Walter Mawer’s Stone

The house being full of stuff, I’ve started to buy interesting things for the garden, in the hope of finding more random treasure.  One of the first purchases was a fragment of carved stone, won at a local Edinburgh auction for just £24.

2014-07-23-13-50-16It’s roughly 50cms across and 50 cms tall and 20 cms thick, made of sandstone.  The carving in low relief has the letters MW, a couple of five-pointed stars, and the upper part of something which appears to be triangular.  Clearly it’s a small part of a larger stone carving with someone’s initials and a coat of arms.  These things are quite common in Scotland, usually mounted above the main door or on the wall of early mansion houses and castles.  Known as marriage stones or marriage lintels, they were installed to commemorate the marriage of the house owner, and became a very fashionable house feature in the late 16th and then the 17th centuries.  Every home should have one.

Unusually, in this particular case, the auction catalogue for this item had a note saying that the stone had been removed from a house in Strichen’s Close, Edinburgh when the house and close had been demolished in the 1960s.  So I set out to try to prove that this was the case and to see if it might be possible to discover the identity of the mysterious MW.  Probably a slim chance, with all traces of the building and the street in which it stood having disappeared fifty years ago.

First I went to find the location of Strichen’s close.  This was quite easy because it’s well-documented and there’s even a sign with its name above a doorway where the close used to be.  The doorway is just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and is an apparently little-used side entrance to the Radisson Blu hotel which was built about thirty years ago on a large cleared site in one of the most architecturally sensitive areas of Edinburgh’s mediaeval Old Town.  I recall at the time when it was first built that there was big controversy about the sheer size of the hotel and its style, a fantasy pastiche of Scots baronial, described in The Buildings of Scotland as “a huge system-built block dressed up in pseudo-historicist finery”.

Then I looked for the history of Strichen’s Close, and found this, quoted from

“Strichen’s Close is given as Lord Streighan’s Close on Edgar 1742. Also Lord Strichen’s or Strachan’s Close, the name was from Alexander Fraser of Strichen, who sat in the Court of Session as Lord Strichen, and probably acquired his house in the close through his marriage in 1731 with Anne Campbell, widow of the 2nd Earl of Bute, grandson of its former owner Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh (1630-91) king’s advocate under Charles II, notorious as “Bluidy Mackenzie” in putting down Covenanters, but also the founder of the Advocate’s Library. Hence the alternative close names MacKenzie’s Close or Rosehaugh’s Close, still in use a century after his time. In 1635 it is listed as Walter Mawer’s Close, deriving from Walter Mawer, a writer in Edinburgh in 1593, and his son M(aister) Walter Mawer, advocate, who succeeded him in 1614. The father evidently acquired his house in the close through his marriage with Margaret Vaus, for Thomas Vaus, merchant in Edinburgh, had bought the “Abbot of Melrose ludgeing” in the West side of the close in 1588. This mansion, the residence of all the subsequent chief owners in the close, is described in Wilson as a large and substantial medieval building, greatly altered in about 1600 -no doubt by Walter and Margaret Mawer. It was the house of Andrew Durie, abbot from 1528 until his death (from shock at a Protestant riot, says Knox) in 1588; but the name Melrose or Abbot of Melrose Close (still in use in mid eighteenth century) probably goes back to the early fifteenth century . . .
“Edinburgh, 64-78 High Street and Strichen’s Close, 66 High Street which were Category B Listed were demolished in 1965-66.”

Then I looked for a photograph or drawing of the house before demolition showing the marriage lintel, but no luck.  But then I discovered this image in Edinburgh Public Library from James Grant’s Sketch book of around 1850:


A very satisfactory result.  The initials and the two coats of arms on the stone are those of Walter Mawer and his wife Margaret Waus, and the date 1600 coincides with the date of renovations which Walter and Margaret are known to have carried out to the mediaeval house.

Comparing the corner of the stone which is now siwalter-mawer-lintels-comparisontting in a flower bed in my back garden with the same corner of James Grant’s sketch, you can see that while the sketch isn’t a precisely accurate copy of the stone, there can be no doubt about its identity, particularly in view of the provenance shown in the auction catalogue.

How exciting!  A little piece of Edinburgh history in my garden!  I don’t suppose it would be worth much if I tried to re-sell it, but to me it’s a real piece of treasure.  I wonder if there are any more fragments in anyone else’s garden?

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