A Brief History of Merchiston

Merchiston’s Early Years

The residential area of Merchiston has an impressive history. The earliest known reference to it appears in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland for the year 1266 when it existed as one of a handful of independently owned estates lying adjacent to the western and south sides of the Burgh Muir, a rough tract of forest and moorland to which the city of Edinburgh had held title since the preceding century.


The Merchiston estate was acquired in 1438 by Alexander Napier, a wealthy Edinburgh merchant and one-time provost of the city. He or his son, also Alexander, were responsible for the building of Merchiston Tower, a fifteenth century towerhouse now incorporated into the Merchiston campus of Napier University. The towerhouse was the birthplace in 1550 of John Napier, the astronomer and mathematician who invented logarithms, devised the notion of the decimal point and whose proposals for novel armaments are now seen to anticipate tanks, armoured cars and submarines. In his day the “simple of Merchiston” credited Napier with having supernatural powers. He and his father before him both “had the reputation of being a great wizard.” The Scotsman newspaper’s archives contain an article from 28 December 1910 entitled The Wizard Lairds of Merchiston (see http://archive.scotsman.com ). Surprisingly — for a wizard — Napier was also a respected theologian and Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland… 


Further evidence of pre-nineteenth century development of the Merchiston area is offered by a stone plaque at the corner of Bruntsfield Gardens and Bruntsfield Place. This plaque is the only present-day reminder of the site of a seventeenth century towerhouse, described as a “gable ended and gabled manor house” built by the Livingstone family of what was then the Greenhill estate. The mausoleum of John Livingstone, the estate’s original owner, is located towards the end of Chamberlain Road, just before the junction with Greenhill Gardens. An apothecary, Livingstone died of plague in 1645, a generation after his neighbour, the “great wizard” of Merchiston had passed away in 1617. 

Merchiston in the 19th Century


By the end of the nineteenth century the lay-out of the Merchiston area had been established as we know it today, much of it built using the grey sandstone quarried locally from the old Burgh Muir. The Greenhill estate towerhouse was demolished in 1884 in order to make way over the following decade for the tenement construction in Forbes Road and Bruntsfield Place, Avenue and Gardens. Building on Merchiston Place and Merchiston Avenue was already well underway during the late 1860s, by which time many of the large villas in places such as Abbotsford Park and Greenhill Gardens had been in existence for more than fifteen years. Earlier still, the house at 1 Church Hill was constructed in 1842 by Dr Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the 1843 Disruption when 474 ministers seceded from the Church of Scotland to form what became the Free Church of Scotland. He died at home in 1847 and mourners at his funeral were said to have numbered in the thousands.

Among the Merchiston area’s other nineteenth century residents of note was the architect and engineer James Gowans. His own home, its exterior a flamboyant mix of French, Gothic and Chinese influences combined with very distinctive stonework, was built by him in 1858 at 3 Napier Road. In 1966, despite widespread objections, it was demolished, leaving the house built opposite at 10 Napier Road and a set of terraced houses on nearby Colinton Road as the only remaining examples of his work in the Merchiston area south of the Union Canal.

North of the canal, however, in the Shandon area, are examples of his designs for model housing development. Gowans was a very active proponent of improvement in housing for the working-class and his campaign for “light and air”, i.e relief from the ill-effects of industrial pollution, was a major factor in the post 1850 development of Shandon’s colony-type artisan dwellings. The Union Canal, completed by 1822, had stimulated the development of the industries with which the Shandon and Fountainbridge areas are associated, then if not now: slaughterhouses and meat markets, breweries, distilleries and railway works.

The Modern Era

The twentieth century saw some important additions to the Merchiston area’s townscape. New school buildings, Boroughmuir High School on Viewforth and George Watson’s College on Colinton Road, were opened in 1913 and 1932 respectively. The completion of the Napier Technical College complex, also on Colinton Road, followed in 1964 and in 1992, the same year as the technical college officially became the main campus of several making up the new Napier University, the Eric Liddell Centre at Holy Corner opened as a community centre for residents of the Merchiston area. Named in honour of the Olympic gold medal winner and medical missionary who had been a member of the church’s congregation at one time, the establishment of the Eric Liddell Centre within the refurbished former North Morningside Church served equally to protect the architectural integrity of Holy Corner, “one of the most striking and well-known townscape features in the city outside of [sic] the central area.”[1]


A complete restoration of the Union Canal was also carried out in the 1990s with Millennium Link project funding. At the start of the twenty-first century the canal is both a popular leisure resource as well as the core of the current extensive commercial and housing redevelopment of Fountainbridge.

Similarly successful upgrading of Polwarth’s Harrison Park has resulted in the recent award of a Green Flag, one of only three awarded in Scotland see green flag link.

Of the twenty-first century residents of the Merchiston area, the best known are probably a number of leading writers who have chosen to make their homes here. Merchiston has been dubbed Edinburgh’s new “Literary Quarter” or, more irreverently, “Writers’ Block”. To be seen shopping in the local Tesco Metro, enjoying a coffee in Starbucks next door or just quietly walking the dog, the creators of Rhona MacLeod, Inspector Rebus, and Mma Ramotswe are household names worldwide.

Further Reading on the History of Merchiston

A much fuller account of the history of the Merchiston area is to be found in Edinburgh City Council’s Character Appraisals for the Merchiston and Greenhill Conservation Area and for the Shandon Conservation Area (see http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk)

A useful and very readable resource is Charles J Smith’s Historic South Edinburgh, published in 2000 by Birlinn, Edinburgh.

[1] Edinburgh City Council’s Character Appraisal for the Merchiston and Greenhill Conservation Area, pt 2 p 6

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