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Edinburgh, Colinton Road, Napier University, Merchiston Castle

College (20th Century), School (19th Century), Tower House (15th Century)

Site Name Edinburgh, Colinton Road, Napier University, Merchiston Castle

Classification College (20th Century), School (19th Century), Tower House (15th Century)

Canmore ID 52598

Site Number NT27SW 13

NGR NT 24259 71805

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Digital Images

First 100 images shown. See the Collections panel (below) for a link to all digital images.

Administrative Areas

  • Council Edinburgh, City Of
  • Parish Edinburgh (Edinburgh, City Of)
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District City Of Edinburgh
  • Former County Midlothian

Archaeology Notes

NT27SW 13.00 24259 71805

(NT 2425 7180) Merchiston Castle (NR) Twr (NR)

OS 6"map, (1920); OS 1:10,000 map, (1973).

NT27SW 13.01 NT 24298 71781 Gateway

Merchiston Castle, the tower-house of the Napiers of Merchiston, built in the 15th century, was in a neglected condition when visited by the RCAHMS. When it came into the possession of Edinburgh Corporation in 1935, it was the centre of a cluster of attached 19th century buildings. These were removed just before and after the Second World War, some emergency repairs being carried out in 1949 to the now free-standing tower. Restoration work was carried out from 1958-64 preserving the medieval features.

It is L-shaped on plan, with a main block 28ft 10ins by 43ft 1in over 6ft thick walls, running E-W and a wing 18ft 9ins by 22ft 6ins projecting N in line with the W gable. It was originally of five floors, and was probably surrounded by a barmkin wall. As it now appears, the present roof and all buildings above the parapet walk are of late 17th century date. The parapet walk was rebuilt during restoration. A few 16th century stones may be associated with repair work after the castle was attacked and beseiged for a short time in May-June 1572 by the Queen's forces.

RCAHMS 1951; H Armet and S Harris 1962; S Harris 1972.

Merchiston Castle has been incorporated within a modern building but remains as described by the previous authorities.

Visited by OS (B S) 1 December 1975.

The greater part of a large painted ceiling, dated 1581, from Prestongrange (NT37SW 2) has been reinstated in Merchiston Tower.

C McWilliam 1978.

Architecture Notes

NT27SW 13.00 24259 71805



W Schomberg Scott Photograph Collection Acc no 1997/39

view looking up from the garden - 2 prints

Inglis Photograph Collection Acc no 1994/90

memorial gate (John Napier), with Merchiston Castle behind the wall

engraving ? early 19th century - view from North East


S M T Magazine, April 1950 - article and photograph


Watercolour sketched by Thomas Brown Adv.

Vol 88, No 71 - 1 sketch


30/6/1784 Carron Co Invoice

to Hon Chas Napier, merchiston Hall

A bath stove

This site was surveyed as part of the Listed Buildings Recording Programme (LBRP) for 1999-2000. The survey was carried as a result of a request from Dr Michael Bath of the University of Strathclyde to provide appropriate photographic coverage of the painted ceiling from Prestongrange Tower, dating from 1581, which has been inserted into Merchiston Tower. This ceiling, which includes representations of various grotesqueries, is one of the most unusual "Renaissance" painted ceilings to survive in Scotland.

See also M Bath, "Renaissance Decorative Painting in Scotland", Edinburgh, 2000.

Non-Guardianship Sites Plan Collection, DC28275- DC28314, 1935, 1949, 1954,1958, 1964 & 1972.


Publication Account (1951)

185. Merchiston Castle, Colinton Road.

The tower-house of the Napiers of Merchiston is situated on high ground which has been built over in the southward extension of the city. It has lately been relieved of the modem additions that enclosed it on all sides but the E., but the City's plans for restoration were held up by the late war and the building, when visited, was in a neglected condition. It is approached from Colinton Road through an early 18th-century archway with rusticated piers surmounted by lions couchant. Immediately inside the entrance can be seen two Renaissance gate-piers evidently set up there for preservation.

