The Clerk Family

For well over three centuries Penicuik has been the home to one of the most remarkable families in Scottish cultural history. Its appearance today is the result of its development in the 17th and 18th centuries by three generations of Clerks, each of which - but particularly Baron Clerk in the first half of the 18th century - made a major contribution to Scottish culture and to the development of that intellectual phenomenon known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

John Clerk, first Laid of Penicuik

John Clerk, first Laird of Penicuik

The estate of Penicuik with the old house of Newbiggin was acquired by John Clerk, formerly a merchant with an 'emporium' in Paris dealing in a wide variety of goods including works of art, in 1654.

Sir John Clerk second Laird and 1st Baronet

Sir John Clerk, second Laird and 1st Baronet

John Clerk inherited the estate on his father's death in 1674. Five years after the inheritance of Newbiggin, he was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia by King Charles II. Sir John was a cultivated man and an enterprising improver. During the continental tour, on which he embarked immediately following the birth of his son in 1676, he visited Versailles and Fountainebleu, and acquired apparently "several things for his house".

An estate plan dated 1687 described "The House of Newbiggin with gardens, parks and other enclosures... surveyed and designed by John Adair" reveals the 1st Baronet's extensive proposals, comprising a single rectangular system of enclosures providing sheltered areas for grazing, the ornamental aspect being provided by the formal garden plots and fields around the house, and by the axial avenues to the east and south.

Sir John Clerk 2nd Baronet

Sir John Clerk, 2nd Baronet, "The Baron"

His son, also John, succeeded as 2nd Baronet in 1722. Clerk had been a member of the last Scottish parliament and of the first parliament of Great Britain. He had been a commissioner for the Union in 1706-7 and was subsequently appointed a Baron of the Court of the Exchequer set up under the Act of Union of 1707 to administer the financial affairs of Scotland. He was generally known by virtue of this office as "The Baron". He was born on the 8th February 1676, and educated first at Glasgow and then at Leyden where he studied law.

Whilst at Leyden he suggested to his father that he should be permitted to visit Italy to see its art and architecture since "all the world are but imitators of the Italian masters".

His two year Grand Tour, during which he visited Germany, Austria, Italy and France was begun in 1697. At Rome he pursued the study of antiquity under the guidance of Champini, music with Corelli, and architecture under a drawing master. After Italy, France came as a disappointment. On his return to Scotland, Clerk practiced as an advocate at the Scottish bar and sat in the Scottish Parliament as the Member for Whithorn, a seat doubtless obtained through the influence of his first wife's brother the Earl of Galloway and her cousin the "Union" Duke of Queensberry. As a Baron of the Court of the Exchequer from 1708, his official duties were not unduly onerous since the court sat for only twelve weeks in the year, but the post provided him with the sizeable income of 500 a year, of which he wrote. "I have always thought that my salary as a Baron of the Exchequer was publick money and a gratification I owed to my Country, and therfor I laid out the whole of it and some of my privat patrimony for the Improvement of my Country..." These improvements consisted of planting and building on his estates, including that of Mavisbank, where he built his famous villa and also developed coal mines and excavated Roman antiquities.

Newbiggin House c. 1710, painting by an unknown artist

The 2nd Baronet made only a few alterations and additions to Newbiggin. At first he had intended to make alterations to form a "very fine uniform house" but he came to the view that a large amount of the building would have to be demolished in order to produce the desired regular effect. He decided to leave Newbiggin as it was.

The Baron took over responsibility for the planting of the Penicuik Estate. According to his memoirs, "about the year 1699 when I came from abroad I took great delight in planting nurseries, and tho' I lived not always with my father, yet in the Spring seasons I keep'd a dozen men at work for two to three months yearly". Over the following fifty years he planted continuously. He planted extensively across the estate until his death in 1755.

Sir James Clerk, 3rd Baronet

Sir James Clerk, 3rd Baronet

Sir James Clerk succeeded his father in 1755 but was managing his father's coal interests at Loanhead by 1750. His own taste for architecture first appears in 1753 in the form of a new library and a few rooms added to Newbiggin House. Ambitious but unrealised designs also exist for a south facing combined library and bath house in the form of the Roman Pantheon.

By 1760 Sir James' parents had died and almost at once the new Baronet set about remodeling Newbiggin.

At first Sir James intended to incorporate some parts of Newbiggin in his new designs for the new house but gradually the project changed and it was decided to rebuild the house entirely. In 1761 Newbiggin was demolished and work began on the replacement building. The design of this ambitious Palladian house was the result of a collaboration between Sir James Clerk and John Baxter Senior.

Sir James Clerk died in 1782 and was succeeded by his brother George 4th Baronet, and then by a nephew John 5th Baronet.

Photograph of Sir George Clerk (6th Bt) with his wife and two daughters

Sir George Clerk, 6th Baronet

A grandnephew George, became the 6th Baronet at the age of 11 in 1798. The Rt. Hon. Sir George Clerk, as he became, had an active parliamentary career. Sir George made additions to Penicuik House in 1857, when the end blocks designed by David Bryce were built. These extensions on either side of the house were necessary because the 18th century house lacked the necessary rooms for the sort of Victorian house party entertaining which became the fashion in the railway age.

Aymee Lady Clerk

Sir George Clerk, 8th Baronet

Sir George and his wife Aymee were absent from their Penicuik home much of the time and in 1890 the Penicuik Estate, which was administered by trustees was offered for sale. In the absence of a buyer Sir George was forced to let the estate at first to Lord Kinnear and then to the lawyer RB Ranken. RB Ranken was the tenant on the 16th June 1899 when a fire gutted the house.

Mr and Mrs Ranken returned to their house the next day leaving the estate factor, Mr Charles Buchanan to sort through the ruin and to superintend the removal of the salvaged contents to the stables nearby. For a brief period in 1900 it seemed the house might be rebuilt. In a letter from James Tait, a local builder, to the estate factor in May 1900 he stated that "It would be a very great mistake and misfortune to allow the walls of such a splendid and costly edifice to go to ruin", he wrote "or even to stand as they are under the temporary protection proposed". For Tait it appeared "a public loss and continuation of the most unfortunate calamity of the fire" that it should remain unroofed. Estimates for the restoration were prepared; but almost at once they became meaningless as the insurance company refused to pay the full sum for which the house had been covered, on the grounds that the walls still stood. Tait offered to rebuild the house and finish it, apart from the top floor, for as little as 4,500; but unfortunately, without the insurance even this sum was beyond the means of Sir George.

Aymee Lady Clerk, wife of Sir George, came up to Scotland immediately after the fire to order the family's affairs. She decided to convert the stables including the shooting lodge. James Tait was employed for the conversion. The stable block comprising coach house, brew house and bakery were adapted to the purpose of the main family accommodation in 1902 to the wishes of Aymee Lady Clerk.