Mavisbank House: An exciting update by Sarah Baron

Mavisbank House, one of the most important ‘Buildings at Risk’ in the United Kingdom, has now been saved by a £5.3 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

This great Scottish Enlightenment House, located between Loanhead and Lasswade, in Midlothian, was the first full commission for the architect William Adam, who became the greatest Scottish architect of his day and the founding father of the Adam architectural dynasty.

Built in 1723 to 1726 for Sir John Clerk, the house is the first example in Scotland of the Palladian Style of architecture. A Category A listed building, Mavisbank was a pioneering example of a neo-Classical style, which Robert Adam and others would later develop for Edinburgh’s New Town. It was built by a workforce of outstanding Scottish craftspeople whose names and individual contributions are recorded in remarkable detail in the surviving Clerk family archive.

The House was designed as the summer residence for Sir John Clerk allowing him to experiment with his idea of bringing the Roman Villa ideal to Lowland Scotland. The house and landscape were certainly orientated around a large mound to the back of the house which Clerk believed to be a Roman Station. Clerk’s original landscape, set along the River North Esk was laid out in a formal style as a Ferme Ornee, but has undergone considerable change since then with several Victorian and Edwardian modifications, to create a landscaped parkland.  Although now in a severe state of neglect the policies are still of great importance and are listed in the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes.

Mavisbank was sold out of the Clerk family in 1815 and continued as a residence until 1876, when it was bought by a group of Edinburgh Doctors as a pioneering mental hospital and became known as New Saughtonhall. It was at this time that Mary Burton the first female head gardener in Scotland later to become the first President of the Scottish Horticultural Association, treated many of the patients with her therapeutic gardening techniques.

The hospital closed in the 1950’s and was sold to a private individual, a scrap car dealer who filled the entrance forecourt with rusting cars and allowed the house and landscape to deteriorate. In 1973 Mavisbank was gutted by a terrible fire and has been in a ruinous state ever since. The owner having sold the house on to individuals who have never been traced.

from being demolished. In 2002 The Mavisbank Trust was formed to spearhead the restoration plans and has carried out much important survey work, community engagement projects and footpath creation since then. But the journey to restoration has been fraught with difficulties.

In 2003 Mavisbank featured in the BBC’s Restoration Programme, but lost out in the final round. Two Lottery Heritage funding applications, one in 2013 and another in 2021 both failed to produce the necessary funding for restoration. The National Heritage Memorial Fund grant was the last possible attempt to save this important building, which Anna Eavis chair of NHMF described as ‘of outstanding importance in Scottish and UK National heritage’.

The £5.3 million grant means that the gutted shell of the building can now be compulsory purchased by Midlothian Council and given to the Landmark Trust, for the start of the first phase of restoration, which will mean the whole building can be stabilised and a new access constructed. A further £1.38 million has been committed from the Landmark Trust, Historic Environment Scotland and other sources. However, Landmark will still seek to fundraise a further £1.162m to complete the project over the next four years.

It is expected that the end use for Mavisbank will be a mixture of accommodation for short residential stays with possible community access to one of the pavilions.

Whilst the house will now at last be restored, the fate of the landscape, which is owned by Historic Environment Scotland is less certain. Both the Landmark Trust and HES will take no part in restoring the policies, so The Mavisbank Trust are now tasked with that role. This may be done by the efforts of volunteers through a Friends of Mavisbank group.

An Action Plan for the restoration of the Designed Landscape, is currently being prepared and fund raising will be pursued to carry out interpretation work, the rebuilding of boundary walls, crucial tree surgery and tree planting work and repairs to the lochan, which was the original canal.

We are now in the strongest position for 50 years to hope for a bright future for Mavisbank and its designed landscape.