Acheson House - A Houseful of History
Edinburgh is full of historic properties and buildings that have seen their fair share of history. In terms of its heritage status, Edinburgh has more buildings listed for their historical value than any other city in the UK (apart from London).
This occasional blog series highlights specific buildings and explores their historic associations - previously I've featured Moray House and Prestonfield House, and in this article I'll be looking at Acheson House, located just off Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile.
Acheson House was built in 1633, as evidenced by the date carved above what was the original main entrance to the building. Today internal renovations have divided up some of the interior space, and this doorway today gives emergency access into the Museum of Edinburgh, housed primarily in an adjacent building.
The building was originally constructed as a home for Archibald Acheson. In 1627 Acheson had been appointed Secretary of State for Scotland in the court of Charles I, and so was a major figure in the royal court as well as in his native Scotland. Acheson's second wife was Margaret Hamilton, and the couple's initials appear on the pediments over the windows on the upper floor.
Scotland and England had only been united under one monarch for barely thirty years at the time when Acheson House was built, and wouldn't be united politically for another seventy years - so it's curious to note the emblem of the thistle and the rose carved into the window pediments. These national emblems of both Scotland and England would suggest the building's owner boasted unionist sympathies.
However, a fleur-de-lys emblem over a third window may suggest a sense of respect for the 'Auld Alliance', signed between Scotland and France in 1292, making a common enemy of England...
The original doorway also features the Acheson family crest, a cockerel on a trumpet, along with the Acheson family motto, 'Vigilantibus', meaning 'Stay watchful'. The cross-hatched emblem in the date are the initials AA and MH intertwined, for Archibald Acheson and Margaret Hamilton.
In 1633 the building which is, today, clustered amongst a variety of other Old Town buildings would have been relative open, especially to the rear - away from the Royal Mile - where it would have had a grand garden as many Canongate properties would have had.
By the eighteenth century the building had fallen in status somewhat. Acheson had died in 1634, barely a year after the house was built, and later the property would come into use as one of the many brothels and houses of ill repute that would have been found all across the Old Town.
Prostitution was one of the most common means of earning money for the poorest citizens, and Acheson House had become one venue for soliciting the services of such 'ladies of pleasure'.
Thanks to the emblem above its door, it was known locally as 'the cock and trumpet'....! It is thought that Acheson House may have been a favoured haunt of young Robert Louis Stevenson.
In 1775, an enterprising son of a church minister compiled and published An Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh, detailing some of the women who could be found in the city's brothels, and the particular services (or character) they offered to their paying guests.
James Tytler (who is alleged to be the otherwise pseudonymous author of the book) would later help compile the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a decidedly more wholesome publication!
Acheson House was also at one time occupied by Edinburgh's Incorporation of Bakers, and the names of the adjacent lanes - Bakehouse Close and Sugarhouse Close - are a reminder that this area at one time was a relatively industrial part of the city.
As with many of Edinburgh's Old Town buildings in the nineteenth century, Acheson House fell into disrepair, and may have been demolished altogether if it hadn't been for the pioneering vision of the Marquess of Bute, one of the figures who led efforts to restore and preserve many of the city's historic buildings.
In 1939 the building was acquired by the Canongate Kirk, who installed the minister of the church in the property as his official manse. Rev. Ronald Selby-Wright spent forty years ministering to the community in the Canongate area, and lived at Acheson House during the early years of his tenure.
In his autobiography, Another Home, Selby-Wright describes one evening hearing footsteps crossing the wooden floor of Acheson House, opening the heavy wooden door, and passing out across the courtyard and into Bakehouse Close. When he went to investigate, to see who had been leaving the property, he found the front door firmly bolted closed, and no evidence of anyone having been in the hallway.
He experienced this same phenomenon several times during his occupation of the building, and a colleague who stayed in the property described a similar experience - footsteps, the door opening and closing, but then discovering the door firmly locked...
From 1951 to the early 1990s Acheson House was a craft centre, hosting a variety of Scottish craftsmen and women, before the building fell into disuse and lay empty for twenty years. Again it seemed as though the building might fall victim to neglect and disuse until a major renovation was funded in 2011.
Acheson House once again had occupants! Today the building remains the offices of Edinburgh World Heritage, the charitable body who work alongside UNESCO to help preserve and protect the city's historic structures. Still occupied after nearly 400 years, Acheson House has survived some of the most disruptive, damaging and difficult periods of Edinburgh's history, and today stands as a monument to the value of preserving the city's built heritage.
See Acheson House on my Royal Mile and Old Town walking tour, or on a customised tour of the city!
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