Have you visited Edinburgh’s lost country house? Here’s the bizarre and intriguing tale of Cammo House

Aerial view of Cammo House
Aerial view of Cammo House
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“EVEN after 30 years I can still recall the first time seeing Cammo,” Simon Baillie, author of The Private World of Cammo, is in reflective mode.

“It seemed such a strange layout of ruins, almost disproportionate to the idea of a country mansion, yet even then it had the effect of drawing me in as if it wanted me to start digging into its murky past.

Simon Baillie at the ruins of Cammo House

Simon Baillie at the ruins of Cammo House

“I remain entranced regarding anything about it, as if it was in my own family’s past.

“From that day 30 years ago till now it has always and will remain a fascination for my entire life.”

Today, the Cammo Estate, near Cramond Brig, on which the ruins of the house lie, is a nature reserve.

Simon paid that first visit to Cammo on a bitterly cold January day, accompanying his neighbour who was walking his dog.

Inside Cammo

Inside Cammo

Amazed at the extent of the estate, he was further bewitched when he got his first proper view of the remains of what he then thought was ‘nothing more than a large country cottage’.

As questions about its past flitted across his mind, he decided to turn detective and discover all he could about the house that was last home to the Maitland-Tennant family.

He recalls, “Researching in 1994/95 wasn’t straightforward, even the Internet was in its early days, so it was down to sheer determination and perseverance to find out what I could. There were lots of barriers...”

What he did uncover, Simon published in 1995 in his book, a revised edition of which came out 23 years later.

Little of Edinburgh's Cammo House remains after a fire in March 1977. A fireman surveys the blackened timbers.

Little of Edinburgh's Cammo House remains after a fire in March 1977. A fireman surveys the blackened timbers.

It told a fascinating and tragic tale of a family’s fall from grace.

Built in 1693, it is rumoured that Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired to use Cammo as the basis for the House of Shaws in his novel Kidnapped after visiting the house.

However, Cammo’s most intriguing period began in 1910 when it was sold to one Mrs Margaret Louisa Clark-Tennant, although she would later change her name to Maitland-Tennant.

A divorcee with two sons, she lived a reclusive life with the youngest boy, Percival, after the divorce. .

Known locally as the Black Widow, Mrs Maitland-Tennant was born in the Capital in 1859, the daughter of a sheep farmer who had accumulated his fortune in Australia.

She attended Edinburgh University as a young lady and in 1914, with war looming, took her sons abroad to prevent them being called up for National Service. .

The oldest, Robert, declined to return, settling in America and refusing to be ‘buried in Cammo’, thus creating a family rift that would never heal.

Although they were reclusive, the mother and younger son were known to sport an air of superiority.

It is recorded that on their regular shopping trips to Jenners, the pair would be shown into a private office where the goods they were interested in purchasing would be brought to them, allowing them to avoid mixing with other customers.

After she died in 1955, aged 95, the estate was bequeathed to Percival - Robert was written out of her will.

Mrs Maitland-Tennant was buried under the west lawn of the house, the last internment in private ground in Scotland.

With the main house already run down by this time, Percival then lived in a tenant farmhouse on the estate, leaving the house to the mercies of his 30 or so dogs and vulnerable to all sorts of miscreants.

After his death in 1975 - Percival’s body was found in the house, he’d gone there to feed his dogs - Cammo continued to be plagued by vandals and thieves and was twice ravaged by fire, once in 1977 and again in 1980, leaving nothing but a gutted shell.

On his death at the age of 76 the house was bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland who, in turn, gifted the estate by feu charter to Edinburgh District Council for 1p.

Before doing so, however, furniture and effects that had not be robbed from the house were gathered and put up for auction, including several Italian paintings, one of which sold for £7,000 in 1977.

The house itself, sadly, was in ruins, a chandelier lay shattered on the floor, paintings bore bullet holes where vandals had used them for target practice and the place was infested with rats, mice and fleas.

Cammo had been allowed to fall into ruin all because of a family squabble.

Would the family have approved of its use today I wondered.

“Had Cammo been left to Robert by his brother Percival then we wouldn’t be discussing this,” says Simon.

“I could imagine a wonderful 17th century Scottish mansion, cared for, loved and most of all open to visitors, with wonderful grounds to be enjoyed by all.

“However Percival and his mother never wanted Robert to inherit Cammo.

“They even went against his grandmother’s will when it came to bequeathing items to him.

“He did not want to shut himself away at Cammo, he wanted a life, to perhaps feel he had lived and not had a reclusive existence.

“So for that reason they would not have wanted anyone to be able to have access to house or grounds.

“Given the history of what Percival endured from vandals and thieves, he would have been against any type of accessibility.”

By 1980, now in an unsafe condition, plans were drawn up for the final demolition of Cammo - all that remains is the ground floor ‘safe ruin’, which became the focal point of the UK’s first ‘wilderness park’.

That’s pretty much what can still be visited today, but Cammo yet holds secrets just waiting to be revealed, believes Simon.

“There were lots of barriers [when investigating the history], even now there are still some, certain people simply won’t admit what they know about the periods of auction sales and items going missing.

“In 1994 certain people at the National Trust for Scotland were very cagey about allowing someone to look through the bundles of disorganised paperwork stored in a musty, under-pavement vault in Charlotte Square, because of the atrocious way the whole situation of the Cammo bequest had been handled.”

Not that the ‘barriers’ have stopped Simon in his quest for knowledge.

“When I’m in Edinburgh I always try to visit Cammo and see all the projects that have been achieved by the various organisations, and their improvements to the grounds,” he says.

“I’m always looking for items which were within Cammo too, in particular paintings and portraits, but so far without any success.

“There are still, I’m sure many secrets to be discovered - there are numerous files which have a ‘closed till 2050’ on them.

“These all relate to financial records and papers between the UK and US treasury and their dealings with Margaret, the ‘Black Widow’ who for so many years was both renowned and held such fascination by the people of Edinburgh and the press.”

The Private World of Cammo by Simon Ballie is published by Clink Street, £16.99

Cammo Local Nature Reserve Visitor Centre, Cammo Road, open Thursdays 1pm-3.30pm and Sundays 2pm-4pm

For more information visit https://www.facebook.com/Friends.of.Cammo/