Woodburn House, Canaan Lane

Woodburn House is a grand house in douce Morningside, in Edinburgh. Long ago it was a spectacular family home. After providing varied healthcare-related functions, including as a residence, it is now an office. It is one of Edinburgh’s many buildings listed and protected due to its architectural merit and interesting history. Surprisingly little information is readily available, however, and I’m collating what I have found in my relatively informal searching, and am happy to update. So feel free to comment if you know more, and I’ll add the details. I meant to post this about a year ago, but thought I’d do more work on it. Despite COVID, I didn’t.

Woodburn House was originally a grand family villa lying in its own extensive grounds (~6 acres / ~2.4 hectares as measured from satellite images + app online). Its north boundary and entrance are on Canaan Lane. It lies immediately to the east of Woodburn Terrace, a tenement street which packs over 100 large and comfortable (and expensive) flats into half the space (2.7 acres, almost exactly 1 hectare). Just one was my family’s home for 23 years, which is why its earliest owner in 1881 was the topic of a previous post. So Woodburn Terrace was built about 75 years later (around 1880) than Woodburn House (around 1805), on a previously undeveloped field that had been sold in 1878 for this express purpose: the mysterious owners (Anderson/MacGregor) needed the money, as described here.

The two adjacent parcels of land involved date back to when the estate of Canaan south of central Edinburgh had been subdivided and sold off just after 1800, prior to the city’s astonishing urban development in the 19th century, which changed Morningside from a sleepy hamlet at the city boundary into a varied and desirable suburb.

Mossman/Mosman and the Canaan Villas

Woodburn House was built for a lawyer (“Writer to the Signet”) around 1803-1805 (see below). It was just one of many grand suburban or semi-rural villas built by the wealthy in the clearer air away from Edinburgh’s New Town, after the Mosman family feued the Canaan Estate for this purpose. The area was quiet, safe and clean, yet within an easy carriage ride of the city’s institutions and developing industry. There were many similar properties built 220 years ago or so, most now demolished, diminished or divided.

Woodburn House survives as a Scottish National Health Service (NHS) office building. Of the handful of its erstwhile neighbours scattered within the grounds of the NHS’s Astley Ainslie Hospital immediately to its east, it may be the one that survives a proposed 21st century sell-off to residential property developers least scathed. We’ll see. As for the land and interesting buildings within the huge estate of the Astley Ainslie Hospital, there are community ownership alternatives being discussed. It’s an enormous transformation of the area, much as happened back in 1800. That puts a huge responsibility on everyone to get it right.

Charles J Smith says in Morningside (1993, page 113): “the feuing plan of Canaan for 1803 [by William Mossman] indicates a division into 22 lots. Many of the original purchasers of these [lots] built villas in this pleasant rural distinct, but there were several provisos, one being that villas were not to cost not less than £300 to build (in the early nineteenth century this was a fairly substantial sum).

I’d love to see a map of these 22 Canaan lots! It seems to exist in the National Records of Scotland, dated December 1802 (and there is an update of owners on a separate tracing dated 1909). The catalogue suggests there was a William Mossman vs. Major Archibald Mossman & others case in the Court of Session in 1803 preceding the parcelling and sale of the estate. What follows reflects my belief that Woodburn House and what became its adjacent field, then Woodburn Terrace, were originally part of a single lot, number 20, subdivided in 1878. Or perhaps two lots were bought initially, but only one was ear-marked for a villa?

From William Mosman to George Greenlaw (1805)

Our Woodburn Terrace flat’s title deeds (so, presumably those also of the 100-120 other flats) refer to the creation of Woodburn Terrace on “all and whole that part and portion of the lands of Canaan feued by William Mosman Esquire of Canaan Merchant in Newcastle to George Greenlaw Esquire Writer to the Signet conform to Feu Contract between them dated the sixteenth and seventeenth days of December Eighteen hundred and five [1805] consisting of [Part 1] two acres and a half Scots measure thereby as now enclosed by a stone wall being the westmost part of the lot marked number twenty [my emphasis] upon a plan of the said lands drawn in reference to that and several other feus granted by the said William Mosman to the said George Greenlaw and others.. bounded on the east by a piece of ground feued by … Mosman to John Ross … and [Part 2 or bounded?] belonging to the said … [Andersons] one acre and a half Scots measure or thereby [bounded] on the west by the lands feued to Shin and Patison Merchants Edinburgh [and bounded] on the south by the lands of Braid and a little rivulet or strand [i.e. the Jordan Burn] and [bounded] on the north by the high road [i.e. Canaan Lane] leading from the Grange Loan in a south or west direction till it joins the turnpike road [i.e. Morningside Road] leading from Edinburgh to Biggar.

