Crumbling historic mansion saved by £5m funding award

A crumbling Scottish mansion deemed to be of national importance has been saved thanks to a £5m funding award.

Campaigners have fought for decades to save Mavisbank House, just south of Edinburgh, at one point organising a vigil to prevent demolition.

Built by celebrated Scottish architect William Adam in 1723, it was badly damaged by fire in the 1970s.

The £5.3m award from the National Heritage Memorial Fund means the building now can be purchased and stabilised.

Mavisbank was a summer residence for John Clerk of Penicuik, a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and a signatory to the 1707 Act of Union whose travels throughout Europe inspired the design.

The building is the first example in Scotland of the Palladian style of architecture, which drew on the designs of 16th-Century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio

In Victorian times it became a ground breaking mental hospital which offered a more compassionate approach to mental illness through activities like gardening.

But after the asylum closed, Mavisbank endured decades of neglect in the 20th Century. At one point in the 1950s the forecourt was used to store old cars.

Mavisbank in 1950s
The forecourt was used to store cars in the 1950s [Getty Images]

Uncertainty over ownership frustrated attempts to purchase the building by Historic Scotland.

In 2003, Mavisbank featured in the BBC's Restoration programme, where the public voted on restoration proposals, but it lost out in the final round to Manchester's Victoria Baths.

Two applications for lottery funding were unsuccessful, but now the Landmark Trust, a charity that rescues at-risk buildings, has secured £5.3m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

The fund's panel declared it a building "of "outstanding importance to the Scottish and UK national heritage".

Landmark Trust director Dr Anna Keay said: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

"Mavisbank has hung by little more than a thread for so long, with demolition seriously contemplated on more than one occasion."

The money will allow the compulsory purchase of Mavisbank by the Landmark Trust and Midlothian Council, and pay for initial work to stabilise the building to prevent further decay.

A second phase planned, which will require further funding, will restore the house, and eventually adapt it for holiday accommodation to finance its upkeep, with public access and open days.

Pauline McLean

Mavisbank House may be just six miles from the centre of Edinburgh, but it feels like it’s a world away.

This Palladian mansion, once at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment, later a hospital which pioneered new and compassionate treatment for mental health using the landscape around it, has been slowly slipping out of existence.

Yet campaigners refuse to let Mavisbank die. They staged a round the clock watch to prevent the burnt out shell of the building being demolished.

There were two bids for lottery funds which failed to secure money. It was one of ten finalists on the BBC programme Restoration, but lost out to Manchester Baths.

A dispute over ownership delayed any possibility of a compulsory purchase and made even basic maintenance challenging.

The Landmark Trust plan to restore the building as a holiday let, but it would also be open to the public for regular events, as well as offering work to the sort of crafts people who created it in the first place.

To the £5.3m grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, they’re able to add a further £1.338m raised to date. They still have a further million to raise to allow work to begin on stabilising the house and planning its return to life.

There’s a hush around the house as it awaits the next chapter in its colourful life.

But still visible behind the safety fence is a 300 year old Latin inscription, carved in the stone which concludes: "And may what the numerous ages erode be restored intact, and may it be granted that the older you are, the more beautiful you may shine."