The Craigmillar Steam Laundry.

Initially formed as the Edinburgh Steam Laundry Company, when a property was bought in West Craigmillar on West Saville Terrace, the laundry opened in July 1883 as the Craigmillar Steam Laundry.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry, Edinburgh – ironing and finishing department

By 1891 the laundry was handling over 30,000 articles of clothing a week. It was described as “the largest, best arranged, and most perfectly equipped establishment of its kind in Scotland”. The laundry used state of the art equipment including steam driven washing machines and hydro extractors which were a type of spin drier. In addition to cleaning, ironing, and finishing the clothes, the laundry dealt with a whole range of materials including carpets and curtains. All finished goods were dispatched in the company’s horse drawn vans. By the late nineteenth century, the laundry employed over 130 people.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry, Edinburgh – delivery cart

As the twentieth century progressed, the company began buying up other laundries, and the original Craigmillar site was redeveloped. In 1951 the company took over the Caledonian Laundry, and in 1958 opened a petrol station on the Craigmillar site, which was later followed by a car showroom in 1960.

By the early 1970s the company had 6 laundries around the Edinburgh area all using automatic coin operated machines.

Craigmillar Steam Laundry, Edinburgh

The West Saville Terrace property was sold in 1978, and the remaining buildings were let to their tenants as the company became a property letting agency. The company was then sold to Cala Homes in 1986.

View the full collection of images of this remarkable snapshot into past working lives on Capital Collections.

Stepping out exhibition from Museums and Galleries collections

Slip on your dancing shoes and head to Capital Collections where over a hundred years of footwear are explored in a new exhibition…

The Museum of Edinburgh curated exhibition, Stepping Out: Shoes from the collection of Museums & Galleries Edinburgh uses shoes from the City’s important costume collection to tell people’s stories. Nights on the dancefloor, days in the factory, serving the City and working for your country are all explored through twelve extraordinary pairs of shoes.

Pictures of these evocative shoes are now available to view in an online exhibition on Capital Collections. The shoes date from the 1870s to the 1980s, and include infants’ bootees, children’s fashionable boots, men’s and women’s glamorous evening styles and Women’s Land Army issue lace-ups.

Men’s platform shoes, Schuh, early 1980s

The earliest pair of shoes in the exhibition are a pair of glazed blue leather women’s slippers with silk rosettes, which date from the 1870s. Made in France, they would have been the height of indoor chic. Their use of natural materials and hand craftsmanship is contrasted by a pair of patent plastic knee high boots from the 1960s, which exemplify a move towards synthetic materials and high fashion styles. Their yellow and black colourway and stacked heels conjure up images of London girls dressed in Mary Quant mini skirts.

Girl’s plastic knee-high boots, 1960s

The Stepping out exhibition will appeal to those with an interest in fashion history, local Edinburgh history buffs, or anyone who’s ever had a favourite pair of shoes.

Unfortunately, the costume gallery at the Museum of Edinburgh is currently closed for essential maintenance work. Please keep an eye on www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk for information on its reopening and when you can view these fabulous footwear in person.

Edinburgh Festival, 1949

We’ve published some wonderful pictures of the early days of the festival on Capital Collections. This mini-exhibition is a set of black and white promotional images dated 1949, when the festival was still in its infancy.

In 1947, following the devastation of World War Two, the International Festival of Music and Drama in Edinburgh aimed to unite people through a shared experience of art and culture, to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. The city staged a major international cultural event, showcasing first-rate performances of classical music, dance, opera and theatre.

Since this time, the original festival has grown and flourished and spawned and inspired other festivals held during August and throughout the year.

Seventy years later, Edinburgh continues to welcome the world to the greatest arts festival.

View the full set of Edinburgh Festival 1949 photographs on Capital Collections.

All aboard…. 100 years of Lothian Buses

Over the years we have probably all had our favourite buses. Possibly it was the double decker with the driver and conductor or “clippie”. Many a story has been told of being able to jump on… and off while the bus was still moving! Maybe you remember fondly the bus and route through Edinburgh you used to travel to work every morning, and back home every evening. Or the bus taking you into town on a Saturday night to go dancing…

This year 2019, marks the centenary of Lothian Buses. Originating in 1871 as the Edinburgh Street Tramways Company, it operated a horse-drawn tram line from Haymarket to Bernard Street in Leith, which was then a separate burgh from Edinburgh. Through several changes the Corporation of the City of Edinburgh introduced a motor bus service in July 1914. However, this service was short-lived, with the buses being requisitioned for wartime use, and services did not resume until after World War One.

