The Hermitage of Braid: history and archaeology

The Hermitage

History

The Hermitage of Braid is a popular woodland walk on the south side of Edinburgh. The ‘Hermitage’ appears to owe its origins to an estate that was probably founded in the 12th century by the de Brad or de Brade family which originated in Flanders.  

David I King of Scotland

The earliest ‘de Brad’ appears to have been a Knight in the service of David I, King of Scotland between 1124 and 1153. Henri de Brad was Sheriff of Edinburgh in the second half of the 12th century. A castle belonging to the de Brad family is reputed to have stood in the Hermitage until the 18th century.

The 18th century estate

Hermitage of Braid House

The estate was purchased by a local lawyer, Charles Gordon of Cluny, in 1772. Gordon commissioned the construction of Hermitage of Braid House which was built in 1785. The house was designed by a notable Edinburgh architect, Robert Burn, and construction was completed in 1785. The building comprises a 2-storey and attic 3-bay castellated house with basement to rear. Internally the building was lavishly decorated with ornate plasterwork, wood panelling and marbled fireplaces. A large kitchen was located in the basement with a butler’s pantry complete with a dumb waiter! This was the perfect city residence. The house is usually open to the public and is used as a nature interpretation centre.

Hydraulic ram for water supply to Braid House

An interesting feature of the Hermitage is the use of hydraulic rams in two small circular buildings on the edge of the Braid Burn which pumped water into the house providing internal running water!

Entrance to the icehouse

An icehouse was constructed immediately south of the house on the opposite bank of the Braid Burn. This is well preserved and consists of a circular subterranean structure which is entered through a small pointed-arch doorway which is now barred. A drainage channel links the circular well with the Braid burn. An icehouse was the predecessor of the modern refrigerator. Ice was collected from lakes and rivers during the depths of winter, stored in the icehouse and insulated with layers of straw which provided the occupants of the neighbouring house with all year round ice to assist with preservation of food. This also allowed lavish parties to be held with cooled drinks, ice-cream and sorbet!

A doocot (dovecot) is also located immediately to the west within a walled garden. This is the second largest doocot in Scotland and is very well preserved. It predates the house and was built in the late 17th to early 18th century. A doocot was a structure intended to house doves or pigeons which were an important food source. The Hermitage doocot is lined internally with 1,965 stone nesting boxes!  

Archibald Craig who compiled scrapbooks of his interests in Edinburgh and its environs between 1825 and 1850 makes the following notes of the Hermitage of Braid:

This beautiful spot is to the southward of the Borough-muir, about two miles from the city of Edinburgh, and it is the delightful residence of Mr Gordon. It stands concealed in a narrow vale, between two ranges of hills of a low and irregular figure, and is surrounded with wood. The small rivulet which has the name of Braid burn glides gently through the middle of the vale in a meandering direction. This pleasant dwelling is surrounded by a stone wall, with a variety of trees and an intermixture of underwood. Plantations also ornament the eminences which rise on each side of it; while the naked rocks, which peep in different places through the trees, certainly add considerably to the romantic nature of the scenery. These works of nature far transcend those of art; the artificial plots and little niceties of botanical ingenuity dwindle into nothing and insignificance before them. The human mind is chiefly delighted with the contemplation of such objects as are sublime or beautiful. The walk along the burn of Braid is romantic in the highest degree.

The admirer of nature’s work will find many things justly worthy of his contemplation. Blackford hill rises near it on one side. Pentland heights overhang it at a small distance on the other. On the south west are Braid-crags, and a tract of open pasture grounds.

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