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.

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Donald R. MacGregor, MP of Leith

When researching the history of our much-loved flat (built 1880-1881) in Woodburn Terrace in Morningside, it was easy to confirm some facts. The land had been sold by its previous owners in 1878. They were a brother and sister from England called Charles William Anderson and Mary Anderson… and Mary was married to someone called Donald Robert MacGregor (or Macgregor, or McGregor), a merchant in Leith. Our deeds referred to the grand villa and its grounds adjacent to Woodburn Terrace (an area the same size to our entire street of 100 flats), and it was also listed as their property. That is, in 1878 and 1881 it was referred to as being owned by the Andersons:

The lines about Woodburn House that sparked further interest in non-owner Mr. MacGregor (1881): “… and on the East by the Property of Woodburn belonging to the said Charles William Anderson and Mrs Mary Anderson or Macgregor… “

So, (I wondered), why was the land for the building of Woodburn Terrace off Canaan Lane (and Woodburn House on Canaan Lane) not in the name of Mr MacGregor? Why was it his wife who was in partnership with Mr. Anderson? It was, after all, a man’s world. But it took a long time to realise I actually had to focus on local man Donald Robert MacGregor, the non-owner of the land. I’d acquired yet another unexpected research topic. So, nearly a year later (and after lots of confusion on my part, some of it conveyed below) I know the basic facts and gaps. His life story could inspire one hell of a novel or film, if you ask me.

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The plasterer’s flat

When we moved into a traditional tenement flat in Morningside (Edinburgh) in the mid 1990s, we felt very lucky. It was just what we wanted: spacious, in a great area of town (quiet, leafy, central and with varied local facilities). As a bonus it had relatively dramatic period features that gave our home extra character. Especially the ceilings.

But after nearly quarter of a century, the time came to move on. To flit. So, to partner a blog which sings the praises of one whole street of Morningside tenements, now here’s a specific eulogy to the history of our flat. Our much loved flat: the home our children grew up in. But we are not the focus… this is part of a “house history” of the place itself (Flat 1, 9 Woodburn Terrace), and of course it was a home for other people too. Here I’ll attempt to tell the story of the person who was responsible for creating its unusual charm, 140 years ago, its first owner, David Wight (~1838-1910), a plasterer who may or may not have been the intended first resident.

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A Morningside tenement

Many people with even quite recent Scottish roots are unfamiliar with the variety of Victorian tenements in Scotland. And in family history research people read and see photos and reports that equate all tenements with slums. Old maps can show street after street of densely packed housing, clustered around heavy industry in the inner city. This high density housing for working people, like the people who lived there and their way of life, were not cared for or valued by wider society, so they went into decline and were, in large areas, swept away.

Glasgow slum replacement, as unsympathetic as it gets. Gorbals photo by Oscar Marzaroli – see https://www.gcu.ac.uk/foundation/themarzarolicollection/

In our post-industrial age, and once refurbished, most of the so-called surviving “slums” have become desirable properties. Modernised, they can command a premium price over most 20th C. flats in the same area, if they survived in a sympathetic context. “Bought by a wide range of social types, [they] are favoured for their large rooms, high ceilings and original period features”, says Wikipedia. Spot on. But also, the largest or fanciest tended not to become dilapidated or be demolished in the first place.

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19th Century Morningside

A “row of thatched cottages, a line of trees and a blacksmith’s forge” is a much quoted description of Old Morningside (though the original attribution is unknown to me).

Morningside was a little rural village on the road south from Edinburgh and at the limits of the burgh’s lands. Around it, before 1800, were farms, and a couple of castles or grand seats, and beyond it to the south lay (and still lie, beyond the suburbs) wilder rural lands and hills that attract snow, shopping warehouses and outdoorsy activities. In the nineteenth century came two waves of transformation. First came the large villas, estates and institutions, parcelling up the land. Then down the roads and later into the fields came the smaller houses, terraces, and tenements, new roads and trams, with Edinburgh’s peripheral South Circular Railway appearing in 1884. By 1900, the area’s mixter-maxter of housing styles and road patterns were in place.

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The Aitkens’ Coin-Glass Goblet

We have an antique vase from 1889. We didn’t know what it was, and more importantly we didn’t know who it was made for. Thanks to research then replies to this blog, the mysteries are solved (mostly). Wonderfully, we have heard from a descendant of the couple whose marriage it was made to commemorate (see below). The goblet is large (30cm tall with a 4 pint capacity) and beautifully engraved, with a floral thistle theme and pictorial images of Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House. The lead crystal rings like a bell when tapped. And it has two coins/medals inside a blown glass cavity (“knop”) at the foot of its stem. 

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The long summer of 1913

This Scottish summertime photograph, helpfully labelled on the back, celebrates the 35th (so-called coral) wedding anniversary of James Scobbie and Mina Laughland on July 3rd 1913, just before WW1. For photos from their diamond wedding celebrations in 1938 just before WW2 along with newspaper biographies, see the post on their diamond, gold and “ruby” anniversaries. A looming war is invisible in photographs like this, if we can resist the temptation to use hindsight to pour meaning into the expressions of the people in these gapless gatherings.

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74 years officiating in Scottish forestry

Robert Paterson Galloway (1861-1936), pictured above, and his elder son Angus were both, as Edinburgh lawyers, major administrative figures in organisations representing forestry and arboricultural interests in Scotland, and provided stability and continuity as the secretary-treasurers of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society for 74 years, from 1895 to 1969. (The Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society as it was called in 1895 had been founded in 1854 and given a Royal Charter in 1887.) Robert was secretary and treasurer for 42 years! He died in 1936 aged 75, following an accident in Edinburgh in March 1935 in which he had been knocked down by a motor car.

We know something of their work and characters, because Robert was the subject of a glowing testimonial in the Transactions of the Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society to celebrate its 60th year, in 1914. His son Angus (1895-1971) likewise was lauded in an obituary in Forestry: An International Journal of Forest Research in 1972 both for his service as secretary and treasurer for the RSFS (for 9 years jointly with his father) and also as the first holder of the same roles for the Society of Foresters of Great Britain for 27 years from its founding in in 1925 till 1962.

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Morningside Wedding, Morningside Funeral

Ebeth Scobbie married at 28 and was widowed at 33. As Mrs Ebeth Newton, she married again at 46, to a successful and well-regarded Edinburgh solicitor, Robert Galloway, also a widow. He was 69. Their wedding in 1930 was at Greenbank Church (near Robert’s home) in the south of Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland.

I assume Ebeth and Robert found happiness with each other – they had just each lived through a dozen or so years of widowhood, right through the 1920s. I wonder if their ages were a big talking point back then: there was a 23 year age gap, which I assume was  unusual. Is that Angus (Robert’s son) scowling in the background?! Or does just he just have a serious face? Well, Angus was just 11 years younger than Ebeth… and they were in the same generation, given that they had both “seen action” in the war. Maybe he was uncomfortable.

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Ebeth Scobbie (1884-1940)

The girl on our left in this picture is Ebeth, photographed with her siblings and parents in Scotland when she was 12 or 13, around 1896. Here is some of her life story. I collected some of this material in 2016, at the time of the centenary of the tragic day on May 30th 1916 when she was widowed, aged 33, in Smyrna (now ─░zmir on the western Mediterranean coast of Turkey), and now a year later, in the days before posting this blog, I finally located and visited her grave in Morningside, a few minutes walk from my home.

Why was she there? What happened to her? Why am I writing about her?

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