Edinburgh & District Tramway Co. Horse Bus

The City Corporation took over Edinburgh and District Tramways on 1 July 1919, forming Edinburgh Corporation Tramways. The first post-war regular bus service began on 2 December 1919. The route ran between Ardmillan Terrace and Abbeyhill via Holyrood Palace, the Royal Mile and the Castle.

Waverley to Comeley Bank omnibus at its terminus in East Fettes Avenue

From that one bus route, today over 700 buses cover over 70 routes across Edinburgh and the Lothians, carrying 120 million passengers annually.

See more fabulous pictures in a special exhibition on Capital Collections commemorating Lothian Buses centenary anniversary. Happy 100th Birthday Lothian Buses!

Corporation buses Waverley Bridge



Baby’s Own Aesop by Walter Crane

In Central Library’s Special Collections sit many special books, and one such book is Baby’s Own Aesop. It was created by the artist Walter Crane (1845 – 1915) and first seen by the eyes of little Victorian tots in 1887. It was made specifically for them, for the nursery – that was Walter Crane’s intention. And he cheats them not. Each page is a very beautiful picture, often an elaborate one, that is drawn together with a rhyme. And animals are everywhere of course, because it’s Aesop that the rhymes reference.

Porcupine, Snake & Company; The Bear & the Bees

These new publishing ventures for nursery children were all about visual literacy, and Walter Crane was an influential figure. His designs were highly decorative and architectural, colour and pattern abound; there is comedy, and visual puns – on cranes prominently. And behind it all was the belief that art and design could stimulate a child by being interesting, and therefore it could help them to learn.

The Ass and the Sick Lion

Baby’s Own Aesop is the third publication of three, the others being Baby’s Opera (1877) and Baby’s Bouquet (1878). Throughout, the line and the form show quite how good Walter Crane’s understanding of his subjects and settings was: their movement, poses and anatomy is so full of life inside the picture space. Old men have old sagging skin; foxes, deer, donkeys and lions are rendered in all their animal detail and plasticity. And his use of clear and definite lines was also helpful to the printing process which became increasingly sophisticated over the years.

Take a look at the exhibition of this beautiful book on the libraries’ image collection website, Capital Collections

History of the house: the Stockbridge Colonies

During the 19th century the population of Edinburgh doubled from 103,000 in 1811 to 222,000 in 1881. During this time, the City developed industrially creating a major demand for labour which resulted in a population movement from rural areas.

The subsequent demand for housing created a major problem as the condition of the existing housing stock, particularly in the Old Town, was poor. Edinburgh suffered a mid 19th century recession and virtually no new houses were built between 1825 and 1860.

In the 1840s Edinburgh was reported as having the most unsanitary living conditions of any British city with the Edinburgh News describing Old Town houses as “chambers of death”.

So… what to do to solve the housing problem?

The Reverend Doctor James Begg, Leader of the Free Church of Scotland believed that workers should club together savings – money saved from not visiting the public house – to buy land around the outskirts of towns and build houses using their shared skills. Similar ideas were tried out around the city.

In 1861 many builders were locked out of work following a strike asking for working hours to be reduced from ten to nine.  Their request had been accepted but the men were only allowed back on site if they signed an agreement to work ten hours as before.

This led to the formation in 1861 of the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company Ltd (ECBC) by seven stonemasons, David Rintoul, James Ogilvie, James Collins, James Colville, William Mill, James Earshman and Jake Syme.

The Company’s aim was to use their collective skills to build comfortable and respectable houses for rent or sale at reasonable prices for working people. Houses for those who “prefer privacy of self-contained dwellings with private gardens to homes in common stair tenements”. The finished houses were to be sold or rented providing a return to reinvest in future buildings and a dividend for shareholders.

The initial sale of £1 shares raised £10,000 and the shares could be bought in five instalments.

The first development was the Colonies of Stockbridge which was followed by similar developments at Dalry Road, Abbeyhill, North Fort Street, Restalrig Road, Slateford Road and Shaftesbury Park.

Water of Leith at the Colonies, 1963

Many of the 11 Stockbridge Terraces are named after people who helped to promote, found or run the ECBC. The first was Reid Terrace named after Hugh Gilzean Reid, a newspaper editor credited with giving help and encouragement to the initial group of stonemasons.

The foundation stone was laid in October 1861 by the Reverend James Begg and the second terrace was named after Hugh Miller, the renowned geologist. Like Begg and Reid, Miller was a member of the Free Church and shared the belief that living in decent housing could promote moral values and physical well-being. Although Miller had died before the ECBC was formed, his contribution had been recognised.

Houses cost between £100 and £130 to buy. An initial deposit was £5 with the balance repayable over 15-20 years secured on the Deeds lodged with a Property Investment Company. Many occupants were also shareholders in ECBC and could put their dividend payment towards paying off their loan.

Some houses were bought and then let to others but the majority of buyers or tenants worked in the building trade or manual occupations.

There are various carved stone plaques to be seen on the gable ends of houses in Collins, Kemp, Avondale, Teviotdale, Balmoral and Dunedin Places emphasising the connection with the various trades in the origins of the development.

Reid Terrace was the first to be completed in the Stockbridge Development. Of the 18 properties listed in the 1864-65 Voters Register 12 were occupied by the owner and 6 by tenants.

Occupations listed are saddler, stationer, van driver, architect, clerk of works, watchmaker, grazier, clerk, commercial traveller, residenter*, GPO sorter, porter, blacksmith, hosier, glass cutter, servant.

No women are listed as voters in this era before women’s suffrage.

In the 1914-15 Register, 34 properties are listed with only 9 occupied by owners, 5 of whom are women, and the remaining 29 have tenant occupiers.

Occupations listed are printer, joiner, butler, wood carver, carter, mason, agent, postman, cabinetmaker, cutter, insurance agent, hairdresser, bootmaker, tramway servant, baker, gardener, attendant, rubber worker, gasfitter, traveller, police constable, tinsmith, saw maker, watchmaker, glass painter, china dealer, clerk, plasterer, residenter*.

One photograph from our collections taken around 1885 shows the Fyfe Family standing at the doors of 23 and 24 Reid Terrace.

Fyfe Family, Reid Terrace, Stockbridge

The Valuation Rolls record that a Mrs Ann Fyfe lived at number 23 Reid Terrace in 1875 but by the 1881 Census it looks as though the family have moved to Montague Street in Newington. In 1885 number 23 was occupied by a James Cantley and then changed tenants regularly after this time.

Another image from Capital Collections, dated around 1914, is of the Valentine Family who lived at 17 Bell Place.

Valentine Family, Bell Place, Stockbridge

David Valentine was born in 1877 near St Andrews in Fife. In 1900, he married Rachel Mentiply at Monifieth in Fife.  The 1911 Census tells us that he is living at 17 Bell Place with his wife Rachel and his children Betsy (9), Margaret (7), William (5), James (4) Rachel (1) and Elizabeth (2 months). His father William (74) was also living with the family until his death in 1913. David was a Police Constable and he continued to live at Bell Place until around 1920. He retired from the Police with the rank of Sergeant and died in April 1951 at 8 Glenogle Place.

The register of voters also lists Police Officers living at numbers 16, 19, 23, and 25 around this time.

*Residenter: an inhabitant, often with a connection to the clergy.

This is only the story of the Stockbridge Colonies. In all, between 1850 and 1903 another nine developments were built. By 1875, land became more expensive and was a factor in the reduction of the amount of new building.

Overall, the Colonies vision far exceeded expectations by providing housing for more than 7000 people. Today, a Colonies home is much prized, offering at type of accommodation rarely found in central Edinburgh for those who “prefer privacy of self-contained dwellings with private gardens”.

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: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall
History of the house: North British Hotel
History of the house: Cammo House

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.

No whistling on a Sunday: an oral history of the Stockbridge Colonies by the Colonies Oral History Group
Edinburgh’s colonies: housing the workers by Richard Rodger
A brief history of the Colonies by Rose Pipes






Illustrating Shakespeare

Capital Collection’s latest exhibition, Illustrating Shakespearean comedies, displays dramatic illustrations from a ‘collection of prints from the pictures painted for the purpose of illustrating the dramatic works of Shakespeare by the artists of Great Britain’. The work is in two volumes published by John and Josiah Boydell in 1803 and is taken from the Art and Design Library’s Special Collections. The exhibition was created by Zita Horváth, an art history postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, as part of an internship.

Zita wanted to centre the exhibition around the comedic works of Shakespeare from the very beginning, because she feels that comedy is often ignored when it comes to visualising plays. Luckily, the two-volume collection of prints contained an illustration of almost every Shakespearean drama, including the comedies.

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act V Scene III

The two-volume folio is part of the Boydell Venture, whose aim was to elevate the painter to the level of the poet. In this, John and Josiah Boydell did not succeed, but they commissioned works from many of the famous painters of their time, and the artists illustrated a wide range of plays and scenes from the vast oeuvre of Shakespeare. The engravings are made after paintings, and most of these paintings are now in private collections or lost. So, these prints are all the more valuable, because they faithfully preserve the style and details of the original paintings.

In the Capital Collection’s exhibition we can see tableaux of rarely illustrated and rarely staged plays, such as Angelica Kauffman’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, or Robert Smirke’s work from the Induction of Taming of the Shrew, as well as more famous ones, like Henry Fuseli’s Midsummer Night Dream.

Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, Scene I

The exhibition aims to discover how comedy, especially one as deeply rooted in text as Shakespeare’s, can be translated into visual language.

View the all 26 depictions from the comedy dramas on Capital Collections.

William Channing’s lost closes of Edinburgh

Central Library holds three bound volumes of William Channing’s ‘Sketches in Edinburgh‘ which give his artist’s impression of tenement life in the mid 19th century. His drawings are glimpses into the past down the narrow closes and alleyways of the city’s streets and Old Town. We see higgledy-piggledy houses and tenements towering skywards, laundry hanging from windows across the walkways and local characters talking in the streets.

Brodies Close, High Street

William Channing is a little-known artist today, although it’s thought he worked as a professional theatre scene painter. Some of his drawings give an insight into his drawing technique with guidelines still visible on the paper. Many views are duplicates with first the initial sketch followed by the finished watercolour drawing. Although it’s clear the images were sketched from life over 150 years ago, there is a freshness and contemporary feel to many of his drawings.

Henry Gray’s Close, Leith

Channing’s beautiful sketches are particularly valued for their representation of the architectural elements and details of buildings and closes now much changed or long since disappeared.

You can view all three volumes of the sketches on Capital Collections :
Wm. Channing’s Sketches in Edinburgh – volume 1
Wm. Channing’s Sketches in Edinburgh – volume 2
Wm. Channing’s Sketches in Edinburgh – volume 3.

Mary Queen of Scots documents at the Museum of Edinburgh: The daily business of being Queen

Vicky Garrington, History Curator at Museums & Galleries Edinburgh, has created the latest exhibition on Capital Collections. We invited her to tell us about this very special collection of documents:

“A group of documents believed to have been signed by Mary Queen of Scots have recently come to light at the Museum of Edinburgh. Although information about them was held on file, they were lost in storage before being unearthed during recent inventory and conservation work. After decades spent unseen, they have been photographed ready to share on Capital Collections.

Document dated 1553, signed by James, Duke of Chastlerault, stating that Mary Queen of Scots has gifted a portion of the sands at Leith for the building of a bulwark.

The beautifully handwritten documents, carefully dated, numbered and signed, relate to the busy commercial life of Edinburgh during the 16th century. Papers covering markets and the selling of meat sit alongside permits for London salt sellers to operate in the City and for the building of a bulwark (defensive wall) at Leith. The documents date from 1553 to 1567 (Mary reigned in Scotland from 1542 to 1567), and are signed variously by Mary, her then husband James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, and James, Duke of Chastlerault.

Together, the documents shed light on a key part of Scotland’s past. We all know the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots, her eventful life and eventual execution in 1587, but in these documents we see a different side to Mary. Here, she can be seen carefully managing the everyday affairs of Edinburgh, both from France and Scotland. It’s fascinating to think of her reading through these official papers before carefully applying her signature.

Detail view of signature of Mary Queen of Scots from a 1557 order relating to the privileges of fleshers

New information on the documents has come to light during the inventory and conservation process: two of the documents include watermarks in the paper which can only be seen when they are held up to the light. One features a goat, the other a hand holding a flower. This discovery shows how our museum objects can keep teaching us things, revealing new secrets as we work with them.”

Visit Capital Collections to see the documents and read the daily business of being Queen.