So, Woodburn House was built on part of “Lot 20” of the Canaan estate, and both the land for Woodburn Terrace and the land for Woodburn House, separated by a pre-existing wall (now, presumably, the boundary wall between the House and the Terrace), were bought by George Greenlaw.

Woodburn House, date of building

Even though Woodburn House is now B-listed, there is little information about it online, and different sources contradict each other even over the date of its construction. Access to the title deeds and other documentary evidence would resolve such problems, and add important factual information, so perhaps an NHS or other archivist or historian will take this blog as a prompt as a trigger for research, just as the area of Astley Ainsley and the ownership of it, and Woodburn House, change forever.

For example, Historic Environment Scotland at HES states Woodburn House was built “Circa 1820”, though the more popular date of 1812 is given both by Canmore (“built in 1812”), and local historian Charles Smith in his well-researched book on Morningside. Either way, the house itself does not appear in Kirkwood’s map of 1817, even though the land appears set out for housing (there is a garden, drive and gatehouse), which is probably the cause of the discrepancy. The 1817 map marks both parcels with “Wm. Baillie Esq.”

Woodburn House’s grounds are outlined in red, and the field that became Woodburn Terrace is outlined in blue, in this adaptation of Kirkland & Co’s “plan of the City of Edinburgh and its environs” (1817), provided by the National Library of Scotland. The 5 & 7 inch drinking water pipes for Edinburgh are shown crossing both plots. A slightly mis-aligned but extremely informative georeferenced version is at – https://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/#zoom=13&lat=55.95751&lon=-3.17700&layers=127&b=1

The map in the The New Statistical Account of the City of Edinburgh (published in 1845) was apparently based on a survey by Knox, early-mid 1800s. (The City of Edinburgh starts on page 614 of Vol 1 of the NSA, but do use the search functions.) The map seems to show Woodburn House’s gatehouse and Canaan Bank, as above, but not Woodburn House, just as in Kirkwood’s. Was it unbuilt, incomplete, or completed but omitted from Kirkwood’s 1817 map?

Part of a map of Edinburghshire, from the Meadows south to Blackford Hill, and from Morningside’s Royal Lunatic Asylum east to Mayfield, highlighting the nearest named location to Woodburn House. “Egypt” was just south of Jordan Burn and the lands of Canaan. The L-shaped Canaan Lane is clearly visible. From the New Statistical Account of the City of Edinburgh..

Finding the house’s owners

Geograph says Woodburn House was “A villa built in 1812 for William Bailie, Writer to the Signet. Its next owner was George Ross, an advocate, who lived here from 1818 to 1860.” Indeed, Ross appears in the 1857 directory “NOBLEMEN AND GENTLEMEN’S SEATS…” Also, the relevant OS name book (1852-53, Midlothian, volume 15, OS1/11/15/7 ) has an entry for Woodburn which says: “A handsome & well constructed villa two storeys high with garden & ornamental ground attached The property & residence of George Ross Esqr.”

I have a note also that Mosman fued land to John Ross, a lawyer, specifically for Woodburn House, but I can’t find the source and I may have mistakenly noted “John” rather than “George”. In any case, Bailie’s involvement seems to have been short-lived.

According to the listing details (LB26948) at Historical Environment Scotland, “Woodburn House was built in 1812 for £300 but it does not appear on Kirkwood’s Map of 1817. For some years after 1914 it was the residence of Sir Frank Mears, the architect and town planner.”

Charles Smith’s book Morningside has a fair amount about the house. (It is well worth reading for the connection between Mears and Sir Patrick Geddes, for example: Mears studied under Geddes and married his daughter. Geddes is a international figure in town planning and a hero of Edinburgh’s Old Town. He loved the Camera Obscura, and bought it in 1892, having already restored Ramsay Gardens and brought prestige back to the Old Town.) But there isn’t a list of Woodburn House owners there or elsewhere.

In the big gap between 1860 and 1914 were events I’ve researched and reported elsewhere, in blogs about D.R. MacGregor – MP for Leith, ship-owner and owner of a shipping firm, his trials and tribulations, and the origins of Woodburn Terrace.

Anderson & MacGregor

Donald Robert MacGregor, the husband of Mary Anderson, was listed for in 1871 census as head of household, and his name appears in various post-office directories going back to at least the early 1860s, not long after Ross had lived there. MacGregor signed over the house in 1866 to his wife and her brother, Charles Anderson.

