If you have ever wandered along Seacliff Beach, you may have noticed the ruins of a gothic looking building that is almost hidden in the trees on the hill above. These ruins are the remains of Seacliff House, a large, private mansion that once boasted having some of the best views out over the Bass Rock and the Forth. Today, while walking to Seacliff Beach I decided to go and have a look around the ruins of the house on the hill.
While wandering around I found that the ruins were still quite impressive, with much of the outer walls of the house remaining. I remember walking through here a few years back and the ruined frontage of the house was mainly hidden in a mass of trees and undergrowth. Most of this has now been cut back giving a much clearer view of what remains of the building. There was a speculative scheme drawn up in 1992 to rebuild the house, add an extension and turn it into a spa hotel. Thirty years later and I don’t think that plan is any further forward, but given the clearing of the trees around the building who knows…?
The history of this building is that the original Seacliff House was built in 1750 by Robert Colt. In 1841, the then owner George Sligo commissioned the architect David Bryce to design a new house around the earlier building. Bryce designed a three storey house with an attic in the Scottish Baronial style, and building work was completed later that year. The house was then enlarged in 1850 when the estate was acquired by John Watson Laidlay.
Laidlay was an interesting chap, one of these classic Victorian gentleman types. He studied chemistry under Michael Faraday and then went off to work in the family business out in India. There he ran two factories producing silk and indigo. In his spare time, he studied various ancient languages and translated texts by Fa Hian into English (Fa Hian or Faxian was a 4th Century Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled from China to India visiting sacred Buddhist sites on his journey). Laidlay returned to the UK in 1849 and bought the property at Seacliff. On his death in 1885 his eldest son Andrew Laidlay inherited the property.
Andrew Laidlay was by all accounts a popular man with many friends. He was a magistrate in East Lothian and a keen golfer. He was also an avid reader and researcher and spent many hours in the library of his house. Late on the night of Saturday 27 July 1907 he was reading in his library. As the house had no electricity, he read with the aid of a paraffin lamp and would often have this up on the highest flame to give himself more light to read by. On this night, while reading, Andrew fell asleep. It then appears that while sleeping he knocked the lamp over and set fire to the library. Then, in the early hours of the morning on Sunday 28 July, two of the maids who were sleeping in the room they shared were woken by a crackling sound and what also sounded like falling furniture. Alarmed by this they got up to wake the housemaid, Effie Hamilton, who slept in another room. They woke her and on investigating what was going on she found that smoke was beginning to billow up from the rooms below. Effie then quickly got the other members of staff out of the house. Once outside Effie shouted and threw stones up at the bedroom window of the Laidlay’s daughter, Theophila. On waking, Theophila quickly went to her mother’s room and roused her. The two of them then bound some bed sheets together and climbed from the bedroom window down to a balcony on the second storey. A ladder was then brought round so that they could safely get down to the ground and away from the house. In the meantime, Effie had gone back into the house to try to get to Andrew Laidlay’s bedroom, as she feared he was asleep there and had been overcome by the smoke from the fire. However, despite a couple of valiant attempts she was beaten back by the smoke and the heat from the fire. All she and those who had escaped from the building could then do was watch as it was engulfed by the flames.
The fire brigade was called and attended, but they had serious problems in getting any water with which to douse the flames, as there was no mains water connected to the house, the water being usually drawn from a nearby well. They attempted to use sea water, but this was fraught with difficulties given the distance from the house to the sea. Most of the house was soon destroyed by the fire and was left as an empty, smouldering shell. The fire brigade did however manage to stop the flames from engulfing the kitchen and laundry block. Once the fire was out a search was undertaken to try and find the remains of Andrew Laidlay, but the heat had been so intense at the height of the fire that nothing could be found of him.
After the fire, the ruins of the house were abandoned. The stables and a service cottage for the house, which had not been damaged by the fire, were purchased by the Royal Navy. During World War I they were used as the base for HMS Scottish Seacliff. This was a secret research facility concerned with navigation training and U-boat defence. The stables and the cottage are now privately owned.
The Skulferatu that accompanied me on today’s walk was left in the hollow of a doorway wall.
The coordinates for the location of the Skulferatu are:
I used the following sources for information on Seacliff House –
The Scotsman – Monday 29 July 1907
Daily Telegraph and Courier (London) - Monday 29 July 1907
The Graphic – August 10, 1907
photographs are copyright of © Kevin Nosferatu, unless otherwise specified.
Article and photographs are copyright of © Kevin Nosferatu, unless otherwise specified.