Today’s auction house artefact is this oil painting of Margaret Balfour of Pilrig by an artist unknown, probably painted around 1830 .
Margaret Balfour, born 1807, was the daughter of James Balfour, 4th Laird of Pilrig and his wife Anne Mackintosh. She was the cousin of Margaret Isabella Balfour whose father – Lewis Balfour – was her paternal uncle. Margaret Isabella married Thomas “Lighthouse” Stevenson, son of Robert. They had many children, and one son was named after his grandfathers; Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson.
When Robert Lewis turned 18, he changed his name to something a bit more fashionably French and dropped “Balfour” – Robert Louis Stevenson.
Back to our original Margaret Balfour, she married the Reverend John Paul of St. Cuthbert’s Church in Edinburgh, the old West Kirk, and they had two sons. The eldest was William Paul who followed in his father’s footsteps and became Minister (of Whitekirk and Tyninghame), dying aged 35 in 1866. The younger son James Balfour Paul, he became a successful and high profile advocate and an expert on heraldry. In 1890 he became Lord Lyon King of Arms (hence his get-up in this portrait) and in 1900 became Sir James Balfour Paul, later KCVO. One of James Balfour Paul’s sons was Arthur Forman Balfour Paul (“Baffy Paul”) who apprenticed as an architect to Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, one of Scotland’s most prominent architects. Baffy Paul would become Rowand Anderson’s partner and later took over the entire practice.
Baffy Paul employed the young Basil Spence and William Kininmonth as draughtsmen (if you’re not into 20th Century Scottish architects, those are two of its biggest names!). The two inherited the Rowand Anderson & Paul practice and would later become *rather* well known postwar. Spence went his own way and Kininmonth kept it on as Rowand Anderson Kininmonth & Paul.
The Balfours are a name long associated with the Pilrig area of Edinburgh, centred on the beautiful 17th century Pilrig House, now standing in Pilrig Park (which was once its grounds and gardens). And yes, you may raise an eyebrow at me saying “area of Edinburgh” as it’s now within the boundaries of Leith. But for much of its history it wasn’t.
The estate of Pilrig, or Pelrygge, implies the existence of a Peel, a common sort of fortified dwelling tower house in Lowland Scotland, on a ridge – and the lands do form a vague ridge running down from Edinburgh towards the sea. Pelrygge “H” (perhaps for House?) is recorded on the 1560 “Petworth House” map of the Siege of Leith as it was one of the principal English/ Protestant positions for bombarding the French/ Catholic fortified town of Leith. It was named Mount Somerset after its English Captain.
Pilrig at this time was the lands of the Monypenny family of Leith. The current Pilrig House was built in 1638 by Edinburgh goldsmith Gilbert Kirkwood as the matrimonial home, recorded as Pilrige in John Adair’s survey of 1682.
The 1750 survey by William Roy shows the lands of Pilrig outlined with red lines (walls), bounded by what would become Leith Walk to the east, line of McDonald Road (which would not exist for c. 150 more years) to south, Bonnington Road to west and Great Junction Street (which would not exist for another 70 or so years) to the north.
The Balfours, or Ba’foors as they would have been called in the Scots tongue, are an ancient and noble Scottish family and came to Edinburgh from ancestral lands in Fife, via Powis in Stirlingshire. These early Balfours were close relations of “Scots Worthy” Andrew Melville, the firebrand protestant theologian and proponent of Presbyterianism. James Balfour of Powis, cousin of Melville, came to Edinburgh in 1589 to be a minister at St. Giles High Kirk in Edinburgh. Balfour’s descendants in Edinburgh prospered in the merchant classes, until one James Balfour (I think his great grandson) lost it all; he got involved with a little thing known as “The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies” which lost the best part of the nation’s wealth in the 1690s with its ill-fated schemes to the Darien isthmus.
James lost a lot of his wealth and “Ruined and disappointed, he seems to have lain down and died” in 1702 or ’03. His eldest son, James, shouldered his fathers debts but salvation came in the form of the Act of Union in 1707, which compensated the Darien investors. James wanted to disinherit himself to avoid taking on the debts of his father, but his mother talked him into accepting the burden “with honour“. It’s as well she did as otherwise he would never have been recompensed and would never have met his wife, Louisa Hamilton, “the Fair Flower of Clydesdale“.
