The thread about Cammo; how it got its name, who owned it and the curious and curiouser tale of its eccentric and reclusive final residents

One thing that always fascinates me, as you probably know by now, is how a place name evolves over time, from century to century and map to map, and how the local pronunciation of the name either leads this or follows it. This morning my eye was caught by Cammo. Cammo was formerly a grand house and estate to the west of Edinburgh, now a local park / nature reserve finding itself being swallowed up by suburbification where the fields are replaced by car dependent new build estates with evocative names like Cammo Meadows and streets named after flowers that once grew here (such as yarrow, poppy and meadowsweet) and birds that once nested here (such as goldcrests and sparrowhanks).

Cammo and Cammo Meadows, 2022 Open Street Map
Cammo and Cammo Meadows, 2022 Open Street Map

Cammo almost sounds biblical to my ear. You can imagine it sitting alongside Canaan or Jericho in the old testament – and why not, there’s a whole district of biblical placenames in the south of Edinburgh. It’s an old name indeed, but not quite that old, and is recorded on a charter in 1296 as Cambo or Cambok. Those of you familiar with the East Neuk of Fife will recognise Cambo also as the Snowdrop capital of Scotland; that place too is initially recorded, in the 12th century, as Cambok.

It’s a Brythonic language placename [cam(b) + ōc] meaning a crooked place, referring to land in the bends of a river or stream. The Camb– part of the word finds its way into Gaelic names, also meaning “crooked” e.g. Cameron (Cam sròn, crooked nose) or Campbell (Cam beul, crokked mouth). It’s also the root of the Fife place name of Kemback, but that’s by the by, we’re going to concentrate on looking at the Edinburgh Cambo or Cambok here.

The first map to record Cammo is Timothy Pont’s survey of Scotland of the 1600s, which was never published for the Lothians in its original form. Pont’s incomplete Survey and Atlas was completed by Robert Gordon of Straloch in the 1640s, but Gordon omits it from his map of the Lothians. However it emerges a decade later in Dutch imprints as Kammock (e.g. Janssen in 1646, Blaeu in 1654).

Kammock, on Cornelius Blaeu's atlas of Scotland, 1654, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Kammock, on Cornelius Blaeu’s atlas of Scotland, 1654, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Cammo finally appears as Cammuck in a Scottish map, next to Lenie in John Adair’s map of 1682 (which is both charming in its style and cartographically excellent). We can see he renders Lenny with an extra tower and trees, suggesting it is the larger and more important house of the two and set in a park. Cammo House was rebuilt around 1693 by John Menzies.

Lenie and Cammuck, John Adair's map of 1682, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Lenie and Cammuck, John Adair’s map of 1682, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Big improvements were made to the house and its gardens in the early part of the 18th century when a new owner, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, 2nd Baronet (better known as Baron Clerk), had the place landscaped in a fashionable style, in what may be the first example of a formal landscaped country garden in Scotland. He bought Cammo in 1710, moving to Mavisbank in Midlothian on the death of his father in 1722. He sold it to John Hog in 1726, who had the renowned architect William Adam draw up plans to expand and modernise the house, but these were never completed although various details may have been.

Plans for Cammo House, from Vitruvius Scoticus by William Adam
Plans for Cammo House, from Vitruvius Scoticus by William Adam

By the time the mapmarker William Roy comes along to do the lowland section of his “Great Map” in the 1750s, he goes for Cummock, which you can imagine is how the place Kambock was being pronounced. Again, Lenny is the more important looking of the two at this time.

Leny and Cummock, Roy's Lowland map c. 1755, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Leny and Cummock, Roy’s Lowland map c. 1755, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

However if Roy or his surveyors had knocked on the door at the time, they would have found its (then) new owners, the Watsons of Saughton, had renamed the place New Saughton in 1741 when they bought it from the Hogs! Like all Scottish placenames that begin Saugh– or Sauch-, the reference is to a willow tree. James Dorret makes the same “error” in his 1750 map. We get out first view of Cammo House at the end of the 18th century thanks to a coloured etching in 1794 by an unknown artist. The Watsons inherited Sir John Clerk’s landscaped gardens, parkland and arboretum and set about improving it further in their 131 years of ownership – by the start of the 19th century they employed 9 gardeners and 7 labourers to tend the grounds.

Cammo / New Saughton in 1794. Unknown artist and credit
Cammo / New Saughton in 1794. Unknown artist and credit

By 1807 the maps have caught up with the name and Aaron Arrowsmith (determined to be first in every phone book and school register!) marks it down as New Saughton. Note it is now set in its parkland and Lenny has ceased to be important enough to map it is reduced to a farm.

