From the Lawnmarket, Milne’s Court is well-hidden and the only clues are a small sign above the entrance to the pend, and the date 1690 carved into the stonework. However, if you stand back on the other side of the road and look up, you can take in the true size and scale of building. When it was completed, the size and regularity of Milne’s Court would have presented a startling comparison to its much smaller, higgledy-piggledy neighbours. Walking through the pend gives you a real impression of stepping back hundreds of years, emerging out into a courtyard with the seventeenth century building towering above you.
In its day represented the very best in lavish fashionable living. The Edinburgh Poll Tax returns for 1694 give us a snapshot of the first residents, who were mostly middle-class professionals such as Dr William Blackadder ‘Kings Physician to the forces’. Many of these new residents also appear on another document – the subscription book of the disastrous Darien Company. The Darien scheme was an unsuccessful attempt to establish a Scottish colony in Panama. A mixture of hostile local tribes, inadequate supplies and tropical diseases meant that whole plan was aborted after only eight months.
James Byres, who lived on one of the upper floors at Milne’s Court, was a leading city merchant, and was chosen in 1699 to be one of the ‘men of special trust’ to be in charge of the second expedition. He arrived to find the colony abandoned, and after two months escaped to Jamaica leaving many colonists behind. The Darien Company Directors found him guilty of “several unwarrantable, arbitrary, illegal and inhumane practices”, but he continued to trade and he died at sea in 1706.
Like many Old Town houses, by the 1800s Milne’s Court had lost its middle-class residents, and living conditions for residents were appalling. A visitor in 1856, complained that the close was: “…unapproachable by any one who is not compelled by necessity to go into them.” The Census in 1871 described: “A densely populated square…irregularly numbered, very dirty, and anything but a free current of air…In one house of three rooms, on Sunday night there slept fourteen souls of different sexes and no family connections.”
Finally in 1960 the city engineer declared the north part of the building unsafe, and gave a deadline of 21 days before demolition would start. Edinburgh University had expressed an interest but now with the pressure was on, and plans to stabilise the building were drawn up and passed by the council’s planning committee in only 10 days. With the help of donations from Harold Salvesen and Philip Henman, Milne’s Court was restored as student accommodation and opened in 1969.
Today Milne’s Court is a desirable place to live again, helping to keep the Old Town alive, and yet a stone’s throw away from the throng of tourists on the Royal Mile.