17th century masterpiece in Leith restored

This historic house in Leith was on its last legs before a couple of dedicated architects took it on and restored it to rude health

Nicholas Groves-Raines is eager to get his garden finished. The builders are in and there are a lot of slabs littering the front of the house. We’re not talking about installing new decking or laying fresh lawn, though. This is a project on an altogether bigger scale. His garden will be Italian renaissance in style.
He lives in Lamb’s House, a 17th-century merchant’s house in Leith that he shares with his wife, the architect and artist Kristin Hannedottir. It’s also home to their business, the award-winning Groves-Raines Architects, which specialises in architectural conservation and restoration. Considering the size of the job, Nicholas and Kristin discuss the project with relative casualness but then, say the couple, this kind of thing is their bread and butter.
The house is one of the finest surviving examples of an Hanseatic merchant’s house in Scotland, but it was languish­ing in an unloved state when Nicholas and Kristin went to look at it. In fact, they found a gang of youths lobbing stones at it, vandalising the crumbling wreck even further. It had been in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland, which did not have the funds to repair it, and had Nicholas and Kristin not stepped in, it’s unlikely the building would still be standing today.
“We’ve always known this building – we are architects, and this is one of the most famous buildings in Edinburgh,” explains Kristin. She and Nicholas are committed to their work and have a history of restoring buildings from this period. They’ve completed eight of this type of restoration project – ones that have been their family home, in which they’ve lived while the work is taking place. To your average renovator, that would be a huge undertaking, but for them it’s a way of life. “We’ve lived this way ever since 1981,” admits Kristin.
Their previous home was the 16th-century Liberton House, which had been gutted by fire. Prior to that, the family lived in and renovated Peffermill House, built in 1636. When they rescued it, it had endured vandalism and decades of neglect and, much like Lamb’s House, might not have survived without their intervention.
The couple acquired the Leith house in April 2010. By July 2011, they had moved into the two rooms in the attic and set up their office in a new extension. This extension, built in the style of a modest 17th-century house (along with a pavilion annex built in an 18th-century revivalist style), sit on the site of a now demolished public hall.
Over the centuries, the house has had many incarnations. It seems it was built by Andrew Lamb to house Edinburgh merchants trading at the harbour. From researching the floor plans, Kristin and Nicholas have deduced that the property was set up as a tenement with two ‘flats’ on each floor and booths on the ground floor. “Like grand serviced apartments, 1600s-style!” laughs Nicholas. Mary Queen of Scots is said to have ‘supped with Andro Lamb’ when she landed in Leith from France in 1561. Alas, it can’t have been at this house, as it was not built until 50 years later.
By the early 20th century it was in a parlous state. The 4th Marques of Bute took it on and partially restored it. By the 1950s, it had been given to the National Trust for Scotland which leased it as a day centre for elderly people. Latterly, it was home to the Edinburgh branch of Friends of the Earth.

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Words Catherine Coyle
Photography Murdo McDermid
What A restored 17th-century merchant’s house
Where Leith, Edinburgh
Design Groves-Raines Architects