New Saughton, Arrowsmith's map of 1807

John Thomson in his 1832 atlas of Scottish shire maps shows Saughton as a grand house set in ample landscaped gardens and parklands – probably the evolution of those set out by Sir John Clerk a century earlier. It is at this time still owned by the Watsons (note Watson Esq. underneath the name Saughton).

Saughton, Thomson's map of 1832, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Saughton, Thomson’s map of 1832, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

And a grand house it was, 3 storeys plus basement, 5 bays wide and 4 deep, set on a raised plinth. It had been considerably extended since that 1794 image; the 3rd floor attic level has been expanded into a complete storey, the wing to the right hand side has been raised up by one floor and a new wing has been built to the rear. This 1887 picture shows the house when owned by Archibald Campbell (Crooked Mouth of Crooked Place!), of Archibald Campbell, Hope & King brewers, who had bought it with his beer fortune. It was the Campbells who renamed the place Cammo when they bought it from the Watsons in 1837.

Cammo House, 1887, © Edinburgh City Libraries

Archibald Campbell, Hope & King, or Campbell & Co., marketed themselves as Brewers to Her (or His) Majesty by Special Appointment and brewed from the Argyle Brewery on what is now Chambers Street (if you like your Scottish history, all the Argyles seem to end up being called Archibald Campbell!) As a fun fact, fun fact – Campbell’s town house in Edinburgh was 6 Charlotte Square, now Bute House, official residence of the First Minister of Scotland.

Capbell & Co's Edinburgh Ales. Advertising mirror.
Capbell & Co’s Edinburgh Ales. Advertising mirror.

Something odd happens to Cammo in 19th century OS map when it is reverts to its original name from New Saughton; a spelling mistake is made! Some cartographer or another, having spent too long staring at the fine detail of a map and the scribbles in the Ordnance Survey’s place name books, mis-transcribes Cammo as Camino, by separating the left leg of the 2nd “m” into an “i” and an “n”.The mistake seems to be a one off however, and the OS did not repeat it in subsequent maps.

Camino! OS 1 inch survey, 1895
Camino! OS 1 inch survey, 1895

The history of Cammo House and estate then goes a bit weird. In 1898 it was bought from the estate of Archibald Campbell by a wealthy heiress, Margaret Maitland-Tennent, and her husband, David Bennet Clark. Be clear it was Margaret who bought the house, and they had a “pre-nup” agrement which meant that Clark was not entitled to her money, which she had inherited from her father – an Australian sheep farmer – in 1890. The marriage was reputedly tempestuous and Clark left in 1909 and sued for divorce in 1911 on the grounds of desertion. The court agreed that “the pursuer had proved that the defender had, without reasonable cause, been guilty of wilful non-adherance and desertion of the pursuer for 4 years“. Lord Dewar, presiding, was highly critical of Margaret when summing up:

…in most unsuccessful marriages there were faults on both sides, the present case was exception. The pursuer was considerate and affectionate, devoted to his wife and children, and for years displayed remarkable forbearance in trying circumstances, but he appeared to have been weak, and was not always wise.

The defender was also devoted to her children, but she did not pretend that she ever had any affection or respect for her husband. She was exacting and overbearing, and apparently vindictive in the manner in which she treated him. She suspected and distrusted him from the beginning. His Lordship did not think that she had good grounds for her suspicion. She was subject to delusions regarding him, and these delusions were the real source of their unhappiness.

She never allowed him to interfere with her income, and there was no evidence that he ever desired to, but she insisted on scrutinising his bank-book to see that he was not misspending the balance of his income. She suspected his fidelity. She watched him, and employed others to watch him. She asked him account for his movements when he was out her sight. She constantly accused him, and urged him to make a full confession. She became restless and unsettled. Finally he wrote out and signed the confession produced in the proceedings. His explanation was that there was no truth in what the document contained; that he wrote it to her dictation; and signed it because he was afraid that she would lose her reason, and hoped that would set her mind at rest, and enable them to live harmoniously together. She preserved the confession; she registered it in the Books of Council and Session; and she frequently used it to the pursuer’s disadvantage.

That document had been judicially considered in the action of divorce at the defender’s instance, and Lord Salvesen preferred Mr Bennet Clark’s account. Lord Dewar agreed with that opinion. It was a strange story, and difficult to understand, how a man could be induced to sign such a document, or hope that any good could result from it; but the pursuer was weak and emotional, devoted to the defender, and anxious to live with her; and it was not surprising that he was apprehensive as to her mental condition, for she was undoubtedly subject to delusions as to her husband’s wickedness.