The tower is L-shaped on plan. Its main block, which measures 28 ft. 10 in. by 43 ft. 1 in. overalls about 6 ft. thick, runs E. and W., while the wing, measuring 18 ft. 9 in. by 22 ft. 6 in. over walls from 6 ft. to 8 ft. thick, projects N. in alinement with the W. gable. The height from ground to parapet is about 50 ft. Beneath the parapet-walk were five main storeys and above it an attic storey within the roof-space. The parapet, borne on separate corbels of two members, breaks out into circled bartizans at the salient corners of the main block, but is merely rounded at the corners of the wing. Between the latter, however, can be seen the remains of a machicolation. The masonry is rubble, built in courses 13 in. to 14 in. high, with chamfered dressings at such openings as have not been altered. The attic of the wing is lit by 17th century dormer-windows (Fig. 417).

No part of the tower itself is or has been vaulted, but in the re-entrant angle outside is a vaulted subterranean cellar reached by a stair descending from the basement of the wing and having two hatchways in its vault. Such provision is in every way unusual. The cell has neither a latrine nor a ventilation flue and its use as a " pit " can therefore be ruled out. Its connection with the basement of the wing and the provision of ceiling-hatches both seem to imply that it was no more than a store-cellar, although there would seem to have been adequate storage-room in the basement of the main block. Whatever its purpose, it has all the appearance of being an afterthought. It has recently been filled in for safety.

The lower part of the principal entrance to the tower can be seen in the S. wall at the level of the first floor. But there may have been another entrance, on the basement floor, situated in the N. wall of the main block facing the re-entrant angle, whereas mural lobby can still be seen. The lobby, which has a mural chamber on its W. side, has doorways back and front, and these, although modem, maybe in the position of older openings. The basement of the main block, now subdivided, was originally a single compartment, lit by a single window in each wall except the N. one and containing a newel stair within the S.W. corner; this stair still rises to the parapet, where it emerges from a cylindrical cap-house with a conical roof. On the N. the basement of the main block opened into that of the wing, which seems to have been the original kitchen as at one time the recess of a kitchen fireplace was to be seen in the gable, which is, moreover, thick enough throughout its height to carry a kitchen flue. At the back of the recess is a small window with a locker on one side of the embrasure, but the kitchen received most of its light from a window facing W. The steps that led down to the external cellar ran through the opposite wall.

On the first and second floors the floor levels have been altered, and the W. half of the main block has been gutted for the insertion of a modern staircase, with the result that, in place of the former two, there is now but a single chamber in the main block, as in the wing. The only one of these four rooms calling for special notice is the E. room on the second floor, which was remodelled in the17th century. It has an ornate plaster ceiling of the" Restoration " period, enriched with· such usual devices as fleurs-de-lys, cherub's heads and lion masks, as well as the Royal crest and the Honours, the sword and sceptre exhibited in saltire, flanked by the initials C(arolus) R(ex) 2 beneath the crown and having below a label inscribed : NOBIS HAEC INVICTA / MISERUNT 108 PR0AVI ("A hundred and eight forebears handed these down to us unconquered").* The most interesting of the devices, however, are reliefs of "David Rex" with his harp and "Alexander" (the Great). The walls of this room are panelled in a late 17th-century fashion, and its E. window has been enlarged to correspond with another immediately below, which was enlarged similarly and at the same time. On the third floor there is one chamber in the wing and three in the main block, one being a tiny slip-room or lobby. With the exception of the last, all have 17th-century fireplaces and one still has 17th-century panelling. The fourth floor and the attic are featureless. The parapet-walk runs round the whole building; it is laid with overlapping flagstones and drained by projecting stone spouts except at the re-entrant angle, the supposed position of the entrance.

