Lady Stair’s House, home to the Writers' Museum, lies just off the Lawnmarket, a location favoured by tourists as a picturesque piece of Old Edinburgh (Image via Edinburgh_Edition)
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Lady Stair’s House lies just off the Lawnmarket, a location favoured by tourists as a picturesque piece of Old Edinburgh. Perhaps its popularity partly lies in its fairy-tale look, described by one architectural expert as “…picturesque Arts & Crafts confection, with…vigorously unreal stonework”. However the building does have almost 400 years of history, and represents a remarkable survival from the past.
The house was built in 1622 by Sir William Gray of Pittendrum, a very successful city merchant. At that time it was common for the wealthy to live tucked away down one of the hundreds of narrow passageways known as closes, away from the bustle and noise of the main street.
Sir William Gray’s fortunes turned dramatically during the Civil War in the 1640s. He was fined and later imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle for his connections with royalists. Then, in 1645, his daughter died of the plague.
Sir William himself died in 1648, but his wife continued to live there for many years, and eventually the close leading to the house became known as Lady Gray’s Close in her honour. It kept that name until around 1719 when Elizabeth, Dowager Countess of Stair, bought the building and so the close and house took on her name.
By the 1890’s, Lady Stair’s House was in a very bad condition, and was earmarked for demolition. It was saved in 1893 when the house was bought by Lord Rosebery, a direct descendant of Sir William Gray. The restoration was carried out by George Shaw Aitken, and greatly altered the building. Sections on the north, south and west had to be demolished, creating the stand-alone house we see today.
The romantic looking turret was added about this time, following the newly fashionable ‘Scotch baronial’ style of architecture. However many original features were retained. The main room on the first floor has an impressive fireplace from the 17th century building. Over the main entrance a carved stone lintel can also be seen, with the date 1622 and the initials of Sir William Gray and his wife Geida Smith.
In 1907 the house was gifted to the city for use as a museum, and the council’s collection of artefacts were transferred from the City Chambers. In 1937 the house became a family home once again, as a widow with two children was appointed as a live-in custodian. Some sixty years later, one of those children, a lady called Helen Ross, returned to see her childhood home again, and left a record of her memories of Lady Stair’s House.
Perhaps her fondest memory was her wedding reception, held in the house during World War II when the museum was closed to the public. Her guests were sat around an impressive 15 foot long dining table once owned by Sir Walter Scott. It is difficult to imagine modern-day curators allowing that to happen again!
Today Lady Stair’s House is home to the Writers’ Museum, with displays celebrating authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. It is open Monday – Saturday and admission is free, allowing anyone to go and imagine themselves as the proud owners and gaze at the fine views over Princes Street Gardens.
Listen as curator Elaine Grieg reveals the hidden secrets of the Writers’ Museum:
The Writers’ Museum, also known as Lady Stair’s House, has a rich and varied history. Connected with many famous historical figures, it was saved from demolition in the 1890s.
Sir William Gray was a very successful merchant, and able to afford to build a house for himself and his family in the city’s Lawnmarket. The house was located down one of the hundreds of narrow passageways known as closes.
Gray gained great influence and wealth during the early 17th century. However, his luck was not to last…
During the Civil Wars Gray was fined and imprisoned for corresponding with the Scottish Royalist James Graham, the 1st Marquis of Montrose. A further ordeal occurred in 1645 when his daughter died of the plague in the old house.
The traumatic events of the 1640s were to hasten Gray’s death, which took place in 1648. Gray’s widow, Geida, survived him and continued to live in the house for many years.
Eventually the close leading to the house became known as Lady Gray’s Close in her honour. It kept that name until the 18th century when Lady Stair moved into the house, and the close was re-named after her.
By the 1890s, Lady Stair’s House was in very bad condition, and was ready for demolition. It was saved in 1893 when the house was bought by Lord Rosebery, a direct descendant of Sir William Gray. The restoration was carried out by George Shaw Aitken from 1895 to 1897 in an imaginative re-working of early 17th century Scots architecture.
The restoration saved the building, but in the process it was altered greatly. Much of the house was in an unsafe condition, and the demolition of the north, south and west wings was seen as unavoidable.
Traces of Gray’s original house can still be seen. The lower part of the stair tower with has a carved door piece. Note the lintel dated 1622 and carved with the initials of Gray and his wife Geida Smith. A stone stair with steps of uneven height is also thought to date from the original building.
Following the restoration, Archibald Primrose gifted the building to the city for use as a municipal museum.
The Writers Museum is open to the public: Monday – Saturday 10am-5pm. Admission free.