Because of the time of year, let’s do a “Twelve Days of Christmas“-themed thread based around some Edinburgh and Leith local history. Do you remember the tune and the words? Altogether now! And a 1, and a 2, and a 1, 2, 3!
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a Partridge in The Pear Tree House. Better known to most these days as the as The Pear Tree pub and beer garden on West Nicolson Street. It’s an early Georgian 2-storey merchant’s house, built in 1756 for William Reid as his residence as West Nicolson House. There is a date stone of 1749 embedded in its walls, but apparently this is a later, anachronistic addition.
Lady Nicolson, Elizabeth Carnegie (for whom Nicolson Street, Square etc. are named) moved here around 1760 when she allowed her own house and parklands to be cleared to make way for Nicolson Street and Square. The Nicolson Baronets had owned the land here since the early 16th century, the title becoming dormant in 1743 on the death of Elizabeth’s husband, the 7th Baronet.
The building is typical of the Edinburgh style from the time, with a gable end and chimney on the façade. It is faced with rubble but would likely have been harled. Part of the fueing conditions were that the front courtyard be enclosed and used only for “the planting of trees;” the beer garden area was this garden and a coach drive.
The house passed to the Kilkerran Baronets – the Fergusson Family. Sir Adam Fergusson (3rd Baronet) entertained James Boswell here in the late 1760s and took tea with him. He sold it in 1770. The poet and minister, the Rev. Dr Thomas Blacklock then resided in rented rooms here and entertained both Dr Johnson and Robert Burns, again tea was taken along side various other “refreshments”. Blacklock had been blind since infancy and gives his name to the upstairs bar of the Pear Tree, the Blind Poet. He is credited with having saved the life of Burns, as a letter he wrote to him in 1789 dissuaded Burns from travelling abroad to the West Indies; the ship he had been due to travel on sank on the voyage.
After Blacklock’s time, the ownership changed again, this time coming into the hands of the Usher family, in whose time it was known as The Usher House.
The Ushers, who gave their name to the concert hall, were an Edinburgh brewing and distilling dynasty. They donated c. £13 million in today’s money to build the hall, and its internal dome is reputed to be modelled on the one at the top of the stairs in the Pear Tree House. Andrew Usher (senior) was a brewer and for a time in the mid-19th century, they used the house as such. However it was with whisky and distilling where they really made it big. Usher pioneered blending malt with grain whisky; his son Andrew (junior) made a fortune in this business and in 1885 – along with John “Green Ginger” Crabbie and William “VAT69” Sanderson – founded the North British Distillery at Gorgie. This is one of the biggest and most successful vertical column grain distilleries and is still going strong.
When the brewery outgrew the house, it moved nearby to St. Leonards at the Park Brewery, with the house used as offices, storage and distribution. In 1918, Usher’s whisky business was acquired by the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) and formed into Scottish Malt Distillers, DCL’s lowland whisky operation. The house passed to a subsidiary, J. & G. Stewart, another long-established Edinburgh whisky name and responsible for Stewart’s Cream of the Barley. It became known locally as The House of Stewart.
When Stewarts moved to Leith in 1972, the house was shut up and abandoned behind its courtyard wall. It was mooted for a potential site of the City Arts Centre, but in 1976 it was restored for use as a pub with the courtyard becoming a beer garden. It took its modern name from an old pear tree growing in the corner of the courtyard.
The Edinburgh and Leith themed Twelve Days of Christmas continues with a thread about The Lochend Dovecot.
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[…] The Edinburgh and Leith themed Twelve Days of Christmas started with a thread about The Pear Tree House. […]
[…] were built on it in 1758 by James Carfrae. Part of the Turniphall grounds were sold in 1786. The Nicholson referred to here is from the family who were the ancient landowners, and thus gave their name to Nicholson Street, Square etc. further to the […]