This thread was originally written and published in December 2019. It has been edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
This post in the Edinburgh and Leith themed Twelve Days of Christmas is preceded by a thread about the Guse Dub.
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; Sven Swans a Swanstoning. I refer of course to Swanston, in the far south of the modern limits of the city, beyond even the Bypass. A veritably ancient name, one which is probably as old as Edinburgh itself, and even today distinctly rural in character.
The name is first recorded in 1214 and unfortunately doesn’t actually have anything to do with swans. It is of Norse origin, from the given name Sveinn (modern, Sven). Sveinnstun meaning a farmstead belonging to a man called Sven. This puts the probable origin 1 or 2 centuries before the written record in the 10th or 11th centuries. It is recorded as part of the medieval barony of Redhall, which occupied much of the land between the northern slopes of the Pentland Hills and the back of the rising ground south of Edinburgh.
As a farm, Swanston was part of the feu of Templelands; ground granted by the Knights Templar in the 12th or 13th century to Thomas, Lord Binning, a nobleman based in East Lothian. In the 15th century the farm was sub-fued (the feu, or primary plot of land held for the Crown by the laird, was split and granted to two subordinate (or vassal) lairds. These became the separate holdings of Easter and Wester Swanston, with the Swanston Burn forming the boundary, before being reunited in the late 17th century under the Trotters of Mortonhall. And so it was for the next 4 centuries, with not a lot changing; the road beyond Swanston leads nowhere but to the hills and the city was hardly visible 4 miles away beyond the rising ground of the Braid Hills to the north, with its southern boundary a full 2½ miles away in the middle of the 19th century.
The settlement was dominated by the principal farmhouse, formerly Wester Swanston, with the collection of thatched cottages that housed most of the population being on the locus of Easter Swanston.
While Swanston for most of its existence has been fundamentally detached from the metropolis within whose boundary it sits, in the middle of the 18th century it became linked to it when the City gained an Act of Parliament that allowed it to extract drinking water from the springs in its vicinity. A cistern house and three filter beds – gravel and sand filled reservoirs to settle any sediment and silt out of the water – were built south of the village and it was connected to the city by wooden pipes.
A house was added by the City in 1761 for the use of the water engineer and officials, and in 1830 this would be modernised and expanded into the villa of Swanston Cottage. Gargoyles and tracery added to an extension at this time are reputed to have been removed from St. Giles Cathedral by the architect William Burn when he “modernised” the ancient church in a manner befitting the style of the time. The cottage garnered a reputation as being something of a “municipal pleasure house“, where City officials would come to make merry. From 1867-1880, the family of Robert Louis Stevenson rented the cottage in the summer as a holiday house. The teenage Robert spent much time here, including walking to and from the city, and refereed to the place as “a stilly hamlet that vies with any earthly paradise“. Robert’s nurse, Alison Cummingham (“Cummy”), was the sister of the resident waterman, and lived with him in his cottage from 1880 to 1893. Her initials are on the lintel above the door of that house.
On his walks from the family home in Edinburgh’s New Town or from the University to Swanston, the young Robert would pass the water house of the Comiston Springs, which also provided the city with clean drinking water, and where the four springs were named after animals. Coincidentally, one of these was a swan, the Swan Spring emerges in the water house through a pipe crowned with a cast lead swan.
The name of Swanston has been applied to housing built between the 1930s and 1970s to the north of the City Bypass in the district of Fairmilehead. By the middle of the 20th century, these ancient farmhouses of the village were verging on unfit for habitation. They still had floors of compressed earth; their roofs were still thatched with reeds from the Tay (the only such lowland houses in Scotland); running water had only arrived in 1934 and they were without electricity until 1949. The City bought the cottages in 1956 and restored them, for which they earned a Scottish Civic Trust award in 1964. They were leased them out as council housing. Most were purchased under “Right to Buy” legislation, but one survives under municipal ownership and is probably Scotland’s only thatched council house.
In 1927, a woman by the name of Margaret Carswell took a lease of land from Swanston Farm to create a 9-hole ladies’ golf course, having found it impossible to gain access to any of the city’s many other golf courses. Men were later admitted (by popular consent of the membership) and it was expanded to a full 18 holes. It is the only visitor attraction of the “village”, which boasts no public facilities, having lost its school in the 1930s.
The Edinburgh and Leith-themed Twelve Days of Christmas continues with a post about The Maiden Castle.
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