Robert Downie and the big heart of Regency Edinburgh

200 years ago today, on 8 August 1812, the Caledonian Mercury newspaper noted the arrival of a new face in Edinburgh. They didn’t even know his name, but he must have made an impressive entrance:

He was Robert Downie: he was 41 years old, vastly rich, and he had come home. 

Robert Downie’s father was a farmer and distiller in Spittaldon, half way between Stirling and the Trossachs: perhaps he was one of the moss lairds  who migrated from the Highlands to drain the bog and improve the lands of the Forth Valley. Downie himself undertook a far longer journey to seek his fortune, to India.

Spittaldon, Menteith, Stirlingshire

Most of the Edinburgh New Town residents I have studied who made fortunes in India enjoyed an official appointment in the East India Company, courtesy of the patronage of Henry Dundas. Robert Downie had no such privilege. He went to Calcutta, where private ‘Houses of Agency’ were springing up from the 1780s. They financed ships and plantations, ran banks and insurance, and arranged cargoes and remittances. By 1800 they were so successful that their trade in Bengal eclipsed that of the Company. Downie rose to become a partner in one of these houses, Downie and Maitland, which later metamorphosed into the more well-known Cruttenden, MacKillop and Co.

In 1804, aged 33, He married Mary, 18-year-old daughter of one of the Establishment: Joseph Barnard-Smith, a rising merchant in the East India Company. By the time he returned to Scotland the couple had four daughters, Mary, Georgina, Roberta and Harriet, although Mary died soon after their arrival. 

The Downies settled at no.20 Charlotte Square, where in 1814 Mary had a son, also Robert. The residents of Charlotte Square were amongst the wealthiest in Edinburgh, but were notable for their mixed social backgrounds: William Arbuthnot at no.16 was the son of a failed businessman in Aberdeen. Henry Cockburn at no.14, opposite his friend John Tod at 46, came from solid local landed families, and had risen in the legal profession. Next door to the Downies at no.19, Thomas Allan came from a dynasty of Edinburgh bankers. At no.7, with a longer pedigree but a shorter pocket, the clan chief John Lamont of Lamont was on the point of having to sell up, his ancestral wealth unable to keep pace with these beneficiaries of Scotland’s economic miracle.

Yet this was before the days when Edinburgh turned in on itself and peeked at its neighbours from behind lace curtains. These first inhabitants of Charlotte Square, many of whom had young children, formed a flourishing community characterised by long and happy marriages, an idealistic belief in their ability to  improve their society, and an abundance of good food in informal settings. Picnics in the Pentlands, jaunts to country houses, and suppers at in one another’s parlours form (along with politics and civic engagement) the material of their letters. Downie, the mysterious traveller from another world, had arrived in what appears to be history’s happiest communities.  

Downie threw himself into the Scottish craze for Improvement. Three years after his return, he was chair of the Company which promoted the Telford’s Union Line of the canal from Edinburgh to Glasgow, in opposition to the Town Council who were championing an impractical and circuitous ‘Upper Line’. The Union Line was ultimately successful, and Downie, the major shareholder, gave his name to the street (Downie Place, now a part of Lothian Road) which looked onto the final port in the canal, Port Hopetoun, which came in under a bridge over Semple Street and filled the area between Semple Street and Lothian Road.

The original Union Canal basin facing the Canal Company’s own street, Downie Place, now a section of Lothian Road containing some very useful shops. From John Wood’s ‘Plan of the City of Edinburgh’ (1831)

Robert Downie was a religious man, and his philanthropy suggests a certain greatness of heart. He was a major investor in the Episcopal Chapel of St John’s which was built in 1818 conveniently between his house in Charlotte Square and his Canal site on Lothian Road, and a member of its first Vestry. On his return from India he had bought the Highland estate of Appin from the Marquis of Tweeddale. Thirty years later, the Presbyterian minister of Appin said of him, ‘I do not think that there is a parish in Scotland in which the Episcopalian heritors deserve at the hands of the Establishment more honourable mention’.

St John’s Chapel in 2012: the canal has been superseded as a form of transport by the buses, and the Town Council’s latest transport lark, the trams, are under construction.

Downie had learned Episcopalianism in India, where the Anglican Church predominated. On the mosses of Spittalton he had been brought up a Presbyterian, and one might imagine that he would be eager to erase this lowly past, and remain the mysterious traveller whose history began in India. Yet soon after his return to Scotland he ‘presented to the congregation of Norriestown, an elegant service of four silver communion cups, as a tribute of the regard for that religious establishment, which he attended in his youth.’

