Stories behind Scotland’s grandest street revealed

Back, from left; Mary and David Hope, Joy and Allan Alstead, Nick Ayles.Front row: K�the Paton, Dr Bill Ayles, Simon Laird. Picture:
Back, from left; Mary and David Hope, Joy and Allan Alstead, Nick Ayles.Front row: K�the Paton, Dr Bill Ayles, Simon Laird. Picture:
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Along the hallway with its floral print wallpaper and through a panelled door is a storeroom piled with ladders, ironing board, books and the usual detritus of ordinary life.

Most of us have one at home. Käthe Paton, however, has one with quite possibly the grandest and most incredible of features, a curious addition to a hall cupboard that sheds fascinating light on a slice of posh Edinburgh life.

For up above the laden shelves are beautiful cornices which snake around the tops of three walls and hug a ceiling that is lavish in decorative detail. Even more surprising, however, is that it stops abruptly, sliced in half by a rogue wall beyond which, as Käthe gleefully points out by opening the door to an adjoining room, it continues on its beautifully crafted way.

The ceiling, it transpires, was once a spectacular feature of the Tenth Earl of Moray’s ballroom. Today, carved into pieces when one of the most palatial homes in the city was finally taken apart – too big and too expensive to possibly retain, the earl’s treasured city pile became a series of separate properties – it is just one of the many fascinating elements of life behind the walls of some of Edinburgh’s most exclusive households.

Usually carefully secreted behind wooden window shutters and swathes of expensive heavyweight curtains, the lives of the well-heeled families who today make their homes in what has been dubbed “Scotland’s grandest street” are revealed in a television programme which not only uncovers the history of their small but high-end western corner of the New Town but also the routes that took them there.

For some, entire lives have been lived within the boundaries of the Georgian streets which make up what is known as the Moray Estate – centred on Moray Place, Ainslie Place, Randolph Crescent and Doune Terrace, the peaceful Water of Leith on one boundary, the route on the other heading up towards the bustle of the New Town shops.

Others arrived to take on crumbling homes that, incredible as it may seem by today’s standards for one of the most desirable parts of town, no-one else wanted, paying eye-wateringly tiny amounts for ramshackle properties in the fifties and sixties that are today worth a small fortune.

And, more recently, is a new generation with very deep pockets and even bigger ambitions to lay down family roots alongside lords, high ranking professionals and the cream of city society.

Filmmaker Joseph Bullman ventured beyond the front doors of Moray Estate residents to uncover a snapshot of life in an “estate”, created by a 19th century toff with a vision of creating a village within the New Town.

The result, The Secret History of Our Streets, will be screened on BBC Two on Friday week at 9.25pm. If anything like programmes in the last series, which highlighted the life and history of a string of London streets, it could well have the nation talking.

“The first night of the first film and it trended on Twitter,” says Bullman, who ventured inside the Moray Place homes of half a dozen residents to find out who they were and what brought them to one of the most beautiful Georgian streets in Britain.

“A lot of people think the properties in the area are occupied by offices, solicitors, architects. To find they are actually homes is really quite surprising.”

Of course, these are far from “homes” as most of us might recognise. Built over five storeys, huge rooms bathed in light from enormous windows, warmed by the glow from giant fireplaces, a typical Moray Estate house of old was constructed to exact standards laid down by the tenth earl.

He owned the rolling pastures on the fringe of what was to become the New Town. As feudal lord, with his own set of rules and regulations, he determined what was allowed – and what wasn’t – within his small empire.

The first occupiers of Moray Place took up residence in 1825 and some of their descendants remain in the area today.

Among them is David Hope, otherwise known as Lord Hope of Craighead, the first deputy president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, who has adhered to family traditions started by his great great grand-father Charles Hope – 12 Moray Place’s first resident – and lived in the Moray Estate throughout his life.

Remarkably, he went on to hold the same position as his forefather, both went on to become lord president of the Court of Session, nearly two centuries apart.

Born in Randolph Crescent, Lord Hope grew up in Moray Place and as a young man was introduced “to the girl next door but one”. She was the future Lady Mary Hope, their relationship sealed – as she recalls in the programme – at a “very riotous Burns Supper”.

Hardly the behaviour, perhaps, originally expected by the tenth earl when he ordered the construction of 28 Moray Place for his own use.

The grandest house on the estate with six large columns at its entrance, it sprawled over 11,000 square feet and was his personal foothold in the Capital for when he visited from his family pile in the north.

However, it was a palatial residence requiring at least a dozen staff. In common with the fate of many of the other townhouses on the New Town estate, death duties and rising taxes meant it and some of its grand neighbours would eventually be split into flats like Käthe’s home, commercial properties for lawyers and architects’ firms, and even private nursing homes and hospitals.

The tenth earl spent only a few years in his plush residence before selling and retreating north. His descendant, the 21st earl, features in the programme – today he is following in the footsteps of his forefather with plans to construct an estate of his own in the Highlands.

The mixture of residents’ backgrounds and the changing fortunes of the estate itself reflects Scottish society in miniature, says film maker Bullman, who was particularly touched by one resident, Dr Bill Ayles.

He bought his Moray Place property for £11,500 in 1965 and it became a lively home for him, wife Mary – whose voice was regularly heard by generations of youngsters on Children’s Hour – and their four children. Today he lives there alone, three children grown up, one deceased and his wife now resident in a nursing home.

Surrounded by photographs, paintings and family objects collected down the years of their lives together, the grand property is an overwhelming reminder of how different his life once was.

“She is in a nursing home with dementia and I see her twice a week or thereabouts,” he says. “The problem is when I get up to go home, she always thinks she is going to come too.”

Brigadier Allan Alstead and wife Joy, meanwhile, transformed a battered shell of a Moray Place property into a stunning home, carefully removing white paint from fireplaces to reveal their former glory. Today it is equally grand inside as the exterior would suggest.

The return of the estate to the family residences it was originally intended to house continues today. Ian Gray, who as a child used to visit the area and draw its Georgian townhouses for fun, has bought two properties, which he plans to return to a single sprawling family home for him, his wife Jackie and their two daughters.

With what he describes as a career in finance aided by “being in the right jobs at the right time”, he has snapped up the former offices and employed an architect to create an open plan kitchen, dining and family area which alone will stretch to 1700 square feet.

Standing on a vibrantly patterned outdated carpet and surrounded by red vinyl office chairs, the paint on the walls peeling and the green mould growing behind him, it’s clear that behind the grand exterior there’s a lot of work to be done before the family can move in.

“The old money is being replaced by new money,” he says. “As the old money runs out of assets and relies on cash, people who were lucky enough to have made money in their careers, new money, they come in. It happens all over the world.”

• The Secret History of Our Streets, will be screened on BBC Two on Friday, July 25th, at 9.25pm