28 Queen Street: Stories in the stones


The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Members’ Room at 28 Queen Street dates back to the late 18th century, when Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town was constructed. As Leslie Hills writes, the building has played witness over the years to everything from science and politics to art and industry, and much else in between

The people of Edinburgh in the mid-18th century occupied towering buildings on either side of the road which runs down the mile-long narrow ridge from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Advocates, aristocrats, paupers and many, many children lived behind different doors off the same crumbling stairs in crowded insanitary conditions.

The Town Council decided something had to be done. A competition to design a New Town was won by a young architect, James Craig, who dreamt up a grid of wide streets and squares to be built on the open ground to the north.

Between 1767 and the late 1780s, fine sandstone terraces of spacious well-appointed houses and shops gradually covered the slopes up from Princes Street to George Street and down again to Queen Street.

Homes on this one-sided street with its view over private gardens and open countryside to the River Forth and the hills of Fife, were highly prized, and number 28 was the jewel in its crown. In 1789 Robert Allan, banker and proprietor of the Caledonian Mercury newspaper, bought the newly-built house and moved in with his family.

Princes Street at the commencement of Edinburgh’s New Town construction

Between 1767 and the late 1780s, fine sandstone terraces of spacious well-appointed houses and shops gradually covered the slopes up from Princes Street to George Street and down again to Queen Street.

His eldest daughter, Agnes, sailed to India with her husband, a surgeon attached to the 5th Native Cavalry of Bengal, and for a dozen or so years his second daughter Jessy wrote illustrated letters to Agnes. These letters paint an intimate picture of the family’s busy social life in the house – and their fears about the long war with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France.

As his children left home, Robert Allan moved next door to number 29 and John Tait, a lawyer, moved in. Edinburgh at the time had a number of different police forces and watch committees which endeavoured ineffectually to keep the peace. The Council decided to set up a police court and appointed John Tait as Superintendent of Police, with extensive powers of summary justice. In July 1805 John Tait was sworn in and began vigorously prosecuting not just beggars and petty thieves but the upper classes, when he felt they were causing nuisance by their noisy balls and celebrations. He was universally loathed and eventually paid off with a generous pension for life.

Tait was followed at number 28 by George Wood, a surgeon, who appears to have lived in the shadow of his famous relatives. He was the son of surgeon Alexander Wood, known to all as Sandy Wood, physician and friend to Robert Burns and also to the poor and indigent of Edinburgh. He apparently walked the streets with a pet sheep and a raven, and is said to be the first man in Edinburgh to carry an umbrella. George’s brothers were also prominent surgeons.

Henry Raeburn’s portrait of Robert Allan of Kirkliston

Portrait of New Town architect James Craig by David Allan

Inside 28 Queen Street

In 1819, John Borthwick, 13th of Crookston, married Ann Dundas and moved into 28 Queen Street. Ann Dundas’ uncle was Henry Dundas, Lord Melville. At the height of his fame, this controversial politician, the most powerful man in Scotland, was instrumental in delaying the abolition of slave trading by British ships until 1807. On 29th November 1833, Ann gave birth to William Henry Borthwick, who was to become the 5th Earl. Four days later she died. John left 28 Queen Street to live on George Square on the Southside. Number 28 became the home of David Young of Cornhill.

On the 22nd January 1842, the Caledonian Mercury announced the marriage of Young’s daughter, Eleanor, to George Kincaid Pitcairn, an army surgeon attached to the 5th Dragoon Guards, a Heavy Cavalry regiment. In July 1854, the 5th Dragoons sailed to the Black Sea and were ordered to Varna where 724 British soldiers – George among them – died of cholera in a few short weeks. His widow applied for his pension and died 26 years later on the Isle of Wight.

Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, by Henry Raeburn

For some years, information about 28 Queen Street is sparse. However, in the early 1850s a rash of births at 28 Queen Street was announced in the press. In February 1851, Harriet Burrell, daughter of the former Governor of Hong Kong and the wife of Rev Thomas Gray of Kirkurd, Peebleshire, gave birth to a son. The new baby was taken home to Kirkurd manse and baptised by the Rev William Steven of Trinity College, Edinburgh. The next record reads: Thomas Stevenson, Civil Engineer… and over the page is the baptism of his son, Robert Louis Stevenson.

In November 1851, Lady Blanche Mary Harriet Gascoyne-Cecil Balfour, daughter of the Marquis of Salisbury, had a third son, Francis, born into the most prominent political family in Britain. His father was James Maitland Balfour, 8th Earl of Lauderdale. A brother was Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1902 till 1905 and Foreign Secretary 1916-1919. Francis became a noted embryologist, admired by Darwin. He died aged only 34, climbing in the Alps.