Downie went on to enter parliament for the Stirling Burghs, and died in 1841. A shrewd businessman yet generous, open-minded yet committed to his beliefs, travelling the world yet attached to places, Robert Downie was one of the people who made Regency Edinburgh such an exciting place to be.

More information and sources are available on Robert Downie’s page at The Episcopal Congregation of Charlotte Chapel project website.

Goodbye Bovril Factory

It used to be on my route to school, and then to work. We called it the Bovril Factory, because of the marmite smell of hops which hung over our whole area.

Brewing has been one of the chief industries of the south-west of Edinburgh since at least the sixteenth century. The name ‘Bristo’ (where Edinburgh University now is) comes from ‘Brewster’. The reason the area has also become a centre for the arts is thanks to the profits of brewing: both the McEwan and Usher concert halls were named after the brewers who built them.

Bristo Square and the McEwan Hall, from Layers of Edinburgh

It was McEwan’s company who built the Fountain Brewery, moving out from the now-gentrified Bristo area into a cheaper industrial suburb to the west, with the convenient transport link of the canal. The twentieth-century brewery building was the latest addition to a well-established industrial area, many of whose quirky and beautiful earlier buildings have been preserved. Sharing the Fountain Brewery site was an old Rubber Factory, whose curving profile makes it appear to be built from its own product, instead of brick — an unusual material for Edinburgh, but characteristic of Fountainbridge. It has survived the demolition so far, at last un-dwarfed by its surroundings, and I hope will be preserved.

The rubber factory (left) behind the nibbling dinosaurs which revealed it, and the last and highest part of the Fountain Brewery (right) still mainly intact in July. The foreground is the canal towpath.

Our ‘Bovril Factory’ closed in 2004. Watching its demolition this summer has been endlessly fascinating. This morning, in an Edinburgh Festival downpour, I came past to find a dinosaur pulling the gigantic bovril jar from its shelf:

It’s strangely reminiscent of the McEwans Lager ad where people are pushing giant spheres up endless flights of stairs in the rain. I hope the dinosaur gets a nice refreshing pint at the end of his day.

The photographer Dave Henniker has been recording the demolition, the strange buildings, the fantastically beautiful graffiti, elder and buddleia which has embroidered it all.

I can’t say I’m too bothered about McEwans lager, being a devotee of the rather posher Deuchars IPA (which is still brewed in Edinburgh, just about a mile out further west). But I do miss the smell of the hops: the smell, for me, of home. And I’ll miss this last sublime landmark of Fountainbridge’s industrial history, and so will the jackdaws, starlings, swallows and doves for whom, these last few years this strange derelict iron cliff was also home.

It’s supposed to be becoming hotels, shops, flats, well-kempt trees growing from paved boulevards, flash-flooding in a downpour. I hope it doesn’t. I have a dream of another brewery billionaire coming along: a modern McEwan, creating the Fountain Gardens, green, with great spreading oaks and flowerbeds, lawns where ball-games are allowed, winding paths, fantastic fountains, beehives and birdboxes, little rowing-boats to hire on the canal, a museum of Fountainbridge history in the middle … Well, one can dream. But if there are any billionaires out there, I know the perfect curator for the museum…

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Perfection and Freedom: high enlightenment in the Edinburgh New Town

I will give a half-hour talk this Sunday, 26 June, at 5pm in St John’s Church, Princes Street. Admittance is free and wine will be served in return for donations.

In August 1792, as revolutionary crowds stormed the Tuileries and
France became a republic, the Reverend Daniel Sandford arrived in the
New Town from Oxford University, and advertised for pupils ‘whose
education in the Classics he will superintend, paying particular
attention to the Grammar and Pronunciation of the English Language.’
In 1818, now Bishop of Edinburgh, Sandford built St John’s Church,
where he ministered until his death in 1830. His ideology seems
strange to us now, and was old-fashioned even to early Victorians. Yet
his unique message, which married gospel truth with enlightenment
optimism, made him an important role model and inspiration to build a
better world to his influential New Town congregation.

This half-hour talk, first given at the Modern British History Network Conference, takes you back 200 years into the mindset which shaped the architecture and liturgy of our church. It will be followed by a short time for discussion, and at 6pm by a chance to experience that architecture and liturgy, at choral evensong.

The Sad Story of James Lundin Cooper: A Charlotte Chapel Biography

You are most welcome to reproduce this article in Church magazines. You may edit it for length but please include the information and contact details at the end. I’d also love to know if you are using it.

The Charlotte Chapel Biographies is an occasional column dedicated to the subjects of my PhD, the 420 identifiable members of Charlotte Episcopal Chapel, 1794-1818, who subsequently built St John’s, Princes Street, Edinburgh.

