In the days when Scotland was occupied by grand families who operated estate properties which employed local people from nearby villages and towns to work on their estate properties, the 'big hoose' became a focus for community life. While some of these estates remain active and operational (and, often, still family owned) others have passed into the care of heritage bodies like the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland. Many remain publicly accessible, or have grounds and parks that can be visited either for free or for a small charge.
Here's my brief guide to a handful of these 'big hooses' that can be visited from Edinburgh...
Built as Whitehill House in the 1680s by the architect James Smith as his own private residence, Newhailes is an early example of the Palladian style which became so popular in Britain in the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries, a style pioneered by Smith who 'imported' it from Italy where he had studied under Andrea Palladio himself.
Smith had to sell the house barely a decade after it was built to ease financial troubles he had acquired by investing in failed mining operations, and the property and its estate passed into ownership of the Dalrymple family, baronets of Hailes.
The brother of Newhailes' first owner notoriously gave the order which let to the infamous Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, while later members of the family would entertain figures such as Adam Smith, David Hume, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell at Newhailes.
When Sir Mark Dalrymple, the 3rd Baronet of Hailes, died without having produced children in 1971 the house began to fall into disrepair, before being finally vacated in 1980. Dalrymple's widow lived in a cottage on the estate until 2011, and her death in 2017 represented the end of the Dalrymple family line.
The National Trust for Scotland has overseen the maintenance and care for Newhailes House since 1997, and today the estate remains popular with local walkers and with a cafe in the property's former stable block - partly designed by James Craig, who created the plans for Edinburgh's New Town - providing lunches and snacks to those who stop by to explore the grounds.
Another James Smith property, Cockenzie House is at the heart of the village of Cockenzie and Port Seton in East Lothian.
Operated now as a community centre with a variety of studios for local artists, therapists and jewellers, the building is set in its original gardens and has a popular cafe and studio shop, as well as hosting antiques fairs and a variety of community events all year round.
Following the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 - the first skirmish of the '45 Jacobite Uprising - Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops retired victorious to Cockenzie House, where they fed from fruit trees in the grounds. Later the house hosted artists such as JMW Turner and Sir Walter Scott as guests of the Caddell family who owned the property.
In the gardens of Cockenzie House, look out for the fruit trees which fed those early Jacobites, as well as a characteristic grotto built from pumice, the stone used as ballast which was discarded by ships sailing into and out of the nearby port on early trade excursions to northern Europe and Iceland.
The hecla grotto - its name is spelled out in stone at the front of the structure - was a 19th-century folly with whale bones forming its doorway. Remains of its original ornate decorations, using shells and stones from the local beaches, can still be seen inside the building.
A rare example of an estate which has fallen entirely to ruin, Cammo is a suburb to the north-west of Edinburgh with grounds accessible to local people and visitors. The house itself, another late 17th-century family home, fell victim to vandals in the 1970s, and the area today is maintained by the City of Edinburgh Council.
Only a few collections of stonework and the original doorway of Cammo House survive, although the grounds continue to show evidence of the former status of the property, with an ornamental canal, a pinetum (a collection of rare trees), a walled orangery and a derelict carriage house all suggesting the grandeur the property would have had at its height.
The writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited the area frequently, and is believed to have used Cammo House as the model for the House of Shaws in his novel Kidnapped.
Another local property easily accessible from the city centre is Prestonfield House, dating from 1687 and operating today as a boutique hotel, restaurant and wedding venue.
Set within its own grounds to the south-east of Arthur's Seat, Prestonfield was originally site of a 12th century monastery and later a house named Priestfield, which was destroyed by fire in the 1680s. The new building built to replace Priestfield changed its name to distance itself from its Catholic connections.
As the home of the wealthy Dick family in the 18th and 19th centuries, the estate at Prestonfield becamea high society venue which attracted guests such as David Hume, Benjamin Franklin and (a recurring name on Scotland's visitor records) Samuel Johnson.
The house was also the first place in the UK to cultivate rhubarb, and that vegetable gives its name to the restaurant in the house today.
The interior of Presonfield is a reason in itself to visit for dinner or afternoon tea, with rooms styled in a variety of ornate styles creating a unique and sumptuous setting.
In the grounds, look out for the estate's peacocks who roam freely, and the circular stable block which has been adapted to hosted lavish weddings and other special events.
A short distance from Edinburgh is Vogrie House, a 19th century estate property built in the typical Scots Baronial architectural style, which originally accommodated the Dewar family.
A cafe provides refreshments, and a play park and indoor soft play area for children can help keep younger members of the family engaged.
Although the building is not accessible to the public, the grounds of Vogrie Country Park are spacious and spectacular, with a number of pieces of art dotted through the woods and lawns of the former estate. Look out for two huge, brightly coloured chairs, and a giant's tricyle!
Sometimes known as Dalkeith Palace, today the Dalkeith Country Park provides access to the grounds of this grand estate property. There had been a castle or fortified house on this site since medieval times, but the current house was another of James Smith's constructions from the early years of the 18th century.
The house has several royal connections, having provided accommodation a number of monarchs over the years, including Bonnie Prince Charlie, George IV during his historic visit to Scotland in 1822, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V.
During the Second World War the property accommodated Polish soldiers who used the grounds for military training and practice.
Today, although the estate remains active as farmland, much of its grounds are accessible for walkers, with a cafe and artisan gift shops in the former stable block and with an extensive children's play area.
Look out for a huge folly which is currently undergoing renovation.
Another estate property which retains its family ownership is Gosford House in East Lothian. Built at the end of the 18th century to plans by Robert Adam, who also styled Edinburgh's New Town, the property has a distinctive neoclassical style and sprawling grounds which continue to provide space for visitors to explore.
The estate's ponds and woodlands offer a real sense of escape from the routines of daily life.
Used as a filming location for the Outlander television series, Gosford stood in for the Palace of Versailles - an indication of its sense of status and style!
The original owner of the property, the 7th Earl of Wemyss, was Grand Master Mason of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and after his death he was buried in the grounds of Gosford House in a huge mausoleum styled as a pyramid, referencing several ancient masonic traditions.
The estate also has a rare example of a curling house, effectively a pavilion for the popular Scottish sport of curling, which would have been played on the estate's frozen lakes during the winter months.
Gosford House is open to visitors in the summer, with grounds accessible through the rest of the year (subject to the family's permitting access).
Explore more of Edinburgh's high status history with a tour exploring the Georgian-era New Town!
I'm introducing you to a museum dedicated to all things Edinburgh - it's the Museum of Edinburgh!
This amazing building on the Canongate in the Old Town is easily overlooked. Many visitors will see the outside of the building (or the lane behind it, which has some Outlander connections) without actually taking time to explore the museum itself.
Formerly known as the Huntly House Museum, the building which houses the exhibition dates back to the late 16th century, and was known locally as 'the speaking house' because of the panels of Latin text on the front of the building. As well as its exhibition features, the museum provides a fascinating glimpse into what these historic buildings were like on the inside, offering a chance to imagine what life would have been like for people who lived in them.
Entering through a small courtyard to the left of the building on the Royal Mile, you access the first of the museum's rooms via a narrow wooden staircase. (In common with many Edinburgh attractions, and the city itself, accessibility can be problematic....) The first wood panelled room introduces a few key features of the city, including one of the original sedan chairs which formed Edinburgh's first taxi service in the late 7th century.
Nearby is an original copy of the National Covenant, signed in the 1630s as a statement against interference by the monarchy in the religious operations of the Church of Scotland.
The collection of objects on display is quite remarkable, and all of them have direct connection to Edinburgh and its inhabitants. The diversity of the exhibits is itself a reason to go exploring the museum!
In cases in the next room you can find a strange assortment of pieces which all belonged for former occupants of the city, including a spectacles case which once belonged to Protestant reformer John Knox (his spectacles are long gone), a golf ball belonging to Robert Louis Stevenson, and a wicker basket made by Adam Smith's mother!
Look out also for a piece of the tree which held the rope by which witches were 'ducked' in the Nor' Loch to assess their guilt or innocence, some sections of the old city water pipes, and what could be the original bore stone which held the flag of James IV as he assembled his troops ahead of the Battle of Flodden, in 1513...
As you explore the museum you'll move between several original buildings, and many features of the original structures survive intact, from the original windows and doorways, to primitive security features, and from fireplaces to roof beams. I often wonder what the people who lived in these properties over the last five hundred years would make of visitors strolling through today!
Special collections of artefacts are linked to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, who was born on Charlotte Square in Edinburgh's New Town and became a major military leader of British troops in the First World War, and Edinburgh's extensive glass and pottery factories which operated in the Canongate area into the twentieth century.
You'll also find objects which are intrinsically linked to Edinburgh's history, including the original New Town plans drawn up by James Craig in the 1760s, and the collar, bowl and licence provided for Greyfriars Bobby by the lord provost of the city, William Chambers, in the 1860s.
The museum as a whole is charming and intriguing, and gives a rare opportunity to find out not just the facts about Edinburgh's history, but to see some of its historic Old Town buildings up-close and from the inside. Despite the museum being fairly small you could easily spend an hour or more browsing the exhibits, and I guarantee you'll find something to intrigue, surprise or amuse you!
The Museum of Edinburgh is well worth taking the time to explore during your visit, and like all the publicly owned museums and galleries in the city, entry is free! Check the city council's website for updated opening times, and details of any special exhibitions or events.
Explore Edinburgh's history in more detail with my customised city walking tours!
Edinburgh's New Town is an often unfairly overlooked side of the city, especially by visitors who (perhaps understandably) imagine from its name that it may be a 1980s shopping district.
In fact the New Town has over 250 years of its own history, style and culture, dating back to its origins as a residential expansion for wealthy citizens of Edinburgh when it was first constructed in the 1760s.
As well as offering a dedicated New Town tour, I always try to encourage visitors to explore areas of Edinburgh's New Town for themselves, and at the start of a whole new year, now is as good a time as any to highlight features that the New Town has to offer!
So here's my must-see guide to New Town highlights... but to explore them in more detail, join me for a walking tour!
Much of the original New Town has been converted for commercial use, and it's hard to get a sense of the style and grandeur that the city originally offered when confronted with Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafe...
But Dundas House on St Andrew Square is one of the finest original buildings that remains publicly accessible, and it offers an astonishing glimpse into life for the uber-rich in the early years of the New Town project.
Laurence Dundas had been a self-made businessman. His father had owned a luckenbooth (a small stall or shop) on the Royal Mile, and Laurence Dundas had built his fortune from canny investments and business enterprises.
In the 1760s he bought what he considered to be the prime location for his family's residence, on St Andrew Square. The space had originally been intended to be occupied by a church, but such was Dundas's influence in the city he was able to commandeer the site for his own property instead. The original villa property was designed by iconic architect William Chambers, who also designed Somerset House in London.
Dundas was later an early director of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and following his death the Royal Bank acquired the building Dundas had lived in. It remains the world headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland group, and is maintained as a public bank branch... which means it's open for visitors to check out during their visit!
The banking hall itself is not actually part of the original house, but it is one of the grandest commercial spaces in the city even today, and gives a great sense of how much wealth and affluence could be found in eighteenth century Edinburgh. As a major banking city, it was finance which helped create the grand style of the New Town, and Dundas House is a great example of the style that such wealth could buy.
The huge domed ceiling is cut with star-shaped skylights, which not only create a very dramatic visual effect, they also allowed huge amounts of natural light into the banking hall, which helped to give the Royal Bank a commercial advantage over some of its competitors, by allowing it to stay open later into the evening!
Today the building still serves as a bank, but even if you aren't going in to make use of its cash machines or banking facilities, take a few minutes to check out its iconic bank hall designed by architects Peddie and Kinnear.
One of the Insta-friendly highlights of the New Town is this historic former mill town which originally lay well beyond the city limits of Edinburgh.
