Moray House is one of the Old Town’s most historic, and yet also most invisible buildings, hidden in plain sight on the Canongate.
It dates back to 1625, at a time when the Canongate with its more open spaces was a popular place for an aristocratic townhouse. In 1643 the house passed to the Countess of Moray and the building adopted the name it still has today. The improvements she made led to it being described by a contemporary as, “the handsomest house in Edinburgh”.
Today one of the most obvious features is the gateway with its two large obelisk shaped piers and a porter’s lodge. The gate is normally open, so it is possible to walk through and see the south side of the building. Look out for the initials of the Countess above one of the upper windows. The other striking thing is the large stone balcony that hangs over the Canongate, held up with elaborately carved corbels. On Saturday 18th May 1650, this feature was the scene of a dramatic moment in Edinburgh’s history.
That day the house was the venue for the wedding reception of Lord Lorne, son of the Marquess of Argyll, and Lady Mary Stuart, daughter of the Earl of Moray. However Argyll had something else to celebrate that day. His arch-enemy the Marquess of Montrose had been captured a few weeks before, and that same day he was to be brought into Edinburgh for execution. For the past eight years the two men had fought on opposing sides during the Civil War.
Montrose was met at the foot of the Canongate by his executioner, and was paraded up the street bound to a high chair on the back of a cart. The procession stopped outside Moray House for members of the wedding party to come out on to the balcony and gaze on their stricken enemy. It was said that one of the party spat on Montrose, but Argyll hid behind a curtain unable to look him in the face
Moray House was also once well known for its gardens, but now only a few fragments remain. A decorative stone arch can still be seen in a small garden on the campus, and tucked away in a side lane is the old garden pavilion. This unprepossessing building was once at the centre of the political drama that saw Scotland and England united in the Act of Union.
The tenant of Moray House in 1707 was the Earl of Seafield, Lord Chancellor of Scotland, and the man charged with securing the deal with England. The pavillion at the bottom of his garden was perfect as a central and discreet location for his supporters to meet, without attracting too much attention from those opposed to union. In the 1800s it was converted into a hothouse for growing oranges or vines. Then for a while it was a sewing room, before being moved a short distance and rebuilt against a neighbouring wall in 1910.
Moray House became a teacher training college in 1848, and it remains in that use today as part of the University of Edinburgh. However it is regularly part of Doors Open Day, and that is a great opportunity to see another reminder of the house’s grand past. The Cromwell Room, named after one of its famous guests, still has its dramatic and highly ornate plasterwork ceiling, dating back over 300 hundred years. It features lions, griffons, sprays of flowers, fleurs-de-lis, and in one memorable panel, a naked lady trying to hide in a small copse.