The Scottish Parliament at the foot of the Canongate is one of Edinburgh’s best examples of 21st century architecture, but within the complex of modern buildings is a relic that is over 300 years old – Queensberry House. It stands in marked contrast to its surroundings and has a chequered history, once described as a “…brilliant abode of rank and fashion and political intrigue…now one of the asylums of destitution.”
It was around 1667 that a `Grand Lodging' was first constructed on the site, for Margaret Douglas of Balmakelly. The building was modified and expanded in the years that followed, and in 1686 it was bought by the 1st Duke of Queensberry as his Edinburgh residence.
The new Queensberry House would have been one of the grandest houses in the area. Records show that it boasted 52 rooms with hearths, whereas the earl of Argyll at Moray House had only eighteen. The house also had a ‘belvedere’, a kind of look out gallery added to the roof, so that guests could admire the view. At the rear of the house were impressive formal gardens, laid out with gravel paths and low box hedging to form an intricate pattern.
Perhaps the most notorious tale connected to Queensberry House concerns the time of the signing of the Act of Union in 1707. The story goes that the Duke of Queensberry was heavily involved in the negotiations surrounding the act, and left his criminally insane son unattended at the house. When he returned he found that his son had escaped from his room, and had roasted and eaten the kitchen boy.
In the eighteenth century the house was divided up into apartments, and slowly it transformed from grand private residence to more public uses. In the early 1800s Queensberry House became a hospital, then a barracks, and eventually in 1834 a house of refuge for the poor. Over time the complex of buildings developed a range of facilities. There was an infirmary for women and a smaller one for men, night shelters providing accommodation with dinner and breakfast, and a soup kitchen. For the poor of the Canongate, Queensberry House must have been a vital lifeline. In 1937 for example 6,627 people sheltered there and 14,183 free meals were given out.
It became a hospital for the elderly in 1945, and in 1997 it was acquired by the government to become part of the new parliament building. Queensberry House underwent extensive renovation and in some ways it has returned to its original appearance. The extra floor added in the nineteenth century was removed, and the exterior stonework has been re-harled and lime washed.
One historic feature that has survived in situ now looks onto the Parliament’s Garden Lobby. It is a finely moulded stone fireplace, perhaps the very one where the kitchen boy met his grisly end over 300 years ago