An architectural detective story tucked away off the Royal Mile.
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The real joy of Edinburgh’s Old Town is to explore the labyrinth of closes and wynds, and step back many centuries into another world. Tweeddale Court is one the best examples, with an entrance opposite the Scottish Storytelling Centre just before the World’s End pub. Walking down the narrow passageway you emerge through a pair of iron gates into a courtyard, with Tweeddale House right in front of you.
The building is something of an architectural detective story, changed and adapted many times over the years. Inside are the remains of a carved doorway dated 1576, with the initials of perhaps the first owner, Neil Lang and his wife Elizabeth Danielstoune. Lang was Keeper of the Signet, one of Scotland’s most senior legal officers, and as a wealthy man he followed the fashion of building his town house down a close, tucked away from the noise and bustle of the High Street.
The building came by its present name in 1670 when it was bought by the Marquess of Tweeddale, a senior adviser to King Charles II. He adapted and refurbished the house again, and added a personal touch to the garden. The author Daniel Defoe wrote that: “…the Marquess of Tweeddale has a good city house, with a plantation of lime trees behind it instead of a garden.” In the 18th century though the house seems to have gone into decline, and in 1750 the architects John and Robert Adam even suggested its demolition.
In 1791 the building became the head office of the British Linen Bank, and it was probably then that a porch was added to the entrance and iron bars fixed over the windows. In 1806 this was the scene of one of Edinburgh’s most notorious and unsolved murders. It was on the evening of 13th November that a little girl heading to a well to fill a kettle stumbled across something lying in the entrance to the court. It was the body of bank messenger William Begbie, lying in a pool of blood and with a knife stuck in his chest. Earlier that evening he had set out to deliver a package of £4,000 in banknotes to a branch in Leith. Despite a major search for the culprit no one was ever arrested for the crime, although months later most of the money was discovered hidden in an old wall, roughly where Drummond Place is today.
In the early 19th century, Tweeddale House was bought by the printers Oliver & Boyd, and their name is still proudly displayed over the main door. Another reminder of their ownership is the hoist you can still see up on the first floor, used for lifting supplies into a workshop. Today the link with publishing is still maintained, as following a major restoration project the building became the offices of The List.
As well as Tweeddale House, the courtyard at the end of the close has two other quirky features worth a look. The high stone wall on the west side of the close is thought to be a remnant of the ‘Kings Wall’, which in medieval times marked the boundary of the city. But also notice the stone built shed next to the wall, which is perhaps the smallest listed building in Edinburgh. It is a rare example of a sedan chair house dating to the Georgian period, when sedan chairs provided a quick and efficient way of travelling around the city.
Tweeddale Court has some extraordinary stories to tell, but it is by no means unusual in having such a rich history. The next time you are walking the Royal Mile, step off the beaten track and explore the closes and courts, to see a glimpse of the ancient city.