Dundee Courier, Thursday June 1st 1911

They divorce granted, Margaret and her sons Percival and Robert stayed on at Cammo, Clark getting himself far away to England. In 1915 Margaret and the boys went travelling to the Orient during which time Clark died. Something then went badly wrong in the east however, as Robert refused to return home and instead took himself off to the USA. His mother returned to Cammo with Percival and in 1934 disinherited her wayward son. She then rented much of the estate’s farm land out to the Cramond Brig Golf Club, dismissed much of her staff and she and Percival apparently moved into a caravan together on the site and locked up the house, replete with all its lavish furnishings, paintings, their clothes and possessions. The gates to the estate were chained shut and the whole place was fenced off with barbed wire. They had no telephone and there was no doorbell. Signs around the perimeter read “Private Property, No Admittance, By Order“. Dogs patrolled the grounds. In 1935 she took the City Assessor to court over the valuation of the golf course which was by now vacant and successfully had the amount owed reduced from £300 to £150.

From then on they were only seen in public rarely, and always together. She dressed all in black and was known locally as the “Black Widow” or the “Dark Lady of Cammo“. They would leave the seclusion of Cammo to go shopping together at Jenners, where they were given a private room and had items brought to them to peruse, picking what they wanted and having it delivered back to Cammo. Their car reputedly had blinds fitted in the rear so that the passengers could not be seen. In 1947, Margaret was sued in a court in Los Angeles by the disinherited Robert who claimed that there was a 32 year old contract between the pair worth £100 a year and that she now owed him £1,515.

Cammo House in 1880; happier times before the Maitland-Tennents took over. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Cammo House in 1880; happier times before the Maitland-Tennents took over. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The house slowly rotted away, but not for want of money as Margaret was still a wealthy woman. Indeed she was taken to court and briefly jailed in 1951 for failing to declare to the treasury how much she had in oversees bank accounts; the treasury suspected it was over £117,000 in Canadian and American dollars! She died in 1955 and was buried in the grounds of the house, special permission had to be granted by the Edinburgh Corporation and apparently this was the last private internment in Scotland. The burial took place in secret and under a police escort. A gamekeeper armed with a shotgun patrolled the grounds to keep the press at bay; Percival arrived in a car with a coat over his head claiming to be the gatekeeper when met by the press.

Margaret left an estate of over £300,000 (£9.4 million in 2022). After tax this left £255,064 or (£7.0 million in 2022). When the lawyers came to unwind her murky finances it was found that she had £128,281 in Canadian banks, £88,879 in US banks and only £7,022 (or just over 2% of her total funds) in the UK. Percival inherited everything; while Robert did have a claim under Scottish law, he never publicly challenge for it.

Percival, every bit as reclusive as his mother, retired to his two loves in life; his cars and his dogs. Percival would thrash his cars into the ground around the estate, until they would no longer run, and then abandon them behind the house and buy another. He kept some 30 dogs and they got the run of the house which apparently ended up covered in a thick layer of dogshit; hence the saying “gone to the dogs“. There are pictures of the dilapidated inside of the house in its later days here. He upgraded himself from a caravan to living in the gate house, with a lodging family, and both he and the estate were tormented by looters and vandals for the rest of their lives. On his death in 1975 the ruinous property passed to the National Trust for Scotland according to his will, but they didn’t know where or how to begin. They were able to salvage a significant collection of art and a number of pieces of furniture, many of which were tourn and covered in a film of mould. In February 1977 they went to auction, the artworks fetching c. £25,000 (£183,000 in 2022) and the furniture £3,600. An Italian art dealer flew in especially from Rome and paid £6,000 for a single piece.

The NTS had the future of Cammo House taken out of their hands however when the arsonists stepped in however, as they often do, and burnt it down later that year. It had to be partially demolished for safety reasons in 1979. The NTS passed it on to Edinburgh District Council for £1 in 1980 who turned it into a country walking park for the public. The council pulled down the house to its lower courses which were stabilised as a sort of ruinous folly feature.

The ground floor and basement remains of Cammo House, CC-by-SA Mike Pennington via Geograph
The ground floor and basement remains of Cammo House, CC-by-SA Mike Pennington via Geograph

The fine Georgian stables, built for Sir John Clerk, are much more intact.

Cammo Stables with the late winter's snowdrops. CC-by-SA Calum McRoberts via Geograph
Cammo Stables with the late winter’s snowdrops. CC-by-SA Calum McRoberts via Geograph

For the full story of Cammo’s weird and wacky history, there’s a great book by Simon Baillie called The Private World of Cammo.

If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.

These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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