Lands and others acquired were acquired by us from the said Robert Macgregor …[on 20 July and registered 23 August 1866]… recently measured and found to extend to three acres six poles and nineteen yards and one quarter of a yard Imperial Measure or thereby and are laid down upon the plan annexed” (1878 Woodburn Terrace feu documents)

1877 directory listing showing MacGregor’s home address in Woodburn (House) as well as his company’s address in Leith.

Around 1880, Francis Walkingshaw (who developed Woodburn Terrace) feued the land from Charles William Anderson and his sister.

Charles seems to have made or augmented a fortune from coal mining. He was a member of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers from 1853-1888 (first elected 21/08/1852, details from the Durham Mining Museum). His address changed to Kirkhammarton Hall from 1874-1877, then to Sea View (1878-1880). This museum suggests (citing the 1881 census, Ref: RG11/4327/82/31) that he was living at 13 James Street, Bilton Cum/with Harrogate.  Knaresborough, and that he was aged 52, a magistrate and “Coal Owner”. He had been born in South Shields around 1829. The 1881 household was wife Margaret (47) and 3 servants. (And also Margaret’s younger unmarried sister Mary Ann Young, 43, who was visiting.)

While drafting this (2019-2000), I have found a relative of the Andersons interested in family history who had no idea about their connection to Edinburgh, or Mary’s marriage. Hopefully we can improve on the following, which is my first attempt to identify these owners. FindMyPast indexes a Charles Wm Anderson in the 1871 census, living in Cleadon, South Shields, and born in 1829. Likewise, a Charles W Anderson born 1829 was located in Whitburn, South Shields, in both 1861 and 1901 census indexes. It might also be him in South Shields as a young man, if he is the person indexed in 1841 (Jarrow) and 1851 (Westow). Like his sister and brother-in-law, I can’t see him in the 1881 census. Were they all abroad? Oh, and FindMyPast also indexes a marriage between Charles William Anderson and Margaret Young in South Shields in 1854, and his death in 1906.

Owners and tenants

Collating what was written above, and relying almost entirely from Charles J Smith’s book, augmented with a little information discovered here or available at Canmore or elsewhere online.

  • 1802 (not yet viewed) Plan of estate of Canaan (Cannaan), with names of feuars and occupiers. The digital image may be seen in the NRS Search Rooms on the ‘Virtual Volumes’.  [Note: endorsed as to lawsuit, probably William Mossman of Canaan v. Major Archibald Mossman and others, CS21, 9 July 1803]. (National Records of Scotland RHP38141.)
  • 1806 – ? William Bailie WS feued the land from William Mosman.
  • 1812 (approx) William Bailie built the house at a cost of £300.
  • 1841 census … ?
  • 1851 census … ?
  • 1818 – 1860 George Ross, advocate, owner and resident. Ross funded Morningside Old Schoolhouse.
  • 1861 census … ?
  • 1861 – 1866 Donald Robert MacGregor MP, owner and resident with wife Mary Anderson, though they were not (yet) resident on the census day (7 April 1861).
  • 1866 deed transferring ownership from D.R. MacGregor to his wife Mary Anderson or MacGregor and her brother Charles Anderson.
  • 1871 census D R MacGregor (head, Steamship Owner, age 47, born in Perth), Mary MacGregor (age 45, born in England), with Jane Thom (housemaid domestic servant, age 30, born in Largo, Fife).
  • 1878/1881-? Charles Anderson and Mary Anderson or MacGregor, owners, tenants still being Donald and Mary, having sold or feued the Woodburn Terrace parcel.
  • 1881 census … not MacGregor
  • 1891 census … ?
  • 1895 – 1921 “a succession of medical men”, including
    • Dr Bremner
  • 1909 (not yet viewed) Plan of estate of Canaan (Cannaan), with names of feuars. Tracing from RHP38141 (1802) with names updated. (National Records of Scotland RHP38142.)
  • 1911 census … ?
  • 1914 – (circa) 1923 (and during which tenure Mears and Geddes designed Edinburgh Zoo in Corstorphine).
    • Sir Frank Mears, architect, town planner, parachute developer
    • his wife, who was daughter of Sir Patrick Geddes (Edinburgh Old Town hero and “father” of the modern discipline and profession of town and country planning).
    • Dr Isabella (Mary) Mears, Frank’s sister (first Resident Medical Officer at the adjacent Astley Ainslie Hospital, from 1923)
  • 1921 census … ?
  • 1922 – 1966 the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary Nurses’ Home.
  • 1950 – 1953 a proposed Gate Lodge for the Woodburn House Nurses Home (National Records of Scotland GD283/6/256 Correspondence, schedules, reports.)
  • 1966 – ? Training Centre for the Scottish Hospital Administration staff
  • ? -date Various Scottish Health Service department administrative offices

