Entrepreneur rescues derelict miller’s house in Dalkeith to create rural retreat

The sandstone relic has delivered the spa hotel experience.
The sandstone relic has delivered the spa hotel experience.
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Otters in the burn, deer on the lawn and a beautifully restored Old Mill House. Where? In the middle of Dalkeith, of course.

When Sally de Waard came across a derelict miller’s house in 2012, she knew it could be something special. Set in its own four acres of mature grounds but just 20 minutes from Edinburgh Airport, it was central yet secluded. The only problem was the state it was in.

“It was on the police danger list,” Sally recalls. “The sandstone walls were in a terrible state because there was no roof and the heart of the house was open to the elements. When I viewed it, there wasn’t much time before it would be beyond repairing. Whilst I was looking for a project and a business, I also needed a home. Having been brought up in Gifford, Midlothian was familiar to me and not far from my elderly mother, and, returning from living and working in Dubai, this was a good fit.” Renovations started in September 2012, and it was ready to live in by 2013.

A serial entrepreneur, Sally was looking to create a property that was somewhere she and her family could live, but also make a living from. The solution was to renovate the miller’s house to a standard that it could be let out as stand-alone, luxury, self-catering holiday accommodation and to build a garage with an apartment above in the garden, which would be used by the family when the house was let. “I didn’t want to rent 52 weeks a year. I wanted to create a place for people to visit but for it still to be our home, and that’s a tough brief.”

However, it was this approach that gave the Old Mill House its USP. The house and its new layout very much reflects how Sally, her family and friends use the space, as Sally explains: “When it was built in 1703, it was a commercial building over two levels. In 1852, another level was added, and it became a residential property around that time. The old plans showed two rooms on the ground floor, but we decided to open it up to let in more natural light so you can see and hear the river. We put in a custom-designed staircase, which was a stressful operation but well worth it from a design point of view as it allows light to flow through the house. I also chose to give each of the five bedrooms their own bathroom and to leave the winter/evening sitting room on the first floor.

“Adding the orangery extension in 2014 allowed us to retain the sitting room as a relaxing place in which to watch TV, and the orangery and large kitchen is our calm space where we enjoy the garden views and the varied wildlife. Since adding the spa, the house seems bigger, with another seating space just outside the kitchen patio doors.”

Whilst there are a few things in the property that look original there was actually nothing left of the 18th century building except stone. “My favourite bathroom is the one with the exposed stone wall and the wooden beam, but the beam isn’t original: it came from eBay. It works so well there though and is complemented by the fabric on the window seat and blinds. Most of the fabrics came from Dubai. I had my own shop there and I sold Chinese antique furniture. Next to my premises was a shop called Silk Land which sold silks from India and I’ve used a lot of these in the house. All the Persian carpets are also from Dubai and much of our artwork is from Vietnam.”

With a passion for interiors instilled by her mum and their regular trips to antique shops, Sally wasn’t fazed at decorating the property in one go. “I approached the house as five flats – one bedroom, one bathroom and so on. I did find the bathrooms challenging and I would have liked more time to deliberate over tiles. Five bathrooms is quite a lot, but I’m happy with the result.”

Another area that presented a challenge was the attic space. “When we started the renovations, there were a number of windows that were bricked up. One on the gable end was easy to spot from ground level, but I wanted a closer look. I scooted up the scaffold myself, because I thought ‘that stone doesn’t look the same as the others’, and when I investigated, I found charming little windows which are now part of the attic rooms.”

All these angles and windows are a decorator’s nightmare but with some help from her son, who chose the wallpaper, Sally went all out and instead of the obvious step of dressing the Velux window she dressed the walls instead in a fabulous Toile de Jouy wallpaper. “I think with so many different angles it works really well. I’m not sure it would have looked so good if the walls had been flat.”

It’s obvious that Sally has enjoyed bringing this historic building back into its prime and her work has been recognised as The Old Mill House won Best Self-Catering Experience at VisitScotland’s Scottish Thistle Awards in 2018. However, as a home and a business has it fulfilled her expectations?

“It was both really exciting to do and hard to do. We had so many stonemasons to get it right and so many talented tradesmen on site – I was lucky that everyone was keen to do not just a good job but an excellent job for me. And yes, now… I would probably do it all again. I’ve always been in hospitality, so it’s quite natural to progress to hosting people from all around the world. Our guests appreciate that it’s a home and are so respectful and complimentary.” Or maybe they just realise how lucky they are to have found a little bit of paradise just a half hour from Edinburgh.

The Old Mill House is available to let through CoolStays, www.coolstays.com, www.theoldmillhouse.co.uk