James and Louisa returned to Edinburgh and set up home in Riddle’s Close to run his father’s surviving businesses, a soapworks, glassworks and shipyard in Leith. In 1718, they used £4,222 4s 5d of their Darien compensation to buy the Pilrig estate, then in the hands of the Lord Roseberry, the transaction being in instalments and completing in 1729. James, now styled 1st Laird of Pilrig, and Louisa had 8 children when they moved into Pilrig House, 6 sons and 2 daughters. It was the eldest son James (no surprises there, Scottish families in the 18th and 19th century seemed to draw from a very small pool of names and keep things consistent generation to generation) who inherited Pilrig on his father’s death in 1737, becoming 2nd Laird.
The Balfours did much work to improve Pilrig as it had fallen somewhat into disrepair since the Kirkwoods had built it. They spent well on interior fittings and contents and on improving the grounds, including planting the avenue of trees which would later form Balfour Street. The house passed from James Balfour, 2nd laird, to his son John “Jack” Balfour (3rd laird, 1740-1814). In turn it passed to his son; James Balfour, 4th laird. It was this last James who was father of Margaret Balfour in our portrait at the start of this thread.
Both Margaret and Margaret Isabella Balfour spent time living at Pilrig House, and through the latter the young Robert Louis Stevenson would have had first hand familiarity with it. He describes it in his book “Catriona” and it may be part of the inspiration for the House of the Schaws in Kidnapped. The princial hero of the latter book is of course one Davie Balfour, his name borrowed from the dynasty.
Pilrig remained in the hands of the Balfour (later styled the Balfour-Melville family) through the generations, but with its estate lands gradually portioned and sold (fued) off. What had been a rural setting on the outskirts of Edinburgh and Leith was quickly becoming enclosed all around by the industry and tenements of those burghs. By the time of the 4th laird, the grounds were already reduced and he fued much more of it off to form the Regency villas along the new Pilrig Street.
Balfour’s full plan was never really realised in its original form, with only some small portions (coloured in grey below) built as intended. Arthur, Melville, Whyte and St. Cuthbert’s Streets were all named for Balfour family connections; the 2nd lairds wife was a Whyte, the Melvilles were part of the extended Balfour family, St. Cuthberts was the church where John Paul had been minister etc.
The 5th Balfour of Pilrig was John Mackintosh Balfour, Mackintosh being his maternal line. He became John Mackintosh Balfour-Melville in 1883 when he inherited the Melville estates outside St. Andrews in Fife on the death of his relation – and keen golfer – John Whyte Melville.
On Balfour-Melville’s death in 1893, the house passed to his two surviving daughters, Barbara Gordon and Margate Jane Balfour-Melville, who lived all their days in Pilrig in faded and decaying grandeur. The remaining 20 acres of the Pilrig Estate were purchased by the Corporation of Edinburgh in 1922. Part of the conditions for the annexation of Leith being the provision of a new public park, and it was the lands of Pilrig that would fulfil this. The Balfour-Melville sisters continued to live in the house though. Barbara died in 1932 and when Margaret died in 1941 the vacant house was taken over by the Corporation. It was used during the war as a volunteer firefighters’ hostel.
After the war it was used as a hostel for homeless mothers, however was in an ever more perilous state of repair thanks to a lack of investment from the Corporation. The house’s last resident was a caretaker, who left when the ceiling of his attic dwelling collapsed. A 1954 plan by the City to turn it into an Old Folks Home came to nothing. A 1957 newspaper report by the Scottish historian Nigel Tranter described it thusly:
…it stands neglected and forlorn, lower windows barricaded up with corrugated iron, main building intact but domestic quarters to the rear damaged and semi-ruinous. Like others such as Niddrie Marischal and Merchiston Castle, also in the care of the city, authority has shown a lamentable lack of appreciation and responsibility towards it. What would some less fortunate cities give for the opportunity to put to imaginative use and display monuments of the past such as Pilrig House?Edinburgh Evening News, 5th October 1957
The elements took their toll, followed by the vandals, and by the late 1970s the house was a ruinous, burnt-out shell after some fairly terminal fires – you can see pictures of it in this state on on Scran (which does not give me a licence to reproduce them here).
The house narrowly avoided complete demolition and was saved by Michael Laird architects who sympathetically rebuilt and restored it in the early 1980s into apartments, with a sheltered housing complex being built in the rear garden.
For more on the Balfour family, you can read Barbara Gordon Balfour-Melville’s account of them in her 1907 biography for free on Archive.org (from where I gleaned much of my history of them).
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