In 1816, twenty-five-year-old James Lundin Cooper brought his bride Sarah Brown to Edinburgh to be married by Bishop Daniel Sandford in the stylish Charlotte Chapel. He was a writer in Kirkcaldy and she was the daughter of a local merchant. He appears a few years later practising his profession, administering the estate of a bankrupt businessman in Kirkcaldy.

Cooper was an ambitious man, and not content to remain merely a provincial lawyer he sought his fortune in business. By 1830 he was manager of the Kirkcaldy and London Shipping Company, which ran three ships and employed three Captains, rejoicing in the names of Moir, Morison and Mann. As the leading Manager (or vestryman) of the Episcopal Chapel in Kirkcaldy, he successfully charmed the energetic, young and dedicated priest Mr Marshall into replacing their decrepit old incumbent, even though the chapel could only offer a paltry £20 stipend. Meanwhile his family prospered: Sarah bore him three chidren, Elizabeth, Michael and Mary.

It quickly became clear to Rev Marshall, however, that Cooper and his fellow managers were running a racket, giving themselves huge discounts on seat-rents, keeping Marshall’s salary low, and ‘finding it convenient that the clause should fall into disuse’ which stipulated that the whole congregation should choose their managers annually, preferring instead to appoint themselves for life.

When the priest tried to rectify the situation, the managers went to the bishop, accusing Marshall of immorality, neglect of duty, and (when this didn’t work), insanity. This was a great mistake: Marshall was well-respected, and eloquent clergy weighed in to defend his character from this evident nonsense. Cooper, one of them reported, ‘had the modesty to offer evidence to Bishop Torry that Mr Marshall is (or was) insane, and in his hand writing came forth a document in which that gentleman was charged with going to a theatre and dining out.’ Cooper, who had been the man of education and status amongst the merchants and shoemakers on the vestry, was made to look very foolish by being represented in the lead actor in this farce.

Whereas other managers left the Episcopal Church altogether and began attending the Kirk — although they still made a point of turning up to collect the contents of the collection plate, and chattering and laughing in the porch during Mr Marshall’s service — James does appear to have put his head down and attempted to make amends with the priest.

But it was too late. Whether it was divine judgement, the discrediting of his character, bad luck or similarly bad judgement in his business dealings, Cooper went bankrupt  in 1836. In 1838 his daughters Elizabeth and Mary died, and the following year James himself went to his grave. His teenage son Michael only outlived him by two years. I don’t know what happened to Sarah. Perhaps she remarried.

One could take various morals from this story. I suppose the first might be, don’t accuse your priest of insanity if you meet him at the theatre.

Eleanor Harris.

Please let me know if you would like to be informed of future talks or publications connected with this project. You can email me at or find me on twitter @eleanormharris

Oddly Gothick

A history post rather than an art one for a change. St Paul’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh ( used to be two churches — you can probably guess what they were called. After the small congregation of St George’s moved across the road into the big building of St Paul’s, their little chapel was later demolished. I’ve finally worked out where on York Place it used to be: its here, where the casino is! But the Rectory at no.7, which adjoined it on the left and was built at the same time, survived. It looks like a classical georgian house until you look closely. There are ‘Gothick’ crenellations on the roof, ‘Gothick’ clustered columns round the door, and ‘Gothic’ cruciform arrowslits (!) on either side of the second floor windows. As an attempt at making a building look Mediaeval it is not, to our eyes, a great success, with its round arches and its regular rectangular windows. But in 1794 there wasn’t anything better around.

A demolished architectural mishmash of a chapel might seem a bit of a footnote in cultural history, except that the Rector for whom it was built, Alexander Cleeve, was the tutor of Walter Scott, who had just begun to practice as an advocate when St George’s was built. Whereas Edinburgh Gothic went off in a scholarly direction, Scott ran away with the fantasy to weave wonderful works of fiction, and a house, Abbotsford:

(I hope Travel Destination Pictures will forgive my borrowing their picture if I tell you that they have this and lots of other lovely photos here.)

In Abbotsford, Scott invented the style known as ‘Scottish Baronial’ which was used to design pretty much every tenement in Edinburgh and Glasgow for the whole of the nineteenth century. Alexander Cleeve, sticking crenellations, clusterings and cruciforms onto his Georgian House, might have a lot to answer for!

