Recently I had the pleasure of joining a Scottish Historic Buildings Trust study day, with the theme of Mansion Houses of the Royal Mile. The day of lectures and site visits was based at Moray House, on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, at what is today the teaching college of Edinburgh University.
There was plenty of learning, with three guest speakers presenting short lectures on a variety of subjects associated with the development of the large family houses along Edinburgh's Royal Mile, with familiar names like Riddle's Court, Gladstone's Land and Panmure House featuring heavily. But the true highlight of the day was having access to the oldest part of this campus of university buildings, the original Moray House itself.
Standing immediately on the main road of the Canongate (for a long time an entirely separate royal burgh from Edinburgh itself, despite being on the same stretch of street) this house dates to the early part of the seventeenth-century and at one time was described as the most handsome house on the whole of the Canongate.
Whilst the exterior of the building retains little of this original grandeur today, a few key aspects of the structure give evidence of its prior appearance, and the interiors of the building are beautifully preserved and give a thrilling sense of what it would have been like to occupy (or even visit) such high-status properties in the city.
The surviving stone gateposts into the house are still topped by the extraordinarily decorative elongated pyramid obelisks, and the large balcony overlooking the main road was originally one of two such outlook points, the other mounted on the opposite side of the building.
Whilst the rear elevation gave views over the extensive gardens behind the house, stretching down to modern day Holyrood Road, and out to the peaks and cliffs of Holyrood Park, the front balcony was an equally important location from which visitors and inhabitants of the house could both see the town outside, and be seen by those in the street. The balcony was effectively a society shop window, raising occupants above the hustle and bustle of the road outside, but allowing passersby a glimpse of the people who were fortunate enough to be able to call Moray House home.
The two best preserved rooms inside the house, on its upper storey, are the Balcony Room (which originally allowed access to the aforementioned balcony) and the Cromwell Room at the rear of the house - Oliver Cromwell famously installed himself in Moray House on multiple occasions during the 1650s, making it his military headquarters during his armies' occupation of Edinburgh Castle. And it is these rooms which show off the grandeur of old Moray House best of all.
The finely decorated plaster ceilings would have been the height of style and interior decoration at the time, and the detailed paintings around the Cromwell Room feature scenes from Greek mythology. It is thought that the specific choice of imagery here may have concealed coded references to the political sympathies of the Moray family at a very politically charged period of British history. It is said that the original Act of Union between Scotland and England, connecting the two nations into what we know as the United Kingdom today, was signed (in part) in the gardens at Moray House.
Unfortunately, general access to Moray House is limited to those on business with the university, so it was an extremely welcome privilege from the study day that the SHBT group was given access and allowed to take photographs. The day as a whole was a great success, and I look forward to joining future SHBT events!
The Scottish Historic Buildings Trust is currently undertaking extensive development and restoration of Riddle's Court, on the Lawnmarket, which is due to open as an education and heritage learning centre in 2017. 'Hard hat' tours of the site are taking place on 17 December 2016 - advance booking is essential.
Find out more about Moray House (from the outside!) on my Up-Close and Personal private walking tours of Edinburgh
Edinburgh Expert is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh with 18 years of experience living and working in the city.