The History of Leith

June 13, 2012

Balmerino House

At the corner of Coatfield Lane, in the Kirkgate,
there stands a great mansion, having a handsome
front to the east, exhibiting some curious examples
of the debased Gothic architecture which prevailed
in the reign of James VI. From its subsequent
noble proprietors, it bears still the name of Balmerino
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 (a 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- VI. 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
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 inexplicable
ingenuity of these riddles, with the date
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 est
Et erit. 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 I3th 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 1650, during the defence of the city against
Cromwell, Charles II., after being feasted in the
Parliament House on the 2Qth of July, ” thairafter
went down to Leith,” says Nicoll, in his ” Diary,”
” to ane ludging belonging to the Lord Balmerinoch,
appointit for his resait during his abyding in
Balfour records in his “Annals ” that Anna Kerr,
widow of John, Lord Balmerino, second sister of
Robert, Earl of Somerset, Viscount Rochester, ” departed
this lyffe at Leith,” on the i5th February,
1650, and was solemnly interred at Restalrig.

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