Woodburn House nowadays

Woodburn House, off Canaan Lane
The entrance portico of Woodburn House, from Geograph http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3258134

Canmore website says “Woodburn House, No 54 Canaan Lane … stands on the south side of Canaan Lane, a narrow lane running east from Morningside Road. It was one of several villas built c.1803 in the ‘land of Canaan’, the ‘most pleasant of the Morningside estates’. [I think most of them are in the grounds of Astley Ainsley hospital, and “1803” refers to the feuing of the lands of Caanan.] The house has a prominent entrance portico with Roman Doric columns… The ‘land of Canaan’ covered 65 acres from Newbattle Terrace in the north to the Jordan Burn in the south. This rural area of meadows, orchards and gardens was the largest of the estates on which Morningside was gradually to develop.”

This photograph [below] shows the garden side of the house [the south facade]. A prominent bowed section with cast iron balcony and dormer above forms the focal point of the block [overlooking the lawn from which the photo was taken]”.

Woodburn House. “View of the South facade, including the fire-damaged East wing, seen from the South South East.” Photo and text from Canmore, © RCAHMS https://canmore.org.uk/collection/684015, suggesting to me that it was taken after a restoration in 1966.

Oh, the literal theme. Here is an example of Woodburn House’s own plasterwork, also from Canmore. I’ve never been inside the house… Perhaps one year on Doors Open Day it will be possible to nose around.

Interior detail of the ceiling cornice in the central South apartment of Woodburn House. Image from Canmore https://canmore.org.uk/collection/565004 © RCAHMS


Smith, Charles J. (1992) Morningside. John Donald Publishers Ltd., Edinburgh. ISBN 0-85976-354-4

Various Title Deeds for 9/1 Woodburn Terrace, unpublished.

British Newspaper Archive https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

Geograph for Woodburn House (but with dodgy text?)

Canmore, e.g. https://canmore.org.uk/site/52694/edinburgh-morningside-54-canaan-lane-woodburn-house

SCRAN has a useful explantion of feuing, the former usual system of land sale in Scotland (until 2000?), at www.scran.ac.uk/ada/documents/general/feuing.htm

Scotland: Owners of Lands and Heritages 17 & 18 Vict. Cap. 91, 1872-1873 : Return of the Name and Address of Every Owner of One Acre and Upwards in Extent … and the Annual Value of the Lands and Heritages of Individual Owners : and of … Owners of Less Than One Acre … Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty. Murray and Gibb, 1874. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4t9LAAAAYAAJ

Kirkwood’s 1817 map of the environs around Edinburgh – https://maps.nls.uk/view/74414123

The ~800 page New Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol 1. Edinburghshire (1845) is available at archive.org https://archive.org/details/newstatisticalac01edin

Scottish Indexes as well as free index searching has some learning materials about deeds.

3 thoughts on “Woodburn House, Canaan Lane

Add yours

  1. A few bits that I managed to find on Woodburn:

    J.B. Mears found an amber bead in the garden in 1907 (PSAS, Volume 51).

    George Ross, advocate, was resident in 1843, 1852 & 1857 (Directory to gentlemen’s seats, villages &c. in Scotland). There’s a bit about him in Volume 25 of The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club:

    ” … Morningside was at that time a quiet village and villa neighbourhood, where most people could, if they chose, know something of their neighbours high and low, and there were then resident among us several public-spirited gentlemen who became lay leaders in the movement for the erection of the new church and parish. I can well remember their first and subsequent meetings in my father’s drawing-room at Merchiston Castle. Their leading and most active layman was George Ross, Esq., Woodburn. He was a younger son and brother of the Ross-shire baronets of Balnagowan and well known in connection with all philanthropic and benevolent associations in Edinburgh, as well as a director of the Bank of Scotland and the like. He took up the Church erection heart and soul, visited it daily while building and contributed by himself and friends largely to its funds.”

    Miss A.E. Macdougall was resident in 1892 (Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, Volume 18).

    There was a fire in 1977 (Discovery & Excavation in Scotland, 1981).

    From Volume 24 of The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club:

    “There may be noted, set in the stone wall opposite the entrance to Woodburn, Canaan Lane – for many years a Sanatorium and now a Nurses’ Home of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary – two flat stones of about a foot square, incised with the numerals 5 and 7 respectively. The same may be seen in Whitehouse Loan. These, according to Kirkwood’s map of 1817, indicate the straight diagonal line of the first Edinburgh public water supply (1681 ) – ‘ Course of Main Pipe from Bonaly Ponds and Comiston ‘ – to the reservoir on the Castle Hill.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

A WordPress.com Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: