A building known as Pear Tree House is situated at the western end of West Nicolson Street in Edinburgh. It has been there since 1749 and this is its story.
In the 1700s the population of the City was growing rapidly and in many areas had become unhealthy. By 1755 a census carried out by 802 Scottish Parishes gave a total of 57,195 people. This figure was analysed by Alexander Webster (1707-1784), a clergyman from Edinburgh, and was accepted as being reliable. It was to be the only count until the official census in 1801 with a total of 81,865 (+43%).
As a result of the growth by the mid 1700s, people were beginning to spread out beyond the old city Flodden Wall boundary and West Nicolson Street came into being.
Around 1746, a wealthy merchant named William Reid feud some land from Lady Nicolson and by 1749 had built a house with views over the Meadows. Not much is known about Mr Reid and in 1756, the house was sold to James Fergusson (Lord Kilkerran).
Sir James Fergusson, Lord Kilkerran (1688-1759) was the son of Baronet Sir John Fergusson whom he succeeded in 1734. He studied law and became an advocate in 1711. He was MP for Sutherland from 1734 to 1735 when he became Lord of Session and adopted the title, Lord Kilkerran. In April 1749 he was made Lord of Justiciary, a post which he held until his death in1759.
The house continued to be occupied by his widow, Lady Jean Maitland until her death in 1766 when the title transferred to her son, Sir Adam Fergusson.
James Boswell mentions several visits to the house in his travel journals.
In 1770, ownership changed again.
From 1770 to 1791 the two upper floors were occupied by Thomas Blacklock, the Blind Poet, who with his wife entertained many famous people including Robert Burns.
Burns was a frequent visitor to Blacklock partly because he came to see Agnes Maclehose, his inspiration for Ae Fond Kiss and the “Clarinda” of many love letters, who lived nearby.
His poems are in the main forgotten but there is a tale that he saved the life of Robert Burns. Burns had been due to sail to the West Indies but was persuaded by Blacklock to stay in Edinburgh to publish his poems instead. The ship that Burns would have sailed on was lost at sea.
Thomas died in 1791 and his wife relocated to nearby Chapel Street.
There is a gap in the ownership of 38 West Nicolson Street (Pear Tree House) until 1823 when the Usher Family took possession.
The Ushers have a long history which can be traced back to to the time of William the Conqueror, however, this story focuses on their involvement with the house.
John Usher had a large family and in 1782, Andrew, the third youngest of 12 children was born at Toftfield in the Borders. This Andrew was the founder of the world famous distillery company Andrew Usher & Co. in 1813 and the Usher Brewery. Our story continues with the distillery.
In 1823, the headquarters of the distillery, Andrew Usher & Co, moved to West Nicolson Street and occupied the house. There is a tale which suggests that the Pear Tree name originates here when Andrew planted some pear trees.
In 1840, a commercial agreement with the Glenlivet Whisky Distillery was responsible for a huge expansion of the company.
Andrew had 12 children and in 1831 he put his two eldest sons, James and Thomas, in charge of the brewery, Thomas Usher and Co. 17 years later, in 1848, he made his two youngest sons, Andrew and John, partners in the distillery. When Andrew Usher (senior) died in 1855, his son Andrew took control.
Andrew (junior), was a very wealthy man who worried about how to use this money. He decided that the city should have a magnificent arts centre for the benefit of the population and donated the funds to allow the Town Council to build what we know as the Usher Hall.
The Ushers continued to occupy Pear Tree House until 1919 when the distillery was sold to Scottish Malt Distillers and merged with a DCL subsidiary, J&G Stewart Ltd, and the premises, Pear Tree House and other buildings continued to be used for storage or other commercial activities.
Since then, the house has been at various times a pub and public events venue with the Blind Poet pub, no more, nearby.
The Pear Tree is today well-known in Edinburgh, a popular pub with a large beer garden.
Further information on the house in the period since the 1920s has been difficult to find. If any of our readers can help, please add a message in the comments.
Read other 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
History of the house: Cammo House
History of the house: Newhailes
History of the house: Gladstone’s Land
History of the house: 4 Balcarres Street
A brief history of the house of Usher
ScotlandsPeople Valuation Rolls
Scottish Post Office Directories
The Godfather of Blending, article by Gavin D. Smith in Whisky magazine
The Pear Tree website – a history