Penicuik House

(Old Penicuik House)

NE Front, Penicuik House
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

NE Front, Penicuik House

The shell of a fine Palladian mansion located a mile (1.5 km) southeast of Silverburn and 1½ miles (2.5 km) southwest of Penicuik in Midlothian, Penicuik House (or Old Penicuik House) lies within a designed parkland landscape around the steep valley of the River North Esk. The house was gutted by fire in 1899 and the lack of insurance prevented an impecunious family from rebuilding. Despite its condition, the house is of considerable importance and has been A-listed since 1971.

The estate was acquired by John Clerk, a wealthy merchant, in 1654. His son, Sir John Clerk (1650 - 1722) began to lay out a designed landscape having visited the fine houses and gardens of France in the later 1670s. Sir James Clerk, the 3rd Baronet (1709-82), began remodelling and eventually demolishing and rebuilding his home Newbiggin House to create Penicuik House on the same site between 1761-69. The design was arrived at as a collaboration between Sir James and the mason John Baxter Senior, who had worked on Mavisbank House for Sir James' father. Comprising three storeys, with a prominent piano nobile, bedrooms in an attic floor and service rooms in the basement, the design was considered old-fashioned by some, including architect Robert Adam (1728-92). Steps rise from either side to an immense Ionic hexastyle portico, which provides access to the principal floor. The house was sympathetically extended by David Bryce (1803-76) in 1859, with full-height stubby wings added at either end, costing more than £7000. The floors within these were supported by unusual cast iron jointed beams which can still be seen.

The interior was lavish; a grand stair rose from an entrance hall which was adorned with Roman antiquities. The painted ceiling incorporating Classical figures was by John Bonnar in 1782. The ceiling of the saloon dated from 1773 and was the work of Alexander Runciman (1736-85) featuring scenes relating to Ossian, the Gaelic poet, again in a Classical style. Runciman was also responsible for decorating a fine dining room and the Egyptian Gallery.

Sir George Clerk, 8th Baronet (1852 - 1911), tried to sell the estate in 1890 as he spent his time in England. Not having found a buyer, the house was tenanted at the time of the fire, which proceeded slowly taking days to complete its destruction. This allowed time for most of the contents of the house to be saved. It seems unimaginable today that the house was lost but this was a time when there was no effective means to extinguishing a fire in a large property. The Penicuik House Preservation Trust was established in 1985. It seeks to consolidate the ruin and to work in conjunction with the Penicuik Estate to open the parkland landscape to the public. In the longer term the intention is to preserve important structures located within the estate, perhaps including a full restoration of the house.

The Clerks now live in the nearby stable block, which was converted to family accommodation 1900-02, incorporating architectural features salvaged from their ruined house. The stables were completed in 1766 and comprised a coach house, brew house and bakery. The most prominent feature is an unusual domed doo-cot on the roof. This was modelled on Arthur's O'on - a remarkable Roman temple which lay close to Stenhousemuir (Falkirk) until it was disgracefully demolished in 1743, much to the distress of Sir James Clerk, an enthusiastic antiquarian, who ensured a copy was incorporated into his new stables. The stable courtyard now forms a pretty garden.

Sir James continued his father's work on the policies around the house, and is said to have planted more than 300,000 trees by 1730. The same year, he created a large walled garden that is now being restored by Penicuik Community Development Trust which obtained a long lease in 2012. Sir James also created vistas based on sight lines to The Flag Tower on Knight's Law to the north northeast and to Ramsay's Monument on the opposite bank of the North Esk.

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