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Liberton (Villages of Edinburgh)

Malcolm Cant discusses Liberton in this extract from his "Villages of Edinburgh: an Illustrated Guide vol 2".

Liberton is perhaps one of the most elusive villages on the south side of Edinburgh in that it is possible, even today, to identify four separate communities with Liberton.

The most important, by position and reputation, is Kirk Liberton, which grew up around the old church at the head of Kirk Brae. Half a mile to the west, Over Liberton or Upper Liberton came to prominence through the Littles of Liberton who resided, firstly, in the defensive Liberton Tower, and later in the much more elegant Liberton House. Two other communities to the north complete the group: Liberton Dams nestles at the foot of Liberton Brae, and Nether Liberton is clustered around the junction of Gilmerton Road and Craigmillar Park. All four, although distinct in themselves, came within the parish of Liberton and have in many ways developed along similar lines. The way that development has taken place is what makes Liberton historically interesting. The origin of the name "Liberton" is beset with problems. The usual explanation is that it is a corruption of Leperton or Lepertown, from a hospital for lepers which is said to have stood in the district. There are two objections to this, however. The first is that no trace has ever been found of a hospital in the district which admitted people suffering from leprosy. The second is even more convincing: the name Liberton or Libberton, as a surname, existed in the district for more than a hundred years before known outbreaks of the disease in Edinburgh. Stuart Harris, the eminent authority on place names in Edinburgh, goes even further. In The Place Names of Edinburgh Mr Harris states that the leper town explanation is not only fanciful but impossible, since the place name is much older than any use of the word "leper" or "lipper" in Scots’. According to Mr Harris, the name has an Anglian source in the old words for ‘barley farm on the slope’.

Kirk Liberton

Kirk Liberton, as the name suggests, is that part of the parish of Liberton situated around the old church.

In this small area all the main elements of village life were located. The old approach to the village was by Kirk Brae to the crossroads at the junction of Lasswade Road, Mount Vernon Road and Kirkgate. The school was in the building now owned by Liberton Inn; the church and manse occupied a large area of ground to the north-west; and the village smiddy was on the north-east corner of Kirk Brae and Mount Vernon Road. Altogether it was a very compact community with most of the outlying district under cultivation. Liberton Church, designed by the eminent architect, James Gillespie Graham, has been described, in Groome’s Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, as a handsome semi-Gothic edifice. The very distinctive west tower, with its corbelled parapet and four slender pinnacles, is a prominent landmark seen from several viewpoints. The main body of the church is rectangular but its symmetrical walls are interrupted by graceful windows and several doorways. The foundation stone was laid on 27th January 1815 in the presence of the minister, the Rev. James Grant, the heritors and many of the parishioners.

Over Liberton

The old hamlet of Over Liberton, as distinct from the barony, was never more than a handful of houses and farm steadings, huddled around two principal buildings: to the west stood the ancient, high-walled fortress of Liberton Tower; and to the east, at the end of a long tree-lined avenue, lay Liberton House.

At the present day, Liberton Tower lies to the north of Liberton Drive and Liberton House lies to the south. The high-walled fortress of Liberton Tower stands, surrounded by buildings of considerable antiquity, a few hundred yards north of Liberton Drive, almost opposite the private road leading to Meadowhead Farm.

The tower was built in the fifteenth century by the Dalmahoy family who eventually sold out to the Littles. It has recently been extensively restored and is now used as a holiday home by Country Cottages in Scotland. To the south-east, Liberton House lies at the end of an avenue of elm trees, a few hundred yards south of Liberton Drive. The entrance is marked by twin gate pillars, unusually close together, supporting tall ornamental iron gates bearing the letters LH in gold. The driveway leads past a seventeenth-century doocot on the west side and ends in a courtyard formed by two aspects of the main house and a two-storey addition built slightly later as servants’ quarters. The exact age of Liberton House is uncertain although the best-informed opinion places it in the late sixteenth century. It was built for the Little’s of Liberton who were previously resident in the much plainer Liberton Tower. No respectable Scottish house of comparable antiquity is without its ghost, and Liberton House is no exception. An apparition is said to have appeared on numerous occasions over the years in a variety of forms, one of which was reproduced in The Scotsman on 17th June 1936 along with a letter from David Hunter Blair who possessed the original photograph taken at Liberton House, in which a large and extraordinarily sinister human face appeared with handsome features and a smile as enigmatic as that of Mona Lisa. The original photograph has not been traced but the newspaper reproduction, with its consequent reduction in quality, is disappointing. Tradition has it that the ghost has appeared in at least three different guises: Pierre, a French nobleman, with a propensity to startle the occupants by whistling when least expected, especially near the doocot; a female member of the Little family who was imprisoned in Edinburgh for assisting the Covenanters; and a Cavalier in costume and headgear of the seventeenth century; believed to be the one whose photograph appeared in The Scotsman. Even an extensive fire at Liberton House in 1991 does not appear to have extinguished the ghost completely. Although no sightings have been reported in recent years, voices have been heard and electrical apparatus has malfunctioned without any obvious human intervention.

Nether Liberton

Nether Liberton lies at the junction of Craigmillar Park and Gilmerton Road.

Its origins are traced by George Good to at least 1143. The population probably reached its peak in the late eighteenth century when there was a community of about three hundred people. There was a village cross, a weekly market, a school, a schoolhouse, and a schoolmaster. The two main occupations were brewing and milling, both of which relied heavily upon the water of the Braid Burn. One of the mill buildings, at Old Mill Lane, is still extant with the remains of its iron wheel visible on the south wall.

Perhaps the part of Nether Liberton best known is Good’s Corner at the north-west end of Gilmerton Road. For many years the old buildings were used as a sawmill and joiner’s shop by the Good family.On Gilmerton Road, a few hundred yards south of Good’s Corner, is Nether Liberton doocot dating from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. It was probably built by the proprietors of Inch House on the east side of the main road. Inch House, now a Community Centre, lies to the east of Gilmerton road. The earliest date on the house is 1617 when the property belonged to James Winram whose descendant George Winram became a Lord of Session in 1649, taking the title Lord Liberton.

Liberton Dams

Laurie’s Map of 1766 shows Liberton Dams between Mayfield Road and Kirk Brae on the main route out of Edinburgh from Causewayside to Liberton. Liberton Brae and Craigmillar Park were not constructed until the road improvements of 1815. The dams was the smallest of the four Liberton communities but was still large enough to have a school and mission hall up until about 1890. There was also a large dairy owned by the Laidlaw family on the triangular piece of ground to the east of Mayfield Road. A photograph reproduced in The Print of his Shoe by James Goodfellow, the missionary, shows Liberton Dams in the early 1900s. There are no villas yet at the south end of Mayfield Road, but among the old houses on the west side, opposite Laidlaw’s Dairy, is a small general shop reached by a tiny stone bridge across the mill lade as it returns to the Braid Burn.

© South Edinburgh Echo, August 1999