Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

Cramond Tower - A Derelict Property - Rescued, Restored and Reoccupied

Cramond Tower Edinburgh

Cramond Tower, Edinburgh

Cramond Tower had been empty for over two centuries when I first saw it. Surrounded by a jungle of elderberry trees, and overshadowed by 300-year-old sycamores, it was almost hidden from view, but periodically I would fight my way through the undergrowth for a closer inspection. It was a ruin. The four walls were still intact and it had a roof of sorts, but the open window spaces, the bricked-up doorway and the saplings growing out of the walls all made for an aura of gloom.

It seemed a pity that such a unique building should be allowed to succumb to the twin ravages of time and vandalism, and I began to make enquiries regarding its ownership with a view to acquiring and restoring it.

As an amateur antiquarian my original intention, when I bought the tower in 1978, had been to manage the project as a hobby, with no particular timescale, but then my eldest son saw the restored tower as a place in which he could live and carry on his work as a wildlife artist and a taxidermist, and he inspired a new degree of urgency for the task.

Not that it was quick. Nearly two years were spent on acquiring the building from the previous owners, the legatees of the late Mrs Craigie-Halkett, obtaining the necessary planning permission and satisfying the various authorities that our intentions were honourable. This was followed by a further four years of part-time work before residence was possible.

Cramond Tower views

Cramond Tower stands on high ground overlooking the Firth of Forth, a few hundred yards to the south-east of Cramond village on the north-western extremity of the capital. It has as its neighbours the 15th century Cramond Church and 17th century Cramond House.

Its history is obscure. Ratcliffe Barnett writing in 1926 states, 'Over the sea wall at Nether Cramond you will see an old tower - the only remaining fragment of the summer palace of the Bishop of Dunkeld, and once a portion of the castle which stood near the old Roman Camp of Caer-almond. The Bishops Palace was founded in the twelfth century when David I granted the lands to the Bishop of Dunkeld.' Unfortunately Mr Barnett does not cite any authority for his statement.

In Sir James Dalrymple's Historical Collections it is said that 'Robert Avendale, Justiciary of Lothian in the reign of William the Lyon (who swayed the Scottish sceptre from 1160 to 1214), and his family, did possess Karramund, and gave that part to the Bishops of Dunkeld, called Bishops Cramond, now possessed by Sir John Inglis Bart.' Keith in his Historical Catalogue of the Scottish Bishops, notes that Richard de Prebenda, second Bishop of Dunkeld died at Cramond in 1173 or 1174, and that John de Leicester, the seventh bishop of that see, died at Cramond in 1214.

From an indenture of excambion, however, in the possession of Mr. Watson of Saughton, John Wood (in his book The Antient and Modern State of the Parish of Cramond, written in 1794) notes 'it appears that Robert de Cardeny, the then Bishop of Dunkeld, made, in 1409, an exchange of the lands of cammo in this parish, for the tower of Cramond, several pieces of ground within the barony of Kirk Cramond, and divers annual rents, with John de Nudre, and William de Nudre his son and heir.' Little is known of the Nudre (or Niddry) family, and there would appear to be no textual evidence extant that would show by whom or when the tower was originally built.

Of all the Bishops of Dunkeld, the best known was Gavin Douglas, the third son of Archibald, fifth Earl of Angus (Bell the Cat). A confidant of Queen Margaret (James IV's widow), he was nominated by her to the see in 1515, but was opposed by the Earl of Atholl. Within a month, however, he was installed as Bishop, after the intervention of the Queen's brother, Henry VIII, to the pope, and with some help from his friends, in one letter to his friends he writes, 'Forget not to solyst and convey well my promotion to Dunkelden, as ye luf me, for I haf gevyn the money quhar ye bad me.' Gavin Douglas is better remembered, however, as a poet and translator of The Aeneid.

The later history of the tower is rather better documented. After the Reformation, James Paton, the first Protestant Bishop of Dunkeld, alienated the lands of Cramond in 1574 to Archibald Douglas Kilspindle (descended from Archibald (Bell the Cat), Earl of Angus. Keith in his Historical Catalogue of Scottish Bishops adds, 'for which, and, other dilapidations of his benefice, Paton was deposed the following year, 1575.'