When I first started taking tours around the area it was a guaranteed visitor-free zone, but with the rise of tourism and the takeover of Instagrammers, it's rare to explore this area is such solitude and peace today. (I blame the internet and tour guides. :) )
Dean Village provided one of the only original access routes into Edinburgh, crossing the steep valley cut by the Water of Leith via a narrow stone bridge. The river itself provided power to a series of industries along its length, and Dean Village - meaning 'the village in the valley' - was a mill town, where farmers brought grain to have it turned into flour to be exported into Edinburgh.
One of the most notable buildings in the village is the former guild of baxters (bread bakers) who built the building in 1675. You can find their emblem - representing paddles bearing loves of bread - around the area, along with sheaves of corn cut into some of the original warehouse structures.
Another significant structure is Well Court, an 1880s housing development built by John Ritchie Findlay (proprietor of the Scotsman newspaper) as affordable housing in order to attract people back to the Dean Village after the industries had moved away in the 1830s.
Built around a central courtyard, Well Court is a distinctive tenement style that had community spirit built into its structure, with a dedicated space for community events and activities. The well-used communal washing lines shows that the community is still alive and well in the Dean Village, and the area remains a popular residential suburb for people to enjoy the benefits of living in the city without being stuck right in the centre of town.
Another of the highlights of the New Town of Edinburgh is Calton Hill, one of the three volcanic peaks to be found in the city centre.
Developed as the city's first public park in the 1720s, Calton Hill continues to offer visitors (and locals) a space to escape, with views across to the Old Town, Arthur's Seat, out to Leith, and over to the county of Fife, across the water to the north of Edinburgh.
The hill also boasts one of the most iconic structures in Edinburgh, the National Monument. This unfinished memorial for the dead soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars was intedned to be a full recreation of the Parthenon in Athens, but was left incomplete when funding dried up. The memorial was designed by William Henry Playfair, who also built several other structures and monuments on the top of Calton Hill.
The Nelson Monument is a telescope-shaped memorial to Admiral Nelson, a British naval hero, and you'll also find the original City Observatory building, now an art gallery with a restaurant space within its precincts, as well as a memorial cairn celebrating the campaign to re-establish an independent Scottish parliament.
THE SCOTT MONUMENT
Probably my favourite structure in the city, the Scott Monument celebrates the author Sir Walter Scott, best known for novels like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. When Scott died in 1832, he was the most widely read British author of the age, and his memorial was paid for with nearly £17,000 of money donated by the readers of his books.
Designed by an architect named George Meikle Kemp, the monument remains the world's tallest monument to a writer, with a staircase up to four viewing platforms, the highest nearly 200ft above Princes Street Gardens.
Nicknamed the Gothic Rocket, for its style and shape, the there are over 60 statues on the monument representing Scottish historic figures as well as fictional characters from Scott's writing. The statue of Walter Scott at street level was carved by the sculptor John Steell.
PRINCES STREET GARDENS
Originally private gardens for the wealth residents who lived on Princes Street, Princes Street Gardens are some of the most popular public spaces in the city today.
At the western end of the gardens is the Ross Memorial Fountain, recently restored and renovated, with views up to Edinburgh Castle on top of its volcanic outcrop.
The valley in which the gardens sit today was at one time an artificial lake, and today the mainline railway runs along the bottom of the gardens, with a large outdoor stage area occasionally used for concerts (weather permitting!).
Look out for a statue of Wojtek the bear, a Polish folk hero with an Edinburgh connection, a First World War memorial given as a gift from the people of America to Scotland, the world's oldest floral clock, and a small memorial to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born in Edinburgh but died on an island in Samoa in the western Pacific Ocean...
Taken altogether, the New Town of Edinburgh represents a distinct contrast from the 'historic' Old Town side of the city, and is well worth exploring! (It's also arguably better for bars and restaurants than the Royal Mile area, too...)
Explore the New Town in more detail with my private city walking tours!
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour?
Show your support and
buy me a coffee!
Search the blog archive...