American aircraft millionaire donates historic Royal Mile property to nation

Debra Stonecipher. Picture: Greg Macvean

Debra Stonecipher. Picture: Greg Macvean

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ONE of the Capital’s oldest houses and the former home of Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe is to be gifted to the city.

The latest owner of Moubray House, on the Royal Mile, is set to hand over the property to Historic Scotland after spending two years carrying out painstaking restoration work.

Moubray House on The Royal Mile

Moubray House on The Royal Mile

American millionaire Debra Stonecipher, 55, has signed an agreement to bring the building, which dates from the 15th century and is valued at more than £1.5 million, into Historic Scotland’s care within the next ten years, after which it will open to the public as a new visitor centre.

Debra fell in love with the house during her first visit to Scotland with her late 
grandmother Gertrude Cartee, from Kentucky – who had Scottish roots – and purchased the property on a return visit almost a decade later.

She revealed it was her grandmother who inspired her to purchase and restore the property, though sadly she didn’t live to see inside the stunning four-storey and attic tenement on the High Street.

Debra, who also has homes in Virginia, Florida and Tennessee, said: “It has been a privilege and joy to live in, and to restore, a house that captures over 500 years of Edinburgh’s history and culture. I am thrilled to have come home to my Scottish roots, and now to give, in my grandmother’s name, this very special house back to the people of Scotland for all time.”

The A-listed building boasts five bedrooms, three bathrooms and two kitchens, and is decorated with period furniture and art.

Its list of former inhabitants includes George Jameson known as the “Scottish Rubens”, who lived and worked there. And in 1710, Daniel Defoe edited the 
Edinburgh Courant from the house.

Debra, who left her position as a Washington-based vice-president of Boeing in 2005, brought Gertrude – “who had flaming red hair and blue eyes” – to Scotland around 1999. It was her grandmother’s first and only trip outside the US.

She said: “My grandmother was very proud of her Scottish ancestry. She always loved Scotland and talked about her roots and taught me to love Scotland.

“I told her one day I would travel and bring her here with me to Scotland. Finally I was posted to a job in London. My grandmother was in her 80s and I brought her here to Edinburgh, and we stayed at the Radisson. We would stand right in front of Moubray House and wonder what happened there.

“My grandmother said her time in Edinburgh was the best experience of her life. She passed away in 2004 at the age of 92 – it was very hard for me when I lost her.”

Debra, who is married to the former CEO of Boeing, Harry Stonecipher, attended a Princess Diana memorial concert in London in 2007 and decided to stop off in Edinburgh. She spotted a “for sale” sign outside Moubray House but it was already under offer. However, less than a year after first spotting the sign, the house was on the market again.

“We came back across and this time no-one got in front of us,” she said. “I just knew this was meant to happen. What’s for you won’t go by you. The house needed a lot of work, it was not in good shape at all. The whole focus was like-for-like restoration.”

Debra spent two years renovating the property, with the specialists she hired to do the job having their work cut out for them. The painted ceiling room alone had crumbling plaster across the walls, floors falling in, broken windows with plants growing through them, and no lights.

Edinburgh-based Savills believes the renovation work would have cost around half a million to three quarters of a million pounds, and estimated the value of the property to be around £1.5m.

“We were thinking to ourselves, ‘do we really want to take this on?’, but I had a strong feeling this was meant to be,” Debra recalled.

“It was a labour of love. Afterwards, I sat back and looked at what we had accomplished and I knew my grandmother was looking at the house with great joy.”

With the renovation work completed by spring 2011, Debra decided it was time to make sure all the hard work would be preserved for the 
future.

She added: “At some point in your life, you start to think about giving back. From the very beginning the work I did here was all about my love for Scotland and my love for my grandmother. I always knew there was no-one in the family to continue with the house – I don’t have any children or brothers and sisters. I realised the only way I could protect this house was to give it back to Scotland. I needed to find a way to preserve it. I knew my grandmother would want that.

“It will be hard to say goodbye, I’m so proud of this house.”

Elizabeth McCrone, Historic Scotland’s head of listing and designed landscapes, said: “We are thrilled that Debra has taken this step and to see this exceptional property pass into our care. Moubray House will be a fantastic addition to the agency’s estate.

“This house provides us with a snapshot of how properties in Edinburgh’s Old Town were built and evolved over the centuries.”

laura.cummings@edinburghnews.com