Archibald Douglas of Kilspindle was succeeded in the lands of Cramond by his son Patrick, who in turn alienated them to Alexander Douglas, a macer in Edinburgh in 1600. In 1622, the estate was then sold to James Inglis, a merchant in Edinburgh. Various generations of the Inglis family followed, including Sir John Inglis, born in 1683, who (according to Wood) 'after attaining a period of life to which very few reach, without suffering so much as one days confinement by sickness, died at Cramond 3rd March 1771, aged 88. He was universally esteemed and respected, and enjoyed for some years the office of Postmaster General of Scotland. His wife, with whom he lived no less than 63 years in a married state, was Ann daughter of Adam Cockburn of Ormistoun, Lord Justice Clerk.'

In 1680, the then laird, John Inglis, who obviously prospered in business despite having been imprisoned and heavily fined as a Covenanter, for his part in the Cramond Conventicles, moved from the old tower to a new and more commodious house some hundred yards inland.

The Inglis family continued possession of their Cramond estate, including the old tower, until 1817, when Sir Patrick Inglis, Ann Cockburn's third son, died and the estate passed to Lady Torphichen - daughter of Sir John Inglis who had died in 1799, leaving the estate to his younger brother Sir Patrick. After Lady Torphichen's death, the estate passed to Susan, a descendant of another of Anne Cockburn's children. She married Cragie and her daughter married a Halkett, the Craigie Halketts then becoming lairds of Cramond.

Following the building of Cramond House in 1680, the old tower stood empty for the next three hundred years, gradually becoming completely derelict. By 1837, James Skene, the Edinburgh painter, portrayed it as a romantic ruin, and so it stayed until the 1970's. The only practical use to which the tower was ever put during these three hundred years of neglect, was to house a gas plant for lighting the 'Big Hoose' during the Great War.

Cramond Tower interior

Cramond Tower interior

In volume three of the Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland by D.MacGibbon and T.Ross 1889, it is stated that the tower is in an unfortunate condition, being entirely crowned with ivy, which has got such a hold of it (the branches in some places going through the walls) as to greatly imperil its safety, while on the top, in consequence of the roots of saplings penetrating the walls and arch, the masonry is becoming dangerous. This is greatly to be regretted, as the structure is somewhat unique, and might easily be preserved from decay.'

Nothing was done, however, until the 1960's when Edinburgh Town Council removed most of the vegetation and crowned the barrel roof with a concrete cap. On discovering later that they did not own the building, further restoration was abandoned and it was again left to the ravages of time, the weather and vandalism.

The tower is a classic example of the medieval Scottish defensive tower. Four storeys high, it rises over fifty feet above the ancient raised beach, standing firmly on a solid six foot deep stone conglomerate foundation. In plan, the tower covers an area of approximately twenty-five feet square, while the walls are so thick (over five feet in places) that the plan areas of the walls surrounding each of the rooms exceeds the area of the room enclosed.

The roots of saplings penetrating the walls and arch, the masonry is becoming dangerous. This is greatly to be regretted, as the structure is somewhat unique, and might easily be preserved from decay

A semi-circular stair-tower protrudes at the south-east corner of the building, within this there is a stone turnpike stair, which now leads to the roof. Prior to restoration the stair rose only from the ground floor to the first floor but was missing completely for the next two levels only to reappear at the top storey. The concrete cap, added in the 1960's, prevented access to the roof area from the turnpike stair (It also blocked the chimneys from main hall and second floor fireplaces). It is virtually certain that the staircase would have been surmounted by a cap house, and this has now been restored.

The tower would have had either a pitched roof garret room or a battlemented roof. The former was considered to be the more likely and so a pitched roof was added during the restoration.

One unique feature of the tower is that the axis of the upper barrel vault is at right angles to that of the first floor barrel roof. Before restoration in the 1970's, all the wooden floors had gone, leaving only a few of the original oak beams. Although not capable of being re-used as joists, they were split by a local timber merchant and used to make a door for the main entrance.

