The History of Leith

December 7, 2004

Demolition reveals home of eccentric evolutionary

THE remains of a house occupied by one of Edinburgh’s most respected 18th-century judges and the pioneer of evolutionary theory have been uncovered by archaeologists amid the demolition of Old Town vaults.

Experts believe the home – one of many buried for more than a century underneath the Waverley Station car park in New Street – was that of the eccentric Lord Monboddo.

The site, which also includes Victorian vaults covering more than 8,000 square metres, is being cleared to make way for new city council headquarters being built at New Street and East Market Street.

Archives suggest the area was the location of grand residences for 18th-century luminaries such as the lawyer and philosopher Lord Kames, man of letters Lord Hailes and colonel Sir Philip Ainslie.

Archaeologists have excavated substantial foundations which they believe may form part of the house belonging to Lord Monboddo, whose 1773 book Of the Origin and Progress of Language expressed evolutionary theory almost a century before Charles Darwin.

Experts have also been examining the Waverley Vaults, a series of underground brick and stone chambers built in the 1890s and used as a store for goods coming into the station. The vaults are currently exposed by the demolition work.

The city archaeologist, John Lawson, said: “This work is an important opportunity to record a part of Edinburgh’s rich industrial heritage. The discovery of the foundations for several substantial buildings, including one most likely that of Lord Monboddo’s house, builds on the work we completed on the Cowgate fire site and broadens our understanding of the life and personalities of 17th and 18th-century Edinburgh.”

David McDonald, the director of heritage group, the Cockburn Association, said: “The finds are fascinating from a social history perspective.

“Lord Monboddo was known for his eccentric ways. Once on a rainy day he is remembered to have come out of court and placed his wig in his sedan chair to protect it from the rain and walked home. He was also a friend of Robert Burns.

“Lord Kames proposed building the North Bridge in 1754 but was opposed by builders who were extending the city towards the south. Construction of the first North Bridge began in 1763.”

Historian Jan-Andrew Henderson, whose book The Emperor’s New Kilt includes a chapter about Lord Monboddo, said: “He was an extraordinary figure. When he said man was derived from animals and that orang-utans were capable of speech he was ridiculed.

“But he was right – almost a century before Charles Darwin. Ironically, he is buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard a very short distance from where Darwin studied.”

The excavation has been done by AOC Archaeology Group for Stannifer Development Ltd on behalf of Morley Fund Management. The building that will form the council’s new headquarters, due to open in 2006, is being developed by Morley Fund Management on behalf of Norwich Union Life and Pension (NULAP) and will be leased to the council for 20 years.



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