Tucked away off the Canongate in the Old Town is Acheson House, a grand seventeenth century building. For many years it was empty, and on the ‘buildings at risk’ register, but now it has a new lease of life as headquarters of Edinburgh World Heritage.
Acheson House was built in 1633 for Sir Archibald Acheson, a government minister for King Charles I. At that time the Canongate was the preferred residence for the Scottish nobility and gentry, being closer to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and less crowded than the High Street or Lawnmarket. Maps of the period show a series of mansions lining the street, most of which have elaborate gardens laid out behind them.
Acheson had his house built secluded off the main street, accessed down what is now called Bakehouse Close, and with a main entrance hidden behind a walled courtyard. There is also a garden to the south of the building, adding even more space and privacy for the occupants. Above one of the doorways he had his family crest carved in stone, a cockerel and trumpet, and a monogram of the initials of Acheson and his wife Margaret Hamilton. In addition to kitchens and bedrooms on the south side of the house, there are two large reception or dining rooms on the ground and first floor. Clearly this was a town house that reflected the power and status of the owner, one of the chief ministers of the king.
However, Archibald Acheson was not able to enjoy his new town house for long, as he died the year after it was finished. His son inherited the building, but soon sold it to a wealthy Edinburgh merchant named Patrick Wood. Over the next 200 hundred years it was sold on many times, often in settlement of debts, and in the process the grand house was split up and became a tenement.
By the Victorian period Acheson House, like the rest of the Old Town, was overcrowded and becoming increasingly dilapidated. The 1851 census shows a total of 323 people living in the buildings around Bakehouse Close, indicating a drastic decline in living standards from Acheson’s time. In the 1830s Acheson House attracted the attention of the Edinburgh detective James McLevy, whose memoirs record it as commonly known as the ‘Cock and Trumpet’ – from the old Acheson family crest which is inscribed over the door.
One morning I happened to be earlier on my rounds than usual and though houses like the Cock and Trumpet do their business during night and are therefore late openers I found the door open…..going straight in I passed through a room of sleeping beauties reposing blissfully amidst a chorus of snorts.” McLevy caught the master of the house red-handed with stolen hens and ducks. The lasses of the house were called to help gather the evidence, and McLevy describes their: “swollen, sleepless eyes, their disheveled hair….”. As always, the detective got his man, and in McLevy’s words his prisoner had: “fallen from being master of the Cock and Trumpet to being the occupant of a prison. Such is the ascending and descending scale of profligate life.
In 1924 the council bought Acheson House as part of a slum clearance scheme in the Canongate, and for many years its future hung in the balance. The Old Edinburgh Club and the Cockburn Association started a campaign to save the building from demolition, which caught the attention of the Marquess of Bute. In 1935 he bought Acheson House and commissioned architects Neil and Hurd to restore the building. The exteriors were conserved and the interiors opened up to their original plan, with reconstructions of the type of decorated plasterwork ceilings that would once have been there. The ceiling in the main first floor room is probably the grandest, with heraldic roses, thistles, fleu-de-lys and the monogram of the Marquess of Bute.
After some suggestions that the building could be used as the official residence of the Secretary of State for Scotland, it finally became the Scottish Craft Centre in the 1950s, showcasing contemporary craftwork. In 1991 Acheson House returned to the ownership of the City of Edinburgh Council, but without any use for the building its future again seemed to be uncertain. However, in 2011 part of the ground floor became a part of the Museum of Edinburgh, with much of the rest of the building forming the offices of Edinburgh World Heritage. After a long and eventful history, Acheson House now has a secure future, to be appreciated by everyone as one of the treasures of the city.