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Gladstone's Land: An Edinburgh Time Capsule


The formidable arches and the narrow staircase to its side might appear to be just another old stone-faced building on Edinburgh's Royal Mile—and for most of its 500 years that was exactly right—but after a near-death experience in the 1930s, it is now a record of changing life in Edinburgh's Old Town.

Gladstone's_Land,_Lawnmarket kim                     KimTraynor/Wikimedia Commons

Originally built in 1550, along the road that connects Edinburgh Castle at the high end with the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the lower, it's a tall building, six stories, but narrow. Edinburgh's Old Town, squeezed between its walls on a long sloping hill, had nowhere to go but up, sometimes as high as eleven floors.


The eagle out front, a local landmark, was added by the second owner, a wealthy cloth merchant, when he bought it in 1617. Thomas Gledstanes, whose somewhat mangled name it bears ('Land,' in this case, means 'property') lived with his wife on the top two floors, and let out the space below to others, mostly merchants and professional men of the time, though that changed later.


The ground floor has always been a shop of some kind. The arcaded entrance seen in the title photo was once common in Edinburgh, but this is the only survivor; over the centuries, ground floor stores extended themselves out to the property line.


When Edinburgh's upper classes moved to the New Town in the late 18th century, the Old Town suffered neglect and decay; by 1934 Gladstone's Land had been condemned and was saved at the last minute by the National Trust for Scotland, which runs it today.


Upstairs, on the third floor (or fourth, depending on how you count), the rooms have been set up to reflect the last uses of the building, in this case as a boarding house of 1911, run by Mary Wilson. For many single working class men at the time, this was the available accommodation.


One significant feature of the Mary Wilson rooms doesn't quite fit with the humble status of the rest...


... but the painted ceiling above, done around 1620, wouldn't have been visible to Mary Wilson's boarders; like many of the finer decorative touches in the building, it was painted over for years and only found again during the National Trust's renovation.


The floor below traces a different part of the building's history: an 18th-century draper's home and workshop that was operated by Mrs Elizabeth Pillans' and her husband William Dawson. In the way of the time, she was the draper, making clothes for clients and selling them items such as stockings and hats, but he was technically the owner and kept the books.


Their possessions represent a more prosperous life than that of the boarders on the floor above, but a few steps below the wealthy merchants who were the earliest owners and tenants.

Like many other Old Town buildings, Gladstone's Land grew extensions behind and above itself that were removed in the 1930s after the Trust took over. The Trust's first restoration created some apartments and showrooms, but did not open the building to the public until another renovation in the 1970s.


We're now down to the first floor, above the ground-floor shops, and we've moved back further in time, as well: this floor is a recreation of the home of the Gledstanes family itself, relocated from where they originally lived on the top floors (which are now occupied by vacation rentals!). Here the furniture is heftier, the painted ceilings fit the lifestyle and there are paintings hanging.


Yes, that's really bread on the plate... and it's clearly been there a long time.


The wealthy had servants, of course, but the accommodations were no match for the owners' luxury; this bed folds down into the kitchen for a maid or cook.


A variety of cabinets and containers stored the household supplies and spices.


Gladstone's Land can be visited with a daily tour, or self-guided; we took the tour, which included a lot of detail about Edinburgh life besides the house. A visit makes a good pair with the elegant Georgian House, where the Trust shows off the lifestyle of the wealthy after their move to the New Town.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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