Belfry Cottage, Pencaitland is the sort of home that is packed full of history and quirky features. The most obvious as you approach is the statue of a boy reading a book that is perched on the roof.
Owner Stuart Nisbet says that it dates from the time the house was a school: “One of the pupils became a stonemason and gave the statue as a gift in 1850 to the school to commemorate the headmaster.”
It is a charming feature, but Belfry Cottage oozes charm, not least the bell tower which tops the cottage, gives it its name and would have rung out to call in the pupils each day.
Stuart and his partner Doreen MacKay bought the house five years ago, moving out from Edinburgh. Stuart, who is a musician who was with the Proclaimers till 2004 and has since played with Deacon Blue, amongst others, knew Pencaitland because there is a great recording studio in the village but Doreen says it was the combination of convenience of the location, the feel of the village and the charming house which attracted them. And the fact that here was a project.
Doreen says “The previous owners had planning permission to change the house so we took it on, using the same architect and a local builder. We altered some of the plans but worked with the house really trying to make better use of the space and light.”
In what was a substantial reworking, a wall was removed to combine an existing galley kitchen with a dark dining room forming a large central dining kitchen. She says “We knew this was a good idea but we didn’t realise that it would be such a roaring success - it has become a cosy, bright, happy space with sunshine all day and we spend most of our time in here.”
The house had two bedrooms and a boxroom but the reconfiguration and extension work left really only the living room untouched - apart from its redecoration.
Doreen says “The bathroom was at the front of the house and really cold as it was uninsulated. We stripped out that room, insulated it and replastered to make it into a fourth bedroom which we now use as a study.” The boxroom became the main bathroom and they pushed back from a 1980s extension, taking a metre off the garage, to create three more larger bedrooms, one with an en suite and all with built in wardrobes.
The exposed stone wall in the hall was hidden behind plasterboard but would have been the original playground outside wall, incorporated into the earlier extension. Stuart says “We returned from a weekend in Rome and had the idea to have a look what was behind the plasterboard so got a hammer at two in the morning to take it down.” The result - cleaned up and restored by Doreen using power tools and lime mortar - is a wonderful feature and is still worn smooth in one part, from schoolboys sharpening their penknives more than a hundred years before.
The garden is as pretty as the house, with a large enclosed lawn at the back and a cottagey feel at the front and the couple like to keep it that way: “It is the first thing you see as you come to the village so we do feel a certain responsibility.” says Stuart.
In the house they’ve kept the sense of its history as much as possible. As well as the deep walls, original sash and case windows and working shutters, they have a framed report from 1888, complaining that the 70 pupil schoolroom (now the living room and kitchen) was so cold that the ink wells had all frozen. There are no such problems now, the open fire compliments the modern central heating and the house is very warm.
The couple have loved living in the village, it is close enough to Edinburgh and the airport but has a real sense of community and they have had a lot of help throughout the project from neighbours, offering advice or bringing old photographs and postcards to show how the school looked.
They have also added their own bit of history. Stuart was the creative director for music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games and says that some of the pieces used were composed around the kitchen table here.
Doreen, who project managed the renovation and was very hands on throughout, is now looking for the next challenge, but here the couple have given Belfry Cottage a new lease of life.
Stuart says “We are very happy with the idea that we’ve made something better than before and added a little soul.”
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