Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Visit to Newhailes, by Edinburgh

Newhailes is on the outskirts of Edinburgh and way beyond the London Freedom Pass boundary.  If you travel to Edinburgh by train you will pass it and it is only a short distance from the A1.  Newhailes is a house well worth visiting and it is not on the tourist trail.  I didn’t go here on my own, but it’s technically possible to get there by public transport as the Number 30 bus passes by.  Railway stations are Musselburgh and Newcraighall, which can be reached from the main Edinburgh station.  The visitor centre is located in the stables area and includes a shop, cafe and the usual facilities. 

New Hailes House

Newhailes is a beautiful house which is based on a design by James Smith, a Scottish architect and businessman who had studied at the Scots College in Rome before giving up any chances of becoming a priest and fathered possibly 32 children.  When in Rome he had come across the villa designs of Palladio and the first house on the Newhailes site, built in c1686, faced north towards the Forth estuary. 

The location of Newhailes is at the extreme south eastern corner of Edinburgh and the property is near the main London to Edinburgh railway line, former coal mining villages and the ancient burgh of Musselburgh.  Technically the property is in East Lothian.  As a child I would travel along the Newhailes Road, which skirted outlying districts of Edinburgh on the way to an ice-cream shop known locally as Luca.  At the time, I was oblivious as to what lay behind the walls of a very dull road which emerged at the Fisher Row Harbour, where I learnt sea-fishing or rather failed to learn. 

James Smith, the original owner, was forced to sell the house as a result of a business failure with a mining investment.  Mining was an important activity at the time and many of the large houses in the area and around Edinburgh were built on coal mining in the Midlothian and East Lothian coal fields.  With the ending of deep coal mining in the Lothians, there has been some regeneration of the former villages and the adjacent village of Newcraighall has a huge retail park – Fort Kinnaird and Kinnaird Park - connected to it, a regenerated railway line, a marina nearby and there are great plans for the Newhailes estate as a whole. 

The house was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in 1997.  The Trust purchased the contents of the house from money raised from grants, fundraising appeals and arm-twisting  and within the last few years has been able to open the house to the public.  The result is a real gem and one which contributed to the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th centrury through the Dalrymple family, which included Lord Stair and Lord Hailes.   

Lord Hailes or Sir David Dalrymple was a Lord of Justiciary in the 18th century and a prominent figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.  Sir David was the fifth son of the 1st Viscount of Stair while Sir David’s older brother John was the 1st Earl of Stair and was Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Advocate and Secretary of State over a distinguished career.  Lord Stair is the writer most cited in Scots Law when trying to prove a point.  However, this is way beyond the brief of this blog. 

In the 17th and 18th century, there was a lot of political intrigue in Edinburgh following the two unions with England and the two Jacobite “uprisings”.  The Dalrymple family, being lawyers, were usually on the right side of events and though the house had a major refit and reorientation in c1730, it remained more or less unchanged over the years before it came into the guardianship of the NTS. 

There are thus many original features such as wrought iron railings, stairways fireplaces, carvings, furnishings, paintings and bookcases (the books are at the National Library of Scotland so the bookcases are bare).   Shortage of money prevented any wholesale modernisation through the years so the house offers an original look at 17th century Scotland and of a family who, while not at the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, were certainly in correspondence with and knew the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith etc.    The house also has works by famous painters such as Alan Ramsay.

I went round the house on a guided tour last year and at the weekend went back.  I was greeted with “I remember you from last year!” and my luck was in as I had another tour of the house from Jenny, who had guided me the year before.  We met in the stables and walked to the southern aspect of the house.  I could make out the Palladian lines of the original house and the ‘wings’ which were added by the Dalrymples in c1730.  I then walked up the entrance stairway and Jenny remarked that the wrought iron railings were original and had not been renovated but that the fine filigree work, though rusty, had nonetheless worn well. 

View from grounds at New Hailes House across Forth to Fife
© Professor Whitestick

The house is located on the raised beach which separates Edinburgh from the coastal fringes of Leith, Portobello and Joppa, so that there is a view of the Forth estuary and the hills of Fife which I could just about make out - though admittedly I am familiar with the landscape.  The rooms boast a lot of fine plasterwork which was crafted in 1742 by Thomas Clayton and features many scallop shells.  I found that I could make out many of the geometric lines in the plasterwork and carvings throughout the house in much the same way as I could in a Robert Adam property, though Newhailes predates Robert Adam by a few decades.  In the dining room, which is in the older part of the house, there is some original 17th century panelling, which again I could make out.  Fireplaces in Newhailes are one of the major attractions, with both the fireplace decoration and the grates made locally.

The library wing of the house was completed in 1722 by Sir David Dalrymple and this is a stunning piece of architecture with furnishings to match and a fine Italian chimney piece.  The library housed so many books that it indicated both the influence and knowledge of the owner of the house and was doubtless a status symbol at the time.  The bookcases are bereft of books and this allows examination of the unique structure of the bookcases which surround virtually all of the wall space.  This is not something that you would buy in the nearby retail park, fit on top of a roof rack and then assemble with an allen key at home!

The Great Apartment mirrors the library wing.  In the dining room, there are Ionic columns which have wooden fluting round the supporting pillars illustrating the extension from Smith’s original villa into the 1730s expansion.  There is another fantastic chimney piece in the adjacent drawing room and so now I’m becoming an ‘expert’ in 18th century chimney pieces as well as tactile crossings and movable bus shelters! 

The tour continues with two stairways of different designs and one can tap ones way down and feel the banister going up and down.  There is an opportunity to go backstairs within the house and visit the kitchen in the basement.  This has remained unchanged since the 1950s and was originally sealed as the kitchens were usually the cause of fire in the 18th century.  The house is exited via a servants’ tunnel and I returned to the stables. 

The visit was a real treat and it was very kind of Jenny and the other staff who had remembered me from the year before.  If you are in the Edinburgh area and you have given up on the overrun tourist sites in the city, I would recommend that you persuade someone to take you to Newhailes.  There are other houses worth exploring in and around Edinburgh and I hope to be reporting on these in due course.  Again, many thanks to Jenny, who is normally on duty on a Sunday afternoon. 

Useful websites:

National Trust for Scotland:
Local transport:

I have recently posted on Hailes Castle.  Lord Hailes took his title from this estate.  The post is linked here:  A branch of the Dalrymple family is based at Oxenfoord Castle in Midlothian and I have included a brief discussion and picture of Oxenfoord Castle in a post on Walks in Midlothian:


© Professor Whitestick