The History of Leith

June 23, 2004

The History of Balmerino House-Leith

Mr Daniel Wilson in his “Memorials of Edinburgh vol 1 page 94” remarks-“The fine old mansion of this family (Balmerino) still stands at the corner of Coatfield lane, in the Kirkgate.

It has a handsome front to the east, ornamented with some curious specimens of the debased gothic, prevalent in the reign of James VI”. The same author observes “its most striking feature is a curiously decorated doorway, finished in the ornate style of gothic-an ogee arch, filled with rich gothic tracery surmounts the square lintel, finished with s lion’s head which seems to hold the arch suspended in its mouth, on other side is a sculptured shield on which a monogram is cut, characterised by the usual inexplicable ingenuity of these quaint riddles and with the date 1631

He goes on to mention “Tradition may be right in assigning this mansion as the temporary residence of Charles II in 1650. The arms are of the Stewart of Scotland, quarterly, first and fourth (lion Rampant), second and third, azure a galley (or lymphad) her sails furled.

The crest should have been “ a sovereign in a chair of state in armour, royally crowned and robed in dexter hand a dagger, in sinister an owl, the motto “sic fuit est st erit”, the Balmerino family shield bore three bears heads and a chevron), it is in good preservation. From the absence of the crest and the general appearance of the stone built into the wall at a later period then the date bears. The character of the carving-the cornet and monogram-are identical with these represented and are readily recognised.

The proper entrance to the mansion was from the narrow alley in the Kirkgate where the main tower is still to be seen. It bears the coronet of an earl with the letter “C” surmounted by the thistle. The house itself was built by John Stewart, Earl of Carrick second son of Robert of Orkney natural son of James V in 1631. The earl of Carrick sold the house and grounds on the 13th September 1643 to John, Lord Balmerino. The house remained in the Balmerino until the attainder on the last lord Balmerino and the property was sold in 1755 to the Earl of Moray who in turn sold it to Lady Baird of Newbyth for 700 pounds. Lady Baird was succeeded by her brother General James St Clair of St Clair and then he sold it to Colonel Robert Elphinstone of Logie
Elphinstone for 1050 pounds. Elphinstone then sold the house to William Sibbald a merchant of Leith for !475 pounds, The house was subdivided for poor tenants until in 1848 it was finally sold to the roman Catholic Church for 1800 pounds.

Between the Shore of Leith and South Leith Church there was for many years a path that was called the “Road to the Alter stane” The idea being the sailors and ships in the harbour of Leith could see a lamp burning within the Church of South Leith or as it was called in pre-Reformation times St Mary’s and it acted as an invitation to come to Church. However when the house was built this road was blocked of and the “Road to the Alter stane” disappeared into the lore of Leith. Needless to say Lord Balmerio’s house has now been demolished and another part of Leith’s rich history has now been lost for ever.

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