No reference has been made so far to mural chambers above the basement floor. There is one of these on the first floor at the N .E. angle of the wing ; the second floor has three, two of them at the N. angles of the main block, and the third at the S.E. corner of the wing ; the third floor has four, respectively at the S.W. corner and E. side of the main block and at the N.W. and S.E. corners of the wing ; while the fourth and attic floors of the wing each have one, situated at the S.E. and N.E. corners respectively. These cavities, some of them no doubt close-garderobes, are characteristic features in other tower-plans from the 14th to the early 16th century.

The various additions and alterations that have been made prevent a full examination of the fabric, and consequently any estimate of its date can only be approximate. But on general grounds it may be assigned to the 15th century, the lands of Upper and Lower Merchiston " cum turre et manerie earundem" being included in a sasine of 1494-5 (1). Evidence of remodelling in the 17th century is self-evident, while the early 18th century probably witnessed some minor alteration seeing that the arms** of Francis Scott, 6th Baron Napier, who succeeded his mother in 1706, are painted in various parts of the interior.

In May 1572 Merchiston was one of the places occupied as blockhouses by the King's forces to prevent supplies reaching Edinburgh Castle, then holding out for Queen Mary, (2) and was attacked more than once. In the first attempt some outhouses were seized and despoiled but the tower itself resisted successfully although the attackers tried to smoke out the garrison-the accepted method of capturing a Scottish tower at this time. The Queen's men returned with cannon at the beginning of the following month and succeeded in breaching the walls in several places, but they were scared off when the garrison were on the point of asking for terms of surrender (3).

RCAHMS 1951, visited c.1941

(1) Reg. Mag. Sig., 1424-1513, No. 2234. (2) The Historie and Life of King James the Sext, p. 100.quoted in O.E.C., xvi, p. 22. (3) Ibid., pp. 23-4.

*This seems to have been a favourite motto. Cf. No. 183 and Inventory of Midlothian, Nos. 157 and 225.

**Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Argent, a saltire engrailed cantoned with four roses Gules, for Napier, 2nd and 3rd, Or, on a bend Azure, a mullet between two crescents of the first, within a double tressure flory-counter-flory of the second, for Scott of Thirlestane.

Photographic Survey (1955)

Photographic survey by the Scottish National Buildings Record in 1955.

Photographic Survey (12 March 1957)

Photographic survey by the Ministry of Works in 1957.

Watching Brief (19 March 2012 - 8 August 2012)

Headland Archaeology Ltd was commissioned by Edinburgh Napier University to undertake a programme of archaeological works at the Merchiston campus of Edinburgh Napier University. The works were in advance of the redevelopment of the campus. The work comprised an evaluation followed by monitoring of all ground works carried out across the site. Two trenches were excavated in the northern courtyard, just north of the 15th century Merchiston Tower, No archaeologically significant remains were encountered in these trenches. The subsequent monitoring works recorded a series of modern deposits with no significant archaeological remains or artefacts identified.

Headland Archaeology 2012 (D. Wilson) OASIS ID: headland1-135647

Watching Brief (14 August 2015 - 18 August 2015)

NT 24259 71806 A watching brief was carried out, 14–18 August 2015, during the removal of a mid-20th-century reinforced concrete stair built against the 15th-century tower house at Merchiston. The breaking of foundations at ground level, and the removal of the reinforced concrete of the stairs built into the S frontage of the tower at first floor level, recorded no features predating the mid-20th-century concrete.

Archive: NRHE (intended)

Funder: Napier University

Information from Kenneth Macfadyen (Addyman Archaeology) August 2015. OASIS ID: addymana1-298249

Watching Brief (23 March 2017 - 24 March 2017)

NT 24245 71822 A watching brief was carried out, 23–24 March 2017, during excavation work associated with the maintenance of steps close to the E side of Merchiston Tower. The existing steps were removed and the ground reduced by 1m. Modern made ground deposits were observed and there were no finds or features of archaeological significance.

Archive: NRHE

Funder: Edinburgh Napier University

Matthew Ginnever – Headland Archaeology Ltd

(Source: DES, Volume 18)


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