Tour guide shows family’s Usher Hall legacy

Stuart Usher's less-than-conventional retirement plan is moving on nicely. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Stuart Usher's less-than-conventional retirement plan is moving on nicely. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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HIS family gifted the landmark Usher Hall to the city when their fortune was made.

Now the great great-nephew of Andrew Usher, the whisky distillery millionaire who funded its construction, is using the building as the launchpad for his guided tours of the Capital.

Stuart Usher has started taking tourists and residents on daily walks, taking in various historic locations and a stopping at a pub to “capture the ambience of the city”.

The 71-year-old said: “I reached retirement age and I’m not one for doing nothing. It’s good exercise and I have a great affinity for history. I’m very interested in Edinburgh and its past, and I love the city.

“The tours start at the Usher Hall and I point out some architectural features. My customers usually ask if I have a connection to the building because of my name, and when I tell them their eyes usually pop out.

“It may make the experience more authentic for them rather than going on a tour with a hired hand.

“When they ask why my great great-uncle made the gift, I say it was because he was very well-off and he was born in Edinburgh, a place which was very good to him. He was also very musical and not a bad singer.”

Mr Usher runs the tours, which cost £20 per person, starting at the Usher Hall at 10am and 2pm before travelling to the Castle, along the Royal Mile and over to the New Town, taking in George Street “if we have the time”.
He added: “The walks are normally two hours, but it can go three or four hours if my customers seem to be enthralled, and that’s at no extra cost. I also like to stop in at an old Edinburgh pub for a drink to try to capture the ambience of the city.

“I had a good knowledge of Edinburgh, but I did more research, particularly on the architectural side, so I could better field questions.

“I might take my customers to a place where a famous resident lived and give clues to see if they can guess their identity.

“I enjoy being part of the tourist scene although I don’t regard my tours as being related to the ghost walks and that type of thing, which give the wrong impression about the city.”

His great-grandfather, Sir John Usher, who gifted the Usher Institute of Public Health to the University of Edinburgh, built in Marchmont in 1902.

But the pensioner is not a fan of the £40 million revamp of the Usher Hall, describing the controversial glass extension as a “carbuncle, in the words of Prince Charles, on what is a wonderful baroque building”.

Mr Usher, who lives in Jedburgh with his wife, was born in East Africa on his father’s tea plantation, and moved to Edinburgh at the age of four. He left Scotland in 1968 for South Africa with his parents and he worked as a businessman, but moved back in 1995.

In 2002, Mr Usher was involved in a £45 million damages claim against a law firm he alleged had mismanaged the family’s estate while acting as trustee.

A Law Society of Scotland probe concluded the complaint was unfounded.

At its peak, the Usher family had a fortune of £365m, but Mr Usher said much of that had been depleted by the time he returned from South Africa.

However, he is pleased to be revisiting the family legacy through his new venture.

“It’s been a joy and a pleasure so far, and I’ve met some interesting people,” he said. “Not everyone likes history but I find it’s the way you put it over. I try to bring it to life so it’s not simply a history lesson.”


USHER Historic Walks aims to highlight “the historical, cultural and architectural heritage of Edinburgh” on the tour.

As well as the namesake concert venue, Stuart Usher also guides his guests along a route which takes in Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, including St Giles Cathedral and several of the city’s famous closes, and The Mound.

Mr Usher gives a brief tour around the National Galleries of Scotland to discuss paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and Raphael before visiting Princes Street, Princes Street Gardens and The Scott Monument. The walks are said to have been particularly popular with overseas and US visitors.

His website allows booking to be made, while Mr Usher recommends suitable attire be worn by walkers in order to “take into account the vagaries of the Edinburgh weather”.

Whisky man’s gift to city

THE Usher Hall on Lothian Road was opened on March 16, 1914 with a concert featuring music by Handel, Bach, Wagner, Beethoven and the Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn.

Its construction was funded by Andrew Usher (1826–1898), who donated £100,000 to fund a new concert hall. But the start of work on the project was held up for 14 years due to quarrels over its location.

Usher was made a partner of Andrew Usher & Co of Edinburgh in the late 1840s which perfected the blending of whisky, propelling it from a drink hardly heard of outside Scotland and Ireland to worldwide popularity.

One of the three founders of the North British Distillery, he was its chairman until his death.