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Edinburgh World Heritage/Museum of Edinburgh

Museum of Edinburgh

Overview

Discover Edinburgh’s fascinating history through the Museum of Edinburgh’s wide and varied collections. In exploring the Museum’s maze of 16th century buildings, you will see iconic items, beautiful objects and learn fascinating facts and gruesome tales (Image via Keith Hunter)

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Historic Huntly House

Listen as Sandra Marwick of Edinburgh Museums describes the changing fortunes of the building:


Timeline

  • 1517 Three separate properties on the site are bought by James Aitchison.
  • 1570 The three properties were converted into a single block, and the front of the building extended 10 feet into the street.
  • 1647 Bought by the Incorporation of Hammermen of the Canongate as an investment and a venue for meetings.
  • 1671 Robert Mylne was employed to enlarge the front block which was then let out as flats. The tenement was also raised by two storeys.
  • 1800s The property suffered gradual deterioration and was subdivided into numerous small dwellings.
  • 1924 Bought by the city council.
  • 1927-32 Restoration by Sir Frank Mears. The upper storeys of 1671 were replicated and the building was converted into the Museum of Edinburgh.
  • 1968-69 The museum was upgraded and extended.

Features

  • Original doorway: Go through the archway to Bakehouse Close and look to your right. The main entrance was at the top of the steps, hidden away off the main street for added security. Inside, on the first floor, you can see the remains of the original house on this site. Look out for a fireplace and a gun loop to help defend the building.
  • Carved stone plaques: The building was called the ‘speaking house’ by one Edinburgh author because of the carved stone plaques with Latin inscriptions that decorate the outside. Following restoration in 1932 a new plaque was added which reads; “I am old, but renew my youth”.

In 1762 the building was sold, and the surviving legal documents give us a fascinating snapshot of the mix of social classes all living under one roof.

Some of the tenants listed are:

  • Lord Adam Gordon – a successful military officer, who eventually became Commander-in-Chief of the army in Scotland and Governor of Edinburgh Castle. In 1764 he toured the American colonies, was granted 20,000 acres of land in East Florida, and had Lake Gordon named after him.
  • George Low, staymaker – at this time all women wore a set of stays, a kind of corset, under their clothes. The work was skilled and would have brought George into contact with rich clients, but staymakers never enjoyed the same status as male tailors. As one of the characters in Jane Austen’s novel Love and Friendship says: “…it is generally believed that my Father was a Staymaker of Edinburgh. This is however of little consequence for as my Mother was certainly never married to him it reflects no Dishonour on our Blood.”
  • Ewan, letter carrier – letter carriers were early versions of modern day postmen, carrying and delivering letters by hand throughout the city. Ewan would have been part of relatively small team, there were only 6 letter carriers employed in 1781, and they were paid 5s per week. The post office at this time was in Parliament Square, next to the law courts, and so delivering legal documents to the city’s lawyers must have been a large part of the job.

Restoration

During the 19th century the building suffered gradual deterioration. It was divided into many small apartments, and by the 1871 census the population of the close was recorded at 250 people.

From the early 20th century there was increasing public pressure to save historic buildings on the Royal Mile and the building was twice restored in the 20th century.

In 1924 the City of Edinburgh bought Huntly House and between 1927 and 1932 it was restored by Sir Frank Mears. Mears (1880-1953) was principal assistant to Patrick Geddes, the pioneer of conservation in Edinburgh. The restoration of Huntly House was just one of the results of their campaign for the renewal of the Royal Mile and is a good example of the ‘conservative surgery’ approach to conservation.

The upper storeys of 1671 were replicated and the building was converted into a museum. Wood panelling from previously demolished houses in the Cowgate and painted ceiling beams from Pinkie House in Musselburgh were used in restoration of the interior.

In 1932 the building opened as the Museum of Edinburgh and between 1968 and 1969 the museum was upgraded and extended to incorporate buildings on the east side of Bakehouse Close.

The Museum of Edinburgh is open to the public every day except Tuesday and Wednesday. Admission free.