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Ruskin’s Moss

Walking between amongst the stone walls and old trees of the Lake District this weekend I was trying to recall John Ruskin’s description of moss. I think it’s the most beautiful piece of descriptive writing I’ve ever found, so here it is, so I have it to hand when I have time to illustrate it, or learn it by heart: 

Mosses– Meek creatures! the first mercy of the earth, veiling with hushed softness its dintless rocks; creatures full of pity, covering with strange and tender honour the scarred disgrace of ruin, laying quiet finger on the trembling stones to teach them rest. No words, that I know of, will say what these mosses are. None are delicate enough, none perfect enough, none rich enough. How is one to tell of the rounded bosses of furred and beaming green, — the starred divisions of rubied bloom, fine-filmed, as if the rock spirits could spin porphyry as we do glass, — the traceries of intricate silver, and fringes of amber, lustrous, arborescent, burnished through every fibre into fitful brightness and glossy traverses of silken change, yet all subdued and pensive, and framed for simplest, sweetest offices of grace? They will not be gathered, like the flowers, for chaplet, or love-token; but of these the wild bird will make its nest, and the wearied child his pillow.

And as the earth’s first mercy, so they are its last gift to us: when all other service is vain, from plant and tree, the soft mosses and gray lichen take up their watch by the headstone. The woods, the blossoms, the gift-bearing grasses, have done their parts for a time; but these do service for ever. Trees for the builder’s yard, flowers for the bride’s chamber, corn for the granary, moss for the grave.  — John Ruskin, Frondes Agrestes 59.

The Christmas Falcon

It’s Christmas Eve, 1814, and the big house of Falcon Hall in Edinburgh is wrapped in snow and night. In the kitchen, the grumbling cook is preparing Christmas dinner when a mysterious child with a falcon on her shoulder comes to help him…

The Falcon Christmas is based on the true stories of Falcon Hall in Morningside, Edinburgh, and of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. It is a 6000-word story hidden inside a Christmas card which I wrote, illustrated and individually produced about half a mile from the place where the story is set.

The ideas for The Christmas Falcon came from various sources. There was research for my PhD on the Falconars of Falcon Hall and on dinner parties in the New Town of Edinburgh. There was the accidental discovery that Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge was based on a real person. And there was watching The Muppet Christmas Carol once too often. I did re-read Charles Dickens’ original version when writing my story, and discovered that Kermit and company stuck pretty closely to it.

I love that sort of story, the sort where the ingredients of snow, food, carols, historical costumes, children, animals, and a huge dose of good will to all, are mixed together into a delicious warming Christmas pudding of escapism, ideal for reading curled up by a fire with a glass of mulled wine. It’s just the right length for one of those Christmas gaps, while you’re waiting for the pudding to be done, or for the cousins to arrive, or for the long Christmas Eve evening before Midnight Mass.

But I also like stories that teach you stuff, and the Christmas Falcon, while entirely fictitious in itself, has a lot of history behind it. At the end of the ribbon-bound storybook inside the card, there’s a link to a page on my website with the historical background to the story, which I hope both Edinburgh and Dickens fans will find interesting. There’s also a snatch of poetry from one of my favourite poets, the Scottish Renaissance writer William Dunbar, of whom I hope you will hear more from me.

To be honest, the most arduous part of producing The Christmas Falcon turned out to be sticking on the glitter. But it’s worth it, because it will bring my William-Blake-y illustration to life so delightfully when it’s on your mantlepiece with fairy lights or candles around it. And as I stick it on, I think of you opening the door to the cousins, or arriving at Midnight Mass, or serving the pudding, with a warm heart, and slightly glittery.

You can buy The Christmas Falcon on Etsy or Folksy. If you have read The Christmas Falcon I would be delighted if you would take the time to review it using the comments box below. And please follow me on facebook or sign up for email updates on my website to hear about my future projects.

The St John’s Garden


St John’s Church at the West End of Edinburgh have just completed a major project to improve and open up their historic and beautiful graveyard. They asked me to provide an illustration for a new interpretative sign. It’s the cherry on the cake of all the work of tree-felling, planting, path-building and monument restoration which has been going on in the background.

graveyard-panel-smallMy illustration was beautifully put together with the information on the history and facilities of the site by graphic designer Peter Blood from The Osprey Company,, who provided the signboard itself. If you want a sign, we’ve made a good team and would love to work together again!




The sign was unveiled at a special ceremony with the Bishop of Edinburgh (the guy in the pink frock…) The unveiling is being done by historian Angus Mitchell, who knows more about the people buried in the churchyard than anyone. (I’m hot on his heels, however, because the people in the graveyard are some of the subject of my history PhD which you can read about here).

The sign is on the Terrace down the steps from Lothian Road — drop in and have a look if you’re in Edinburgh!