"A little house on Blackford Hill"

 A hoose is but a puppet-box to keep life's images frae knocks
 but mannikins scrieve oot their sauls upon its crawsteps an' its walls . . .

Lewis Spence, The Prows o' Reekie

Maybe it all started in 1956, in the office of the Building Society.  "Na, na, Mr Sillitto. You don't want an old house of character in Haddington. What you want is a nice little bungalow in Corstorphine.
"Besides,"  he added,  "Haddington is a dying town - they've taken the railway away."

So we stayed on in the top floor flat on the south side of George Square, our home since December 23rd, 1950.  In those days, plenty of families lived in the Square, or in the adjoining Buccleuch Place, renting flats from the University and sharing the central gardens with the Edinburgh worthies who still owned some of the houses.  It was a great way of living in a town: a real community with very varied backgrounds and interests, around a safe outdoor space where children could explore together while their mothers sat in the sun and talked.

But in July, 1958, we'd had a whole month's holiday in Magilligan where the air was clean - the longest holiday we ever had (Dick was writing Quantum Mechanics every morning) - and August in George Square was unbearable by contrast.  The top of Blackford Hill, a mile to the south, was the one place where the dust was not oppressive, and Winifred and our 5-year-old son spent many afternoons up there.  One such day, waiting for the bus home in Charterhall Road we noticed a sign across the way,  "Sites to Feu",  and a new idea was born.

George Mackies dust cover for Non-relativistic Quantum Mechanics by R M Sillitto

Our son started school that year, and the bus from Charterhall Road passed the school. Journeys on all the other buses that passed his school did not disclose a better situation for a little house.  The builder was encouraging; yes, of course he could build a house to an architect's design (but some of it he did his own way in the end).  We had been saving with an insurance company and their agent saw no objection, but he advised us to have our house just a little different from its neighbours.

Whom should we choose as architect?  Certainly not any of our architect friends - we wanted to be sure they would remain our friends.  Patrick Nuttgens advised us to wait a few weeks before deciding, for an exhibition of the work of 6 young Scottish architects in the '57 Gallery. We went to it separately, and separately decided that Morris & Steedman stood out above all the rest.  So over Christmas we prepared a detailed brief and sent it to Bob Steedman; he visited the site with us, and in January 1959 he invited us to go and see the model he had produced.  It even had a model tricycle in the courtyard, so our son fell for it too.

model north  elevation      Bob Steedmans model     model plan view

the site in January 1959

north windows

Bob explained that his partner was away in the army, but had managed to borrow a drawing board and create a design on the basis of the site assessment that Bob had sent him. Jim Morris did not see the site, nor did we meet him, until the building was almost complete.

A two-storey house was quite a surprise; but there was just one rather narrow piece of fairly flat land in the sloping quarter-acre site, the hill rose to the south, and the view to the north was tremendous - so naturally the public rooms would be upstairs, thereby reducing the ground area and getting an extra three week's sunshine in midwinter.  12 large windows, separated by projecting wooden mullions, faced north above a continuous run of deep cupboards which gave rigidity to the whole structure.  On the south side the windows were shorter.  Mullions, rafters and floor joists formed a sort of cage overhanging the storey below like a bartizan.  Central kitchen and stairwell had intriguing openings to the upper space.

Downstairs, the cavity walls would be lightweight concrete blocks for easy transport and good insulation, rendered and lime-washed like a typical Scottish country cottage.  The bedrooms faced east and west, each with its own outside door sheltered from the north by an extension of the front wall.  A courtyard to the west was earmarked for future extension of the house, but meantime would be our son's playground.

as our neighbour John Hutchison saw it: a stranger is the friend you haven't met yet

We borrowed the model to show Pat Nuttgens.  He looked at it for a long time before giving his verdict.  "This is architecture" he said.

Months of planning, discussing, waiting, followed.  Bob and Winifred took the model to the Building Society.  "Not much unconventional about this, Mr Steedman" the manager said; but he agreed to give us a large loan.  George Morrison, the builder with an option on the Feu, took the drawings to the Feu Superior's solicitors: "anything you build is sure to be all right, Mr Morrison, we don't need to see the drawings".  Dick picked up his office phone one day and overheard his technician in conversation with a friend in the city Planning Office;  "the boss says it's like a bloody birdcage" the planner was saying.

bulldozer1 bulldozer2 bulldozer3

Eventually the contract was signed, a bulldozer flattened the site in October, 1959, and the house became ours on the 31st of March 1961:  the first 'modern' house in Edinburgh that could be seen from a bus route, its windows reflecting the sky and its wooden mullions echoing the trees on the hillside above.

house on bus route

32 Charterhall Road from northeast 1961

We delighted in it for thirty years, and are glad to see, in 1995, that it's still in the hands of people who cherish it and the garden.

32 Charterhall Road from north spring 1991

Early spring 1991

flower in the scree - click to see another corner

We are immensely grateful to Bob Steedman and Jim Morris who conceived it together in those heady pioneering days; to everyone who helped to build it, particularly Cyril Morrison, the joiner;  to Marion Ross who asked her garden designer friend, Kate Hawkins, to plant the scree (she had the excellent idea of making a raised bed opposite the door of the east bedroom);  to Professor Charles Taylor who planted some of the trees (larch from Perthshire, which did well, and spruce which happily did not!);  and to all those friends whose visits helped to make it such a happy home. 

trees in back garden

This is a hastily constructed web page based on an old essay and illustrated with a few of the hundreds of unorganised photos which lurk in drawers and boxes in our flat in Dunbar.  Maybe some day I'll add more pictures, and tidy up the source syntax - but more likely, life will be too full and too short, but click here!  With the exception of the pictures by DHD (the Nungate Bridge in Haddington and adjacent house - the one we couldn't buy) and by the late John R Hutchison (our welcoming next-door neighbour, optician in Forrest Road) all pictures on this page are copyright ©WS/RMS 1950-2012.

looking above front door
Looking out from the stairs through the glass above the front door, towards the city
'yon shadow mile of spire and vane'
in the poem by Lewis Spence which was part of our brief to the architects

the skyline to the north showing the church in Marchmont, the Royal Mile behind trees, and the Hume Tower

By 1990 the view of the golden weathervane on St Giles had disappeared behind the trees of The Grange,
but the spire of Tolbooth St Johns (now The Hub) is still clearly visible.
The Hume Tower, on the right, is in George Square

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