LEATHER-bound books, their covers cracked with age, line the shelves of the well-stocked library at Lauriston Castle, row upon row full of stories, poems, scientific theories and words of wisdom all packed tightly into place.
The castle’s steward Mike Durnan slides his hand along a shelf. A flick of the wrist and suddenly the bookcase and the wall swing open to reveal a winding stone staircase leading to a heavy door and onwards to luscious gardens outside. “A secret staircase,” he smiles, enjoying the look of surprise this hidden quirk typically provokes among visitors to the historic property. “It’s a bit of mystery as to why it’s there – perhaps a quick escape route if you don’t want to be found. But visitors, and particularly children, love it.”
That said, it’s hoped none of the esteemed visitors to Lauriston Castle this Saturday will feel the need to make a quick and secretive exit via the library’s hidden passage. They will be there as guests of the Lord Provost, specially invited VIPs – mostly ‘ordinary’ people who have made a remarkable contribution to Edinburgh’s community life – brought together at the 16th-century castle for a special garden party and private tour of the property and its stunning grounds.
The event, the first of its kind, is intended as a grateful ‘thank you’ to more than 500 citizens – charity fundraisers, sports figures, artists and volunteers – whose commitment and passion has been deemed worthy of special recognition by the city’s civic leader.
Many, of course, may already be familiar with the castle and its grounds. However for some, it could be a first chance to wander around the beautifully preserved early 20th-century ‘time capsule’ surroundings of one of Edinburgh’s hidden gems, hardly touched since it was passed to the nation for safekeeping almost a century ago. What they will find at the end of the narrow road leading to the Castle’s impressive entrance, is an amazing collection of furnishings, lavish décor and eclectic artwork, side by side with the everyday objects – from boot polish and bed pans – that brings the era to life.
Mike, the live-in ‘caretaker’ of the castle whose duties include locking up at night and gently wiping down the exhibits with a feather duster, closes the secret library door and reveals more quirky details that make Lauriston Castle so unique. Such as another hidden passage, tucked behind heavy wooden shutters in the master’s study, a tiny spiral staircase which only the nimble and slight of frame might care to squeeze through.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for visitors as they travel through the stone gate entrance and past two half-lion, half-human figures – one, sadly decapitated – is that it’s not actually a defensive castle at all. “It’s what you’d call a 16th-century tower house,” says Mike, who regularly shows visitors around the property, pointing out fabulous examples European furniture and lavish marble fireplaces today worth a small fortune but bought by the house’s last occupants, John and Margaret Reid for less than £100. “The main part – the oldest part – was a keep, built in the style of a castle, but it was a house. It is a bit confusing.”
What’s definite is that guests on Saturday will follow in the footsteps of a number of well known figures, who would also have made their way up the wide stone staircase to a grand reception hall, today dominated by an intricate 18th-century French table with Sicilian marble top and lit by a glittering rock crystal chandelier. The property, explains Mike, was built for Sir Archibald Napier, master of the Scottish Mint and father of mathematical genius John, although it’s doubtful that pair ever lived there together. “Archibald was 15 when he fathered John, so by the time he arrived at Lauriston, his son was probably already a grown man,” Mike adds.
At one point in the 17th century it was by William Law a renowned and wealthy goldsmith who was overshadowed by his son John, perhaps the property’s most colourful owner.
“He was known as Mississippi John,” explains Mike, recalling a larger than life character who squandered a fortune at the gaming tables, was found guilty of murder after killing a man in a duel and then fled to France where he became the country’s leading banker. There he soared from rags to riches and, unfortunately, rags again.
“He was a fashionable young beau of his time,” explains Mike. “He came up with a scheme to sell land in America that became France’s equivalent of the Darien Scheme.
Recently around 20 of his relatives came from France to tour the castle – they see it very much as their ancestral home.”
Eventually the house was bought for £9750 in 1902 (around £1 million in today’s prices) by William Reid, the son of a cabinet maker who went on to own furniture makers Morison and Company, and his wife Margaret, whose family were plumbers.
They upgraded the now extended house to feature all mod cons – including a spectacular bathroom with ‘throne’ style lavatory – while William’s shrewd eye for interior design meant it was furnished with one of the country’s biggest collections of southern Italian furniture, beautiful Turkish rugs, fine Dutch chests of drawers, huge tapestries and dozens of lithographs on the walls. Perhaps most remarkable of all, adds Mike, was the couple’s decision to leave the house, its 33 acres of grounds and its entire contents, to the nation – a stunning act of generosity.
That’s not all they left. For as guests on Saturday admire their surroundings, they may well find themselves sharing the moment with some additional occupants of Lauriston Castle who never quite got around to leaving.
“I’ve never encountered any ghosts, but I know one person who says she was shoved into a cupboard by a ghost,” adds Mike.
“And there are others who mention a ‘grey lady’ who’s been seen in the grounds and the original tower house.
“We’ll just have to wait and see if she turns up on Saturday.”