One hundred years ago, yet another mansion was lost to fire. The Daily Record reported that Saughton House, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, had been destroyed in a blaze that had broken out in the early hours of the previous day. Only the walls were left standing and a considerable number of valuable paintings and furniture had been lost. The house was occupied by Mrs De Pree whose husband, Major Hugo De Pree, was away on war service. ¹
Mrs Ruth De Pree, her three daughters, and servants, had been asleep when they were aroused by the smell of smoke at about four o’clock in the morning. It originated from a room in the third-storey and help was immediately summoned from adjoining farms. When the Edinburgh Fire Brigade arrived, the roof was blazing and soon fell in. A scarcity of water complicated efforts to rescue the house but allowed enough time to save a selection of valuable items. Among them was a painting of Field Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig, the uncle of Mrs De Pree, and a selection of much-prized letters from him. The Scotsman speculated on their future value: ‘They may some day form interesting historical documents of the great war’. (It was right. These letters survive in the archives at the National Library of Scotland). Only the blackened walls and a vaulted stone roof were left standing. ²
The fire effectively erased Saughton House from history. It shouldn’t be confused with Saughton Hall, in Saughton Park (demolished 1954), but has caused confusion to historians ever since. The ancient manor was approached from the south by an avenue leading from the Calder, or Old Glasgow, Road. The estate of Saughton was transferred in 1537 to Richard Watson, and passed from father to son, in direct line until 1837, when William Ramsay Watson, the last male heir succeeded his brother Charles. Four years later, on his death, succession opened to his sister Helen. In 1844 she married Sholto John, Lord Aberdour, who in 1858 became the 12th Earl of Morton. In 1893 Saughton House came into the possession of Mr William Traquair Dickson of Edinburgh who restored and added to it.
The house, made up of two floors with attics, was built in an L-plan of Scottish architecture. In the high-pitched roof were dormer windows, terminating in stone thistles. The staircase carried right up to the roof and gave access to a small level space, where commanding views of the countryside and the Firth of Forth were obtained. A small room to the right-hand side of the entrance, formed part of an ancient hall, the main feature of which was its roof, and which was still intact after the fire. About 1878 this roof was covered in a very thick layer of whitewash. On being cleaned off, the stone arch was found to be covered over with quaint old paintings in oil, most of them in good preservation. On a blue ground, sprinkled with stars, was painted a conventional sun, filling the centre of the roof of the old hall, with the twelve signs of the zodiac encircling it. Along the springs of the arch on one side was a line of ships in full sail.
William Traquair Dickson (1845-1926), the son of John Dickson of Costorphine, was well-known in church and antiquarian circles and one of the oldest members of the Society of Writers to the Signet. He was a solicitor at Traquair Dickson and MacLaren, a company that had been founded by his uncle. For over 52 years he was a member of the West Coates Church and a member of the Ecclesiological Society. His love for antiques and literature meant that Saughton House was embellished with many fine pieces and books. ³
Traquair Dickson eventually rented the house to its last occupants, Major and Mrs Hugo Douglas De Pree.
Hugo Douglas De Pree (1870-1943) was a British army officer who had been educated at Eton and the Royal Military College, Woolwich. He was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1890 and served on the North West frontier of India in 1897. Promoted to captain in 1900 he fought in the 2nd Boer War in South Africa, volunteering with the Imperial Yeomanry. After serving in World War One he eventually became the Commandant of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, until his retirement in 1931.
In March 1918 Saughton House was put up for sale, but not until any of its salvageable contents had been removed. The following month The Scotsman carried an advertisement for the sale of an oak mantelpiece and wood panelling taken from the house. ⁴
It appears that Saughton House remained an empty shell and was eventually demolished (date unknown). It stood on the site of the present-day Broomhouse Primary School.
In 1928 newspapers reported plans to convert Saughton House into a Scottish Chelsea Hospital for disabled ex-servicemen, as a memorial to Earl Haig. ‘There they have a building that had lain derelict until it was in a state of obvious disrepair’. It was hoped that the council might hand over Saughton House if an offer was made through the Haig Fund to take it over and restore it. It is easy to link this property, with it Haig connection, to our house, but there is every likelihood that the stories may have related to Saughton Hall instead. ⁵
¹ Daily Record (2 Feb 1918)
² The Scotsman (2 Feb 1918)
³ The Scotsman (27 Nov 1926)
⁴ The Scotsman (20 Apr 1918)
⁵ Falkirk Herald (15 Feb 1928)