When Liz and Ian Robertson moved into the long-coveted Old House in Crail, in the East Neuk of Fife, they gave a new lease of life to a home steeped in history, readying it for the next generation.
PEOPLE will tell you that some things in life are meant to be. It’s like the old saying: what’s for you won’t go by you. If you’re fortunate, this can also refer to a property, perhaps a house you’ve long admired; a place you’ve passed by countless times and thought, one day...
This was true for Ian Robertson and his late wife, Liz, when they were looking to return to Scotland in 1998 after having lived in the United States for 15 years. While Ian hails from Irvine, on the west coast, Liz came from Cellardyke, in Fife, and as a teenager she worked for a family living on Marketgate North, in the East Neuk village of Crail. Liz had always admired this house, the Old House, at 9 Marketgate North. It’s easy to see why: most visitors to Crail would have the same reaction, as this is a wonderful-looking property; a place that is so clearly steeped in history and character that you can’t help but notice it.
The A-listed building dates from around 1540 and is thought to be the oldest house in Crail. It is believed the property was originally connected to a former monastery located in the village’s Nethergate, and was perhaps used as accommodation for monks who were responsible for tending to the gardens and crops as well as producing honey and mead. The three ‘Bee Boles’, positioned low in the south-facing rear wall of the house, pay testament to this – Bee Boles are recesses that would have been used to house straw pyramid-style beehives, and these three are listed on the London National Register as No 12, dating from 1540.
That’s the thing about the Old House: every room and space and feature of this building and its stunning walled garden exudes history. When the Robertsons noticed the property on the market in 1998, they wasted no time in making an offer, but heard nothing back. Liz returned to Fife from the US that December and discovered that the owner was still willing to sell, so they offered again and bought the property in January 1999. What’s for you and all that. As Ian says, “Liz couldn’t believe that we actually had the house after all this time.”
The Old House is believed to have been a family home since 1567 – actually two family homes, as the ground and upper floors were originally separate. The house was joined together to created one home in 1686, as evidenced by the dated and initialed marriage lintel over the front door, and the stone turnpike staircase was added to the rear of the building at this time.
Although the Robertsons inherited a property that had been well looked after over the years, they recognised ways of improving the house both in terms of function and style. Originally the kitchen was located in what is now the dining room, while the dining room was in today’s kitchen – the larger of the two rooms, and brighter thanks to its two windows. The couple decided to reverse this arrangement, creating today’s fantastic kitchen with its handmade cabinets, granite worktops, range cooker and Belfast sink.
In the dining room, meanwhile, Liz uncovered a centuries-old fireplace that had been concealed behind a section of plasterboard. This turned out to be an important discovery as the couple had carried out the changes without seeking planning approval – thinking that as the alterations were all internal, it wouldn’t be a problem. Years later, they applied for retrospective planning approval, and the fact that this fireplace had been unearthed, and that in doing this the Robertsons had improved the house, went in their favour. Approval was granted, but Ian offers this advice: “My warning to anyone that owns an A-listed building is, don’t do anything, even if it’s internal, until you first check with your local authority.”
More recently, the couple also added the garden room extension – and here they involved Fife Council and Historic Scotland from the outset. This space transformed the kitchen, which now flows directly into the garden room and to the garden beyond, creating an indoor-outdoor connection you might not expect to find in a 500-year-old property.
Although the Old House looks extensive from the front, it is actually only one room deep. The ground level includes the music room, snug and office, along with a WC. There is also separate ground-floor access into an area that the Robertsons previously used as a small gift shop – subject to consents, there may be scope for whoever purchases this house next to reinstate a similar business.
Along with the kitchen, garden room and dining room, the first floor also includes a large sitting room with a stone fireplace (a 20th-century addition this time), and the warm palette here creates a comfortable ambience that’s reflected throughout this home. Ian readily credits his late wife for the style of the interior. “My wife loved design and style and fashion, and she was very good at matching colours and dressing wee crannies in the house with furniture and artwork,” he says. The three bedrooms (one is en-suite) and main bathroom are situated on the top floor, and again possess a lovely character.
The one area of the property that did require attention when the Robertsons arrived was the walled garden, which had become overgrown. Soon after moving in, the couple were asked whether they might open the garden to the public as part of the Scotland’s Gardens scheme – the garden had been included for years but the previous owner had chosen not to take part. The Robertsons said yes, and had just six months to restore the garden to its former glory ready for the first open weekend that summer.
Again, the garden was Liz’s pride and joy, and she opened up the space to let in more light and made it more accessible with a network of pathways. “A few months after we moved in, I came home from work one night and found a water feature in the garden,” Ian recalls, as Liz had lifted some flagstones in a corner to reveal an original pond below.
The gardens have been open to the public every summer for the past 14 years – last summer Ian had 600 visitors over the open weekend. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the Old House has thrived on people and family life and entertaining, and people seem drawn to the property – Ian has become used to the sight of passers-by stopping to photograph the house.
It may be time for Ian to move on but, as he says, you are simply a custodian of a building like this. The Old House is a quite incredible home, one that has witnessed centuries of life, and each successive owner takes on that responsibility before eventually passing the mantle to the next generation.
Guide price £560,000; contact CKD Galbraith (01334 659 980, www.ckdgalbraith.co.uk)