Edinburgh colony flats are a city institution.
Built first in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh the houses date from 1861 and were put up by the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company in a move away from the Scottish tenement tradition towards working class homes that would provide each family with its own front door and garden.
In part their purpose was also continued employment for the company’s workforce in lean times for the building trade, hence the gaps in dates of completion - construction of the homes was taken up when projects were scarce and carried on in several stages till 1911.
It is a philosophy - utilising trained craftsman to maintain their skills and keep them employed while also providing homes that people want to live in - that feels like a very simple solution to a very modern problem.
Over a third of the shareholders were stonemasons and other tradesmen and at the end of each of the eleven parallel terraces of the Stockbridge Colonies are the original artisan crests portraying the different trades of the workmen.
Similar colonies on a smaller scale exist in other parts of Edinburgh, such as Abbeyhill, Leith Links, Pilrig, Shandon and Slateford but it is the Stockbridge site which is the most sought after by modern city dwellers. The main door upper or lower flats are prized for their charm and quirkiness and their liveability - they are flats, but feel like houses.
The properties each have a front garden, one at each side with stone steps leading up to the front door of the upper flats and the Victorian clothes poles are a prized original feature. Their orientation means that facing houses have different street names.
Norma Bird bought her upper colony home in Collins Place, one of the older terraces, five years ago. She says: “My husband Roger was still working in Inverness, my daughter Laura was starting university in Dundee and I was working in Edinburgh, so we needed a smaller house for my son Andrew, who was still at school, and myself.” Norma had taken up the post of headteacher at Drummond Community High School and walked to work past the colonies from her temporary rented flat. She says: “I just thought they had such character and really liked the area, so we started viewing those for sale.”
The homes here are similar, but over the years subtle differences have arisen, although you would be unlikely to get planning permission to change them now. Norma says of her home at number 24: “The interior staircase has been reoriented, so it is straight rather than curved, which allows for an extra seating area in the kitchen, which we really liked. Coming from a renovated farmhouse in Angus, we still wanted to have the space to gather in the kitchen, even though the house was much smaller.”
They also noted that the main dormer window upstairs here were bigger than some of the others: “It lets in a lot of light and it is a beautiful window, although I don’t know if it is original. We’ve chosen to use blinds there rather than curtains so the wood isn’t covered.”
They replaced the kitchen when they moved in, installed under floor heating in there and decorated throughout. Norma says: “We have kept it neutral, with pale shades of Farrow and Ball paint to keep everything light.”
Number 24, like all the upper colonies here, is over two floors. Downstairs is the dining kitchen, a sizeable sitting room with fireplace and wooden floors and the smallest of the three bedrooms which would equally make an excellent office. Upstairs are the two main bedrooms, each with a dormer window and there is plenty of eaves storage plus ground floor store.
There is a good sized family bathroom which would have been a later addition. The lack of indoor bathrooms in the original homes meant that residents used the Victorian Glenogle Baths at the end of the street. Now it is a very handy pool and gym. Norma says: “It is so close that you see people heading down there in dressing gowns for a morning swim.”
No wonder the Stockbridge Colonies have the feel of a small village in their own right. While their social history and architectural interest plus their close location to The Royal Botanic Gardens and Inverleith Park have turned them into prime real estate, that isn’t to say that there isn’t a very old fashioned feel to the place still.
Norma says: “It is very family oriented, because it is a cul de sac there are kids playing in the street and lots of things going on - there was a yard sale at the weekend with a band playing and there is a residents’ quiz night. Christmas sees carol singing, at Halloween we all put out pumpkins and there is a best garden competition, although I have to say we’ve never won it.
“It is just a really lovely place to live.”