Buying a piece of history

IT WAS built during the Restoration, when the dramatic return to power of the Stuart monarchy ended the harsh austerity of Cromwell's post-Civil War republic. Now more than three centuries after Charles II himself was an honoured guest, Edinburgh's Dalry House is undergoing its very own restoration, and it is only the latest chapter in a building with a rather remarkable history.

Dalry House is thought to have been built in 1661, by the wealthy merchant and baillie Walter Chieslie (or Chiesly). The large mansion, with two distinctive octagonal towers, was at that time surrounded by trees and fields some way outside the city boundary, and the sprawling country estate stretched from Dalry to Gorgie and Fountainbridge.

Chieslie is reputed to have been a Royalist sympathiser, and there is evidence of this in the emblem of a crown and the initials of Charles II – CR 2 (Charles Rex II) – that still survives in the ornate plasterwork ceiling that once hung over the entrance hall to the house. The emblem is believed to have been added to honour a visit to the house by the Merry Monarch himself.

Chieslie did not have much cause for celebration when his son John brought the family into disrepute. In 1688, the younger Chieslie attempted to divorce his wife and was not keen to pay her maintenance so that she could care for their 11 children. The courts disagreed and ordered him to pay 93 a year.

John Chieslie took his revenge by shooting the judge, the Lord President, Sir George Lockhart, in the High Street in broad daylight. His reward for the murder was to have his right hand cut off before he was unceremoniously hanged.

According to Historic Scotland's records, the house was sold eight years later in 1696 to Alexander Brand "who tried to dispose of it in a lottery in 1706." Brand finally sold the house, but not the estate, in 1714.

Dalry House later passed to the ownership of the Walker family, who bought part of the estate in 1790, and the remainder, including the house itself, in 1812. Around this time, it was extended to the south with a Georgian classical entrance front.

In 1870, the house was sold again, this time to the Scottish Episcopal Church, and used as a teacher training college.

By then, the extensive grounds had been completely developed, mostly for housing, and Dalry House was surrounded by tenement blocks on Orwell Place and an adjacent primary school. Historical records note that it has often been described as "a classy villa institutionalised in a back street."

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Dalry House

In 1963, Dalry House was gifted to the Edinburgh and Leith Old People's Welfare Council, and after refurbishment, it was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II – 300 years since Charles II's visit – and her coat of arms were added to the plasterwork ceiling in her honour.

Dalry became a day centre for elderly people, but the charity ran out of funds, and it was closed in 2002, and later sold. Now the category B-listed building is undergoing a 1.3 million conversion into 15 luxury apartments, but retaining many of the original period features.

One of the apartments – aptly called the Charles II – boasts the original plasterwork ceiling, including the emblems of both monarchs who have visited the building.

Duncan Sutherland, chief executive of developers Life Properties, says it cost thousands of pounds just to have the plasterwork ceiling restored, but the attention to detail was worth the investment.

"A friend of mine, James Thomson, owns the Prestonfield House Hotel, and he said he had a fellow in to fix a lot of his specialist plasterwork in there. So we got him in to do it, and it cost 10,000 to do the ceiling."

An original stone fireplace, inscribed with the dates 1668 and 1778, is in the master bedroom, which has an ensuite wet room in one of the turrets.

The construction work, which is scheduled to finish in June, has involved restoring and reinforcing the original 17th century beams, and some of the flats will have features such as the original stone walls left exposed.

"You can see how they used to build the walls in the 1600s," adds Sutherland. "It was like a dry stane dyke."

Sutherland, who moved into property development with his wife Viv after a previous career in the retail trade, says the refurbishment in 1967 made the conversion easier.

"In '67, they spent quite a lot on the house as well, so the biggest thing we had had to do is reinforce all the floors, because they were a bit springy."

With prices starting at just under 200,000 for a studio apartment, Sutherland acknowledges that the flats are not going cheap.

"Most of the people who move in here are a more discerning buyer," he says. "It is a chance to own a little bit of history."

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