Restoration to one degree or another was required on every floor. The eight foot wide arched canopy of the main hall fireplace had been destroyed, and there was a twelve-foot gap in the chimney breast above. Modern services had to be provided to the building. The nearest drain was approximately 50 feet away, but its exact location and depth were unknown. The nearest electricity supply was 40 yards away and the nearest water supply over 100 yards distant. Restoration plans, based on sketches provided by my son, were prepared by Robert Hurd and Partners and approved by the Historic Buildings Council and the appropriate planning authorities. Grants covering approximately a fifth of the estimated cost of the work were obtained from the Historic Buildings Council and the local District Council.

The project called for the acquisition of a wide variety of new skills. Some acquaintance with architectural drawing was obviously necessary, and familiarity with the demands of a whole series of statutory bodies had to be gained, as well as some knowledge of woodworking, stone masonry, concrete reinforcement, plumbing, drainage, electrical wiring and slate cutting.

Before embarking on the project we had taken notice of St. Luke's advice in his gospel, "Which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?" It was just as well, for we had not fully forseen what the project would involve, both in terms of tedious manual labour, and even more tedious and frustrating hours of letter writing and negotiation. Before the work had been completed, the Cramond Tower restoration correspondence files contained no fewer than 453 letters, proving that, although the physical skills were important, only perseverance finally enabled the end result to be achieved.

It would not be true, however, to imply that the work was wholly laborious. There were days of brilliant sunshine when everyone just sat around on the flat roof, level with the surrounding tree tops, and admired the magnificent panorama of the city to the south of the Firth of Forth to the north. There were other days when the tea break would be in front of a roaring fire in the main hall, and there were unique rewards, such as the occasion when a visitor slapped his hand on a completely re-built stone wall and remarked, "They don't build walls like that nowdays!"

Vandalism was rife, during the early phases and to avoid the use of unattended scaffolding - an invitation to daring hooligans - my son carried out much of the external pointing and the laying of 5000 old Scots slates from the safety of his mountaineering harness. The lowest room was floored over at ground level to provide a five-foot high basement, in which there is some evidence of an old well.

The external aspect of the ground floor entrance shows evidence of iron hangings set into square recess around the doorway, indicating that there would have been an iron yett at one time, in addition to the heavy wooden door. Behind the main entrance, the opening leading into the ground floor room is a pointed archway.

The first floor room was, and still is, the main hall. Its main feature is an eight-foot wide open fireplace, with the now restored arched hood. In the north wall there is a blocked-up doorway, with three steps built into the thickness of the wall. In the Inventory of the Royal Commission on the ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, it is described as a cupboard 'the front being panelled in Memel pine'. None of the woodwork, however, was still in existence when the restoration work began.

The second floor has also a segmental arched roof fireplace, somewhat smaller than the one in the main hall. There was a window in the south wall, furnished with well-preserved stone seats in the thickness of the wall. Within the east wall, there was a garde-robe, which has been modernised and brought back into service for its original purpose. In the restoration, a mahogany panelled partition divides the room into two parts, the north-east corner being fitted out as a kitchen, and the remaining L-shaped portion as a dining room.

The third floor has been similarly divided to provide a bathroom and a bedroom. The pitched roof garret space is sufficient for two further bedrooms. Although there is no textual evidence confirming the fact that there had been extensions to the tower both east and west, there is ample architectural evidence in the form of roof lines and joist holes in the external walls to show that this was so. The building to the east had been a three-storey lean-to, and that to the west a three storey pitched roof extension. The latter is assumed to have been a chapel.

In 1992, the east wing was reconstructed over the original foundations, but reduced in height so as not to obscure the evidence of the original building. Under the direction of the City Archaeologist, digging was carried out around the tower in the 1970's. A large quantity of Roman potsherds was found including the spout portion of a Roman mortarium, in addition to a pile of broken 17th and 18th century wine bottles, some marked Cramond on the shoulder. The other finds include a Charles II coin, a 19th century Russian penny, a medallion and a few silver pins.

Externally, the tower is now very much as it must have been in its heyday, but internally, although the visual impact is that of a centuries old building, the present owners enjoy a degree of comfort that would have been beyond the imagination of any of the Bishops of Dunkeld.

Article by Eric Jamieson. Taken from The Journal issue 11

Added: 11 Jun 2010 Updated: 29 Mar 2018
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