Heritage consultant David Hicks brings us the stories behind some of East Lothian’s historic properties.
After a long and chequered history, Cockenzie House finally has a bright future as a thriving community hub. This intriguing complex of buildings has been a centre for evacuated children in the Second World War, a teaching college, a residence for the Cadell family, and a nursing home. Any house of this age will have interesting nooks and crannies, but Cockenzie House seems to have more than its fair share.
If you enter via the front gates, the house seems a picture of simple classical symmetry. This part of the building dates to around 1680 and was built for the Earl of Winton, who had been given rights to build a new harbour nearby. Recent research suggests it was intended for the earl himself and designed by James Smith, one of the leading architects of the day. Household accounts show the earl buying tailor-made beds in London to be shipped to his new house.
The oldest part of the building is next to this main block, where a series of artists’ studios are now located. Known as the ‘Great Custom’ or the ‘Hanseatic Barn’, this was once a large warehouse for goods and dates to around 1591. The building was heavily reconstructed after a fire, but some original features can still be seen. Look out for crow-stepped gables up on the roofline, and in the courtyard at the rear is the outline of a pend, or archway, for bringing carts laden with goods into the building.
In the gardens there is an extraordinary Gothic-styled grotto, a feature to intrigue guests decorated with seashells and with whalebones forming the doorway. The grotto is built from volcanic rock, perhaps used as ballast by ships returning from the salt trade. The word ‘Hecla’ is picked out in stone over the door, probably referring to the active volcano in Iceland.
A local tradition tells of buried treasure in the gardens, hidden away from Jacobite forces after the Battle of Prestonpans. That has remained elusive, but in the 1970s, a stash of Victorian photographs taken by a member of the Cadell family was found under the floorboards. The ghostly images give a glimpse of life in the house, with stoic family groups in their finery. There is a real sense that Cockenzie House still has mysteries to be discovered.