Inside 28 Queen Street

James Young Simpson

Two months after Francis Balfour’s birth, Lady Louisa Hay, daughter of the Earl of Tweeddale and wife of Robert Balfour Wardlaw Ramsay, had a son and heir. Five girls were born before the boy and four more followed, one of whom married the son of the Duke of Wellington. The heir became a soldier. He fought in India, Afghanistan and Burma, attaining the rank of colonel, but his real interest was birds and he became a noted ornithologist after retiring from the army.

In November 1853, Mrs Wilson of Banknock, Stirlingshire gave birth to a daughter, Margaret. She was the second of eight daughters of coal magnate John Wilson of Bantaskine, who were known locally as ‘Wilson’s 40 feet of daughters’. Three daughters, including Margaret, married ministers of the church. Mary Georgina Wilson was the odd one out. She trained as an artist in Paris and achieved considerable fame before dying in 1939, the last of the 40 feet of daughters.

Explanation for the cluster of births lies in the 1851 census. At number 28, Mrs Agnes Mitchell is running a lodging house. Edinburgh had many physicians, some of whom, such as Joseph Lister with his antisepsis, were using modern techniques. Perhaps expectant mothers were drawn to lodge in Edinburgh by them and by the lure of James Young Simpson. Having tried out his discovery, chloroform, on himself and selected visitors in his drawing room at number 52 Queen Street, Simpson was using it in his practice as an obstetrician. For a painless and imaginative insight into the world of James Young Simpson and of the street, both upstairs and down, see the novels by Chris Brookmyre and Dr Marisa Haetzman, writing as Ambrose Parry.

Inside 28 Queen Street


By 1855, Mrs Mitchell had left number 28 and Dr David Craigie had set up his plate. Craigie was 62 when he arrived in Queen Street and over the succeeding 10 years his health declined. He died of kidney disease on 17th May 1866. By the end of 1866, Mr William Hunter, bookbinder, was the new owner.

Born in 1824, Hunter was a bookbinder by the time he was 15 years old and founded his own business in 1857. He advertised his custom-built workshops at the back of 28 Queen Street as having all the latest improvements and an entirely new and varied stock of designs and patterns. By 1875 he had added steam-power to his machinery. The house itself he used as offices and rented out rooms to solicitors and allied professions. In 1885, only Miss Jane Wilson of the Scottish Artists Club, the forerunner of the Scottish Arts Club, was resident at 28. Hunter’s own home was a mansion in a quiet cul-de-sac in the west of Edinburgh. Queen Street was no longer a prestigious address for the home of a respectable Edinburgh businessman.

In 1895, Hunter and Sons bought number 29 Queen Street and divided it into offices and studios. William Hunter and his son Norman would rent studios to artists for the next 55 years. By far the most famous was Stanley Cursiter who was born in Orkney in 1887 and studied art in Edinburgh, basing himself in Queen Street. In the early years of the First World War he served in some of the bloodiest and most deadly battles. He survived to become one of the most important and influential figures in 20th century British art.

In 1918 Douglas Foulis joined William Hunter and Sons and in 1946, soon after Norman Hunter’s death, the business became Hunter and Foulis based at Foulis’s Bridgend Works. The Association of Accountants in Edinburgh moved into 28 Queen Street and in 1953 became the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland. The workshop at the back was used for training purposes and is now a separate concern.

Then the whole world of craft printing and bookbinding changed. Inexorably the firm of Hunter and Foulis declined. In 1992 it was taken over by Montgomery Litho Group. In 2013 they called in the liquidators and the business which had flourished on Queen Street for almost 100 years was no more.

Stanley Cursiter’s Twilight, courtesy of The National Galleries of Scotland, painted at 28 Queen Street

28 Queens Street’s iconic spiral staircase and cupola

And so Robert Allan’s fine New Town home remained, carved into office spaces, hung with communication and data cables and corporate notices, until SMWS rescued it in 2004 and renewed the house’s past as a busy, convivial hub of like-minded people from far and wide.

Number 28 Queen Street stands much as it did when Robert Allan looked down over the trees. There are so many stories in its stones. They touch on science, politics, far-away wars, the building and decline of Empire, music, art, success and failure, personal joys and defeats. This short summary does scant justice to the extraordinary range of characters who have walked through the doors.

In 28 Queen Street and The Vaults in Leith, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society curates and cares for two iconic buildings, rich in history.