Standing at the heart of one of Scotland’s most important 18th-century designed landscapes Penicuik House was designed and built in the 1760s by Sir James Clerk, 3rd Baronet of Penicuik, with John Baxter the ‘elder’, a renowned builder of that period, responsible for many of Scotland’s most distinguished 18th-century country houses. Later extended with two large wings by the eminent Victorian architect David Bryce in 1857, the house quickly became established as one of the finest second-generation neo-Palladian houses in the country until a fire in 1899 devastated the roof and interiors and left the once-magnificent building in ruins. Penicuik House perfectly embodies the ideals of Palladian architecture in its simplicity and symmetry and is unquestionably one of the finest examples of this style in Britain today.
Penicuik House perfectly embodies the ideals of Palladian architecture in its simplicity and symmetry
When the Barony of Penicuik was acquired by John Clerk in 1654, Newbiggin House was the family home on the Estate. John Clerk’s son – Sir John Clerk, 1st Baronet of Penicuik – initiated the agricultural improvement of the Estate by the enclosure of pastures and the planting of trees, and his son Sir John Clerk, 2nd Baronet was responsible for the creation of the Designed Landscape which survives, largely unchanged, today. Sir John, the 2nd Baronet, had considered extensively remodeling Newbiggin House but it was his son Sir James, 3rd Baronet who, in collaboration with John Baxter the Elder, demolished the existing house in 1761 and designed and built Penicuik House in its place, siting it in the heart of the magnificent Designed Landscape which had been created by his father in the early 1700s.
A Question of Symmetry
Sir James, 3rd Baronet, was a firm believer in symmetry, so Penicuik House was designed with two staircases of equal importance leading up from the front hall – a somewhat dated treatment as the fashion of the time was for a grand state staircase with a smaller secondary stair for servants.
The resulting elevated central portico, and the positioning of the bedroom floor on the attic storey under a platform roof attracted criticism from both Sir James’s family and the architect Robert Adam, whose sister Susanna was married to one of Sir James’s brothers, John Clerk of Eldin.
However the consciously outmoded design and the four-square planning of the rooms delighted Sir James and echoed the vision of his father, Sir John Clerk: “Above the attic floor a platform roof may be extended like a spacious field from where the many pleasant landskips [sic] round may be with ease and delight survey’d.”(“The Country Seat”, 1720s)
The Ossian Hall
Sir James commissioned influential Scottish artist Alexander Runciman to decorate the ceiling of the grand saloon.
By 1769 the interior of Penicuik House had been largely completed – in lavish style – with finishing details including Dutch white chimney tiles and copies of antique Roman statues, commissioned from a sculptor in Rome by John Baxter the Younger on Sir James’s behalf. But it was The Ossian Hall which was the true pièce de resistance.
Sir James commissioned influential Scottish artist, Alexander Runciman (1736-1785), to decorate the ceiling of the grand saloon not, as might have been expected, with themes derived from Classical antiquity – as indeed was the original intention – but rather with themes from the recently published Poems of Ossian (1765) by the Scottish poet James Macpherson.
Macpherson claimed to have collected the tales in their original Scots Gaelic by ‘word-of-mouth’ and the work was hugely influential in the development of Romanticism, the concept of the ‘noble savage’ and the Gaelic revival so Sir James’s decision to dedicate the ceiling of the grandest room in Penicuik House to Ossianic themes reveals much about his position at the vanguard of developing national and international culture.
However, the authenticity of James Macpherson’s seminal work was called into question and a heated debate over provenance and originality raged well into the 20th century, long after Runciman’s magnificent ceiling, one of Scotland’s greatest lost artworks, was destroyed by the fire of 1899.
In 1857, Penicuik House was subject to an ‘extension’ – albeit on a grand scale. Sir George, 6th Baronet, appointed David Bryce to design new wings at each end of the house to meet the demands of the fashionable Victorian house party. The building contract was awarded to Messrs Hall of Galasheils for the sum of £7,267 2s 0d – a substantial amount in those days.
The Great Fire of 1899
On the 16th of June 1899, disaster struck. A fire broke out causing large-scale destruction of the interior of the grand house and completely gutting the roof.During the fire a great deal of effort was channeled into salvaging the furnishings:
“Pictures, pianos and potted palms were bundled out of the great iconic portico, down the steps and onto the circular lawn, while the fight with the fire continued hour by hour.”
Sadly, the house could not be saved and, due to problems with insurance, funds were unavailable to meet the cost of rebuilding the main house. The adjacent stable block was converted instead, creating a new family home in 1900 for Sir George, 8th Baronet, and his wife Aymée.
The Lost Years
For nearly 100 years, this great Palladian mansion stood as a majestic ruin and the focal point of one of the greatest Scottish landscaped policies. But each year wind, weather and vandalism took their toll, and the fabric of what remained of the building became ever weaker and more unstable.
By the early 1980s a crisis had been reached and the shell of one of the grandest houses in Midlothian faced a new threat. Its continued existence as a romantic ruin, deeply evocative of the age that gave it birth, was in danger of demolition by order of the Local Authority on the grounds of safety. This situation led to the formation in September 1985 of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust, which was publicly launched in February 1987.
A New Beginning
The object of the Trust (a charity registered in Scotland) was, from the outset, to save Penicuik House for the enjoyment and instruction of all. Ownership of the building and its immediate surroundings was therefore conveyed to the Trustees in order for the structure to be consolidated and opened to the public.
A huge amount of time and effort was put in by many individuals in many different ways – not least the Trustees themselves and members of the Clerk Family – as major conservation projects of this type require stamina and perseverance over long periods of time to achieve the desired outcomes.
Simpson & Brown, Architects; Peter McGowan Associates, Landscape Architects; The Edinburgh Consultancy, Management Consultants; Wren & Bell Engineers; and Morham & Brotchie Limited, Quantity Surveyors provided the expertise to finally win support from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2006, allowing the Penicuik House Project to begin.
The Penicuik House Project 2006-2014
In September 2014, we completed a phased eight-year, £7.4m consolidation of Penicuik House delivering, at the same time, a wealth of educational and training benefits through a working partnership with the Scottish Lime Centre Trust.
More than 5,000 people attended courses in the use of traditional building materials in the dedicated Training Centre on site.
9 apprentices were employed by the main contractors during the course of the Penicuik House Project.
5 of those apprentices completed their training on the project, becoming time served stone masons.