The History of Leith

April 7, 2005

The Origins of Lord Balmerino’s House

Balmerino House 1883

FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY feet north-westward of St. Mary’s church, and on the same side of the Kirkgate, opens the ancient alley named Coatfield Lane, which, after a turn to the south in Charlotte Lane, led originally to the Links. Dr. Robertson gives a quotation from the “Parish Records” of South Leith, under date 2 May, 1592, as showing “the origin” of Coatfield Lane: “the quhilk day, the Provost, Johnne Arnottis, shepherd, was acted that for every sheep he beit in ye Kirk yeard suld pay ix merks, and everie nyt yat carried (kept) thame betwix the Coatfield and ye Kirk style he should pay v. merk.”
But the name is older than the date given, a Patrick Logan of Coatfield was Bailie of Leith 10th September, 1470, and Robert Logan of the same place was Provost of the city in 1520, as the “Burgh Records” show; and when ruin began to overtake the wily and powerful Baron of Restalrig his lands of Mount Lothian and Nether Gogar were purchased from him by Andrew Logan of Coatfield in 1596, as stated in the old “Douglas Peerage.”
At the corner of Coatfield Lane, in the Kirkgatc there stands a great mansion, having a handsome front to the east, exhibiting some curious example of the debased Gothic architecture which prevailed in the reign of James VJ. From its subsequent noble proprietors, it bears still the name of Bal merino House; but long before they acquired the property here, it was built by John Stewart, Earl of Carrick, second son of Sir Robert Stewart of Strathdon (natural son of James V., by Euphemia, daughter of Lord Elphinstone), and who was created Earl of Orkney by James VI. in 1581. (Stuart’s “Hist. Royal Fam.”)

The house was built in 1631, two years before John, the second son of Robert, was created Earl of Carrick by Charles I., after being previously created Lord Kincleven by James VT. in 1607. He was a man of high attainments, and married Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Charles, Earl of Nottingham, and died in the year 1652, leaving only one daughter, Lady Margaret Stewart. (Collins’s “Peerage &c
Wilson thus describes the house
“Entering (from the Kirkgate) by a low and narrow archway immediately behind the buildings on the east side, about half-way between Charlotte Street and Coatfield Lane, the visitor finds himself in a singular-looking, irregular little court, retaining unequivocal marks of former magnificence. A projecting staircase is thrust obliquely into the narrow space, and adapts itself to the irregular sides of the court by sundry corners and recesses, such as form the most characteristic features of our old Scottish domestic architecture, and might almost seem to a powerful imagination to have been produced as it jostled itself into the straitened site. A richly-decorated dormer window forms the j chief ornament of this part of the building, finished
with unusually fine Elizabethan work, and surmounted by a coronet and thistle, with the letter C. Behind this, a simple square tower rises to a considerable height, finished with a bartizaned roof, apparently designed for commanding an extensive view. Such is the approach to the sole remaining abode of royalty in this ancient burgh. The straitened access, however, conveys a very false idea of the accommodation within, It is a large and elegant mansion, presenting a main front to the east, where an extensive piece of garden ground is enclosed, reaching nearly to the site of the ancient town walls, from whence it is probable there was an opening to the adjacent downs. The east front appears to have been considerably modernised,”
He adds that the most striking feature is the curiously decorated doorway an ogee arch, filled in with rich Gothic tracery, surmounting a square lintel, finished with the head of a lion, which seems to hold the arch suspended in its mouth. “On either side is a sculptured shield, on one of which a monogram is cut, characterised by the usual in explicable ingenuity of these riddles, with the date 1631
The other shield bears, Ist and 4th the lion rampant, 2nd and 3rd a ship, a smaller shield with a chevron, and a motto round the whole, Sic & Fvit The monogram is distinctly the four initial letters of John Stewart, Earl of Carrick.
The arms says Wilson, are neither those of Lord Balmerino, “nor of his ancestor, James Elphinstone (Lord Coupar), to whom the coroneted ‘C’ might be supposed to refer. The Earls of Crawford are also known to have had a house in Leith, but the arms in no degree correspond with those borne by any of these families.” On the 13th September, 1643, John, Earl of Carrick, sold the house and grounds to John, Lord Balmerino, whose family retained it as a residence till the attainder of the last peer in 1746. In
In 1650 during the defence of the city against Cromwell, Charles II., after being feasted in the Parliament House on the z of July, “thairafter went do to Leith,” says Nicoll, in his “Diary,”“to ane ludging belonging to the Lord Balmerinoch appointit for his resait during his abyding in Leith.”
Balfour records in his “Annals” that Anna Kerr, widow of John, Lord Balmerino, second sister of Robert, Earl of Somerset, Viscount Rochester, “parted this lyffe at Leith,” on the 15 February,1650, arid was solemnly interred at Restairig.
The part borne in history by Arthur, sixth and last lord of this family, is inseparably connected with the adventures of Prince Charles Edward. He was born in the year of the Revolution, and held a captain’s commission under Queen Anne in Viscount Shannon’s Foot, the 25th, or Regiment of Edinburgh. This he resigned to take up arms under the Earl of Mar, and fought at Sheriffmuir, after which he entered the French service, wherein he remained till the death of his brother Alexander, who, as the Gentleman’s Magazine records, expired at Leith in October, 1733. His father, anxious for his return home, sent him a free pardon from Government when be was residing at Berne, in
Switzerland, but he would not accept it until “he had obtained the permission of James VIII. to do so;” after which, the twenty years’ exile returned, and was joyfully received by his aged father.
Prince Charles landed in the memorable year1745 Arthur Elphinstone was among the first to join him, and was appointed colonel and captain of the second troop of life Guards, under Lord Elcho attending his person.
He was at the capture of Carlisle, the advance to and retreat from Derby and was present
With the Corps de Reserve at the victory of Falkirk He succeeded his brother as Lord Balmerino on the 5 January, 1746, and was taken prisoner at Culloden, committed to the Tower, and executed with the Earl of Kilmarnock in the August of the same year. His conduct at his death was a by the most glorious firmness and intrepidity. By his wife, Margaret, daughter of Captain Chalmers of Leith he left no issue, so the male line of this branch of house of Elphinstone became extinct.
His estates were confiscated, and the patronage of the first charge of South Leith reverted to the Crown. In 1746, “Elizabeth, dowager of Balmerino” (widow of James, fifth lord), by petition to “My Lords Commissioners of Edinburgh” for the sum of 97 pounds 5s, on the plea
“that your petitioner’s said deceast lord having died on the 6th day of January, 1746, the petitioner did ailment his family from that time till Whitsunday thereafter.” And the widow, baroness of Arthur was reduced to an aliment of forty pounds a year, “graciously granted in House of Hanover,” adds Robertson, who, in a footnote, gives us a touching little letter of hers, in London on the day after her husband’s execution addressed to her sister, Mrs. Borthwick
In 1755 the house and lands of Balmerino purchased by James, Earl of Moray, K.T., from the Scottish Barons of Exchequer, and six months afterwards the noble earl sold them to Lady Baird of Newbyth. She, in 1762, was succeeded by her brother, General St. Clair of St. Clair ; an after being in possession of Lieutenant-General Robert Horne Elphinstone of Logie-Elphinstone, the property was acquired by William Sibbald, merchant there, for £1475
The once stately mansion was now subdivided and occupied by tenants of the humblest class, until it was acquired by the Catholic Bishop of Edinburgh in 1848, for the purpose of erecting a chapel and school, for the sum of £1,8oo.
The Site is now Saint Mary Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church
Source-Old and New Edinburgh

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