Nestled under the south-eastern slopes of Holyrood Park is the grand former estate property of Prestonfield, which today operates as a boutique hotel and popular venue for weddings, along with a fine dining restaurant, as well as providing atmospheric afternoon teas.
But the house itself has a rather remarkable history, and if you have the chance to peer into some of the grand dining spaces you will get a brief vision of the house's illustrious past.
The area used to have the name Priestfield, after the connection the land had to the Cistercian monks of Harehope in northern England in the twelfth century. Following the Scottish War of Independence in the fourteenth century, Priestfield was taken from the monks and gifted to the son of King Robert II. He in turn sold the land to capitalise upon its financial worth.
Priestfield changed hands several times over the next few centuries, being owned by various families including Walter Chepman, Scotland's first printer. Alas the estate struggled to remain financially fluid, and in the 1670s the property was taken over by Sir James Dick, a former Lord Provost (mayor) of Edinburgh.
His grandfather, Sir William Dick, was such a wealthy figure from the success of his business interests that he had taken to lending money to the Scottish government, and when those loans failed to be repaid William Dick found himself in considerable debt. His financial ruin led to prison in London, where he died in 1655, and his family were unable to afford even to pay for a funeral until six months after his death.
James Dick had inherited some of his grandfather's acute business brain, and in the later years of the seventeenth-century he undertook a project to clear the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town of the immense quantities of filth and waste which flowed through the narrow medieval streets. Dick paid for this waste to be removed from the city, and deposited as fertiliser on the land and fields around the estate at Priestfield. If ever a man could be described as dirty, stinking rich, it was James Dick!
The Dick family had stuck to the old religion of Catholicism after the Reformation in Scotland in 1560, and during a particularly violent bout of anti-Catholic uprisings, Priestfield House was burned to the ground in 1681.
James Dick enlisted the help of Sir William Bruce, at the time official architect to the king and involved in the redevelopment of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, to rebuild Priestfeld, and in doing so changed the name from Priestfield to the less religiously-sensitive Prestonfield. This structure, dating from 1687, is the basis of the building that visitors can experience today.
Later generations of the Dick family made renovations and developments to the property, adding grand staircases, the imposing entrance porch, and filling the rooms with furniture and paintings.
The Dick-Cunyngham family who occupied the property in the eighteenth century had strong Jacobite sympathies, and Alexander Cunyngham had briefly travelled with the exiled Charles Edward Stuart - better known as Bonny Prince Charlie - during his time in Italy.
Alexander Cunyngham was a keen horticulturist and took the Dick surname when he inherited the estate in 1746, and today it is Sir Alexander Dick who is credited with introducing rhubarb to Scotland - hence the name of the restaurant at Prestonfield House today: Rhubarb.
As a popular venue for society figures to entertain (and be entertained), Prestonfield House during Alexander Dick's ownership hosted a variety of luminaries including the philosopher David Hume, the painter Allan Ramsay, Dr Samuel Johnson, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin.
The grounds of the estate were remodelled to give the property an impressive circular stable block by James Gillespie Graham, and Prestonfield became a popular venue for a variety of sports and outdoor pursuits, including hunting and horse riding.
Today the parkland-style grounds of the property are dotted with peacocks, who roam freely and whose distinctive calls can be heard during the warmer summer months.
Today Prestonfield House is an exquisite boutique hotel and restaurant, from the same management as the popular Witchery restaurant on the Royal Mile. The venue is a short drive from the city centre, but is worth a visit for afternoon tea to experience the utterly unique and stylish surroundings.
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