Heritage consultant David Hicks brings us the stories behind some of East Lothian’s historic properties.

At the north end of Dunbar’s High Street is the imposing Lauderdale House, a building with a split personality. From some angles it appears to be a grand Georgian mansion, a home for the wealthy and powerful. But take a walk around the building and its east side looks like a Victorian tenement, a place for more ordinary folk. 

The central block is the original part of the house and dates to around 1740. It was built for Captain James Fall, a wealthy Dunbar merchant who had made a fortune trading in the Baltic and Mediterranean. Yet this show of prosperity masked a rising mountain of debts that eventually overwhelmed the family, and the house was sold in 1790 to the Earl of Lauderdale. 

He wanted to secure a base in Dunbar as a way of dominating local politics, and set about changing the building into an aristocratic mansion. The fashionable architects Robert and James Adam added new wings, a grand entrance with a semi-circular porch supported on columns, and a winged sphinx on the roof. It was said that the finished building was so large and impressive that a tourist mistook it for a hospital. Yet despite all this costly re-building it was never really used, and in 1855 the house was sold to a very different sort of owner – the War Office.

At the time there were fears of French invasion, and the government was reinforcing defences all along the coast. At first the house was used as a base for the local militia, but then it became a regular army barracks. The formal gardens facing the sea were lost beneath a parade ground and gun platforms, and on the east side of the building a new stairwell was inserted. From its iron balconies the soldiers wives would have hung the washing to dry, presenting a rather different picture from the one intended by its original owners.

The military left Lauderdale House in 1955 and today it is divided into private apartments. Certainly more impressive than the average block of flats, but not the family power base it was built to be.


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