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The History of Saughton Park

The Early History of Saughtonhall

The earliest reference to Saughtonhall is in the King David I charter of 1128, founding Holyrood Abbey; it notes several lands given to the Abbey from the crown, including Edinburgh Castle with a Willow Plantation, St Cuthbert’s Church and Corstorphine. This was confirmed by Robert, Bishop of St. Andrews, in the 1140s or ‘50s, with the Willow Plantation being named as Saletunia or Salchtone. 


Between this date and the mid 1200s, Saughton fell within the lands of Gorgyn (Gorgie), as