The Counting House

38 West Nicolson Street

EH8 9DD

 

0131 370 1540

07547278543

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© 2019 The Counting House

History of The Counting House

In a visit to the city in 1766 Tobias Smollett wrote "Edinburgh is considerably extended on the south side, where there are diverse little elegant squares built in the English manner, and he added "the citizens have planned some improvements on the north.  The planned improvements on the north were to become of course the "New Town" but Craig's plans were not finally adopted till 1767, and, as Smollet wrote, some of the city walls to find more space and freedom to the south of the city.  The draining of the Borough Loch had finally been completed and the reclamation of the Meadows was in progress. 

One of those moving "south" was William Reid, a wealthy merchant, who had feud ground from Lady Nicolson in 1746, and in 1747 built himself a three storey house overlooking the Meadows to the west, and a park belonging to Lady Nicolson to the east.  The surroundings may have changed considerably sine William Reid enjoyed his open views to Bruntsfield and Arthur's Seat, but his house still stands as a surprising survivor of over two centuries of city development.  

 

West Nicolson House, or Pear Tree House as it is now known, has had a long and varied history.  The open courtyard to the front also dates back to the original plans.  By a clause in the feu contract William Reid was required to enclose the are in the front of the house with a dyke or hedge, not to allow any "middlings" to lie there, and only to use it for "the planting of trees for the ornament of the entry of the city of Edinburgh".  An early exercise in town planning!

In 1756 the house was bought by Sir James Fergusson of Kilkerran, a Lord of Session whose old town house had been in Kilkerran's court near St. Giles.  The judge was over sixty when he moved in and did not long enjoy his new house in the "suburbs". Lord Kilkerran died in 1759 aged seventy.  He had been in the courts the same day but was taken ill and carried home.  His window, Lady Jean Maitland, lived on in the house until her death in 1766. The house then passed to her son, Sir Adam Fergusson, who between 1784-90 was member of parliament for Edinburgh.  James Boswell was an occasional visitor during this time, his journal records "Drank tea at Sir Adam Fergusson's" and "Supt at Sir Adam Ferguson's".  In 1770 Sir Adam sold the house and move to St. Andrew's Square.

Until his death in 1791 the two upper flats of the house were then occupied by Thomas Blacklock the poet.  The Blacklocks were sociable people and played host to many of the famous names of the day.  Dr. Johnson was entertained to tea here in 1773 and Robert Burns must have visited Pear Tree House on many occasions.  "In Dr. Blacklock whom I see very often." wrote Burns to a mutual friend. "I have found what I would have expected in our friend a clear head and an excellent heart." Burns also has another reason to frequent the area.  Agnes Maclehose, the inspiration for Ae Fond Kiss and the Clarinda of many love letters, lived close-by in "General's Entry".

In the years following the Blacklocks residence Pear Tree House came into the possession of the Usher Family.  It was here in 1826 that Andrew Usher junior was born, eleventh child of Andrew Usher of Totfield and Huntlyburn near Melrose, the progenitor of the famed brewing and distilling dynasty.

Andrew Usher Jnr made his fortune in Edinburgh from whisky, and is credited with being amongst the first to popularise blended whiskies.  His elder brother James has already started the family brewing business in 1831.  Andrew Usher Jnr rose to become a prominent Edinburgh Citizen, and a well known public benefactor and philanthropist.  It was he who, in 1896 gifted the sum of £100,000 to the Lord Provost, Magistrates and City Council of Edinburgh for the purpose of providing a substantial civic hall for the city.  The dome of the Usher Hall, intact was modelled on the dome in the upper floor of Pear Tree House. 

The Usher family's distilling interests were disposed of in 1918 to Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd and the house was included in the sale.  Andrew Usher's family had by then moved to Blackford Park in Edinburgh.  

Until 1972 Pear Tree House was used as an office and store by an SMD subsidiary J & G Stewart Limited who had resumed the former Usher's whiskey interests.  The court yard was used for loading and unloading barrels of whisky.  After J & G Stewart moved to Leith in 1972 the house lay derelict for almost 10 years.  In 1976 it was proposed as a potential site for the Edinburgh City Art Centre and members of the District Council toured the building but felt it unsuitable. 

In 1982 the building again came to life when it was converted to a public house.  Times may have changed somewhat since Boswell's "Tea at the Blacklocks" but it does mean it is once again possible to wine and dine at Pear Tree House.