The Secret Past of Baberton House

Article in the Konect Directory Balerno edition, September 2010

With tales of royalty, witches and ghosts as well as murder and intrigue and fire raising, Baberton House in Juniper Green is holding many secrets...  

One of Juniper Green's finest mansions, Baberton House has a long history. Once a very prominent and grand building, today it is hidden from view and finding it is no mean feat. In its hey day, the long drive up to the south side of this delightful residence, surrounded by a walled garden and acres of land, would have been rather majestic. 

The history of the house dates back to the early 14th century, when it was known as Kilbaberton House. 

Local historian John Scott of the Currie Local History Society has researched the history of Baberton House extensively and is a mine of information.  He dipped into the  lives of some of the house's residents including the part they have played on the wider Scottish stage and discovered that some of the owners made quite a name for themselves. 

If we first jump towards the end of  the 15th century when John Wardlaw is granted a charter to the lands of Kilbaberton, we find the beginning of a long history of the Wardlaw family with (Kil)baberton House and it is not necessarily a savoury one. Murder, mystery, fire and witches all appear...

Murder and intrigue

By 1494, John the first Wardlaw, Laird of Kilbaberton, along with his brother James of Riccarton is involved in the murder of William and Duncan Dundas. It is unclear if he is punished but he was ultimately slain at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

His son Henry inherits and it appears he too is embroiled in a curious legal situation.  In 1536 he served on a jury in the case of a man charged with “Ye Mutilatioune of Roger Tuedy in Lyntoune of his thumb of his right hand.” Wardlaw and his fellow jurors found the accused not guilty but were served with an indictment. “Although you have seen with your own eyes that Roger’s thumb was cut away and mutilated you have willfully and manifestly erred and gave false witness in declaring a Not Guilty verdict”.  They were imprisoned for a year and a day as was the law of 16th century Scotland.

Lady Kilbaberton and the witch

Henry's son Alexander next inherits Kilbaberton but it is his wife who is of interest this time. Marion Forrest, known as Lady Kilbaberton, did nothing more than seek medical help from a local healer and midwife Agnes Sampsoune  known as ‘‘the wise wife of Keith’’ (a place near Humbie, East Lothian). But Agnes Sampsoune became famous, or perhaps infamous, as a member of a coven known as the North Berwick Witches. 

She, along with three others, was tried for treason at the now famous trial at Holyrood in 1591, attended by none other than King James VI himself. Among the crimes laid to the charge of the ‘notorious sorceress’ was that of  “hailing (healing) by her devilish prayers the Lady Kilbabertoune, whae was disessit of ane heavy diseis.”

What illness Lady Kilbaberton was suffering from is not made clear but Agnes Sampsoune was found guilty of witchcraft.  Her fate followed the custom of the day - she was led to Castle Hill where she was “bund to ane staik and wirreit” (strangled), her body afterwards burnt to ashes.

The house next goes to Alexander’s grandson Henry, who was involved in ‘dastardly deeds’ at Kilbaberton with Patrick Hepburn of Riccarton; they were accused of raising fire and of murder.  The Presbytery of Edinburgh ordered the minister of Currie Kirk “to excommunicate all thance quha committit ye lait murthur and raisit fire at Kilbaberton.”

It took the Borthwicks six years to retaliate but in 1599, the Laird of Riccarton was “stricken threw the body by the two brothers of the Borthwicks.”

The Wardlaws finally give up the reigns of Baberton House in 1597 when it is sold to a John Elphingstoun. However curious events continue to happen at Baberton. In 1601 two men are fined a total of £3000 not to harm John Elphingstoun of Baberton! 

In 1612 James Murray, the King's Architect, aquires the house. It is unclear what was left of the original house due to the fire,  but the building as we see it today is mostly of Murray's design.

Lottery winner

Just as one might hope to win the lottery today and buy a huge mansion, John Christie, a captain in the army, won a lottery prize of £10,000 (equivalent to around £1.25M today) and bought Baberton around 1749. It was he who set about extending Murray's imposing mansion including the addition of the semi-octagonal bay to the south in 1765 as this date appears above the doorway. 

His eldest son inherited but by 1839 had fallen on hard times and had to lease the house to a mysterious stranger who wanted to use it as shooting quarters. 

A taste of royalty 

The mysterious stranger is none other than Charles X, the Compe d'Artois, the dethroned and exiled King of France. 

Charles X's affinity with Edinburgh had been established when he was first in exile here in 1792 after fleeing France with his family and his mistress and love of his life, Louise d'Esparbes de Lussan.

He eventually returned to France where the Bourbon family reigned again, became King for a short time but was soon exiled once more. This time the royal family needed to arrive in England as private citizens. Charles X and his entourage all adopted pseudonyms, with Charles assuming the name of the Count of Ponthieu. They were not well received in England and soon moved to Edinburgh and Holyrood.

In Edinburgh the English governmnet was attempting to squash any Scottish sympathy for the French Revolution (the needle monument on Calton Hill is dedicated to five Scottish sympathisers who were transported to Australia). However, despite the Scottish sympathisers to the revolution, Charles wanted to stay here and he sent scouts out to find somewhere suitable for a shooting lodge.

In great secrecy and probably under his false identity, Baberton House was leased for him. One of the ceilings is ornamented with 'fleur-de-Lys' in his honour. He must have enjoyed a peaceful interlude in the house, escaping the political turmoil in France.

The well-known Gibson-Craig family of Riccarton become owners of Baberton from 1862 and then there are number of tenants, mostly prominent Edinburgh based business men using the house as summer home and enjoying the relative tranquility of the area away from the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh.

Coming much more up to date, Margaret Dakers, now living in Sighthill, lived at Baberton House from 1952 to 1958 when her mother was the cook and her father the handyman and chaffeur for the owners.  


Ghostly goings on

Margaret has very fond memories of life at Baberton, where she lived in the kitchen wing. Even the reputed ghost did not frighten her too much. Her mother was convinced there was a ghost at the middle window of what was called the Green Room because whenever they went out during the day and returned in the evening, the light was always found on even though the room had not been used! 

In 1958 the house was sold to the Cullen family – Malcolm Henry, his wife Fay and their seven children - who lived there for the next 21 years.  

The Konect Directory spoke with Mrs Cullen who has fond memories of the house.  Her son Jonathan also remembers a lovely childhood spent in the house. Naturally when old houses are talked about, everyone wants to know about the ghosts.  Jonathan recalls that at four years old he had to be moved from his bedroom at the top of the house because he kept complaining of seeing a girl at the end of his bed! He adds that other members of his family and some house guests also saw various apparitions. The 'ghosts' appeared not to want to harm or frighten and he says they came to “accept them as background noise”.

The Cullen family decided to sell up in 1979 as there were so many houses being built around them and the peacefulness of the place had gone. They sold the house and estate to Cruden Investments, who continue to use Baberton House as their headquarters. 

Now a working office, the rooms are no longer used for their original purpose but the interior is intact with vaulted 17th century rooms on the ground floor. The17th century dining room is now a boardroom, the former withdrawing room is an office. The once wonderful walled garden is overgrown but the 17th century sundial remains on the lawn. According to Jonathan Cullen, it was allegedly presented to the house by Bonnie Prince Charlie – another royal connection to this old mansion if the story is true.  The sundial is now listed by Historic Scotland as is the house and the walled garden. As a working office, the personality of the house has perhaps changed, but looking up from the lawns to the south, you can still imagine the opulence and grandeur surrounding this house and be reminded of all the lives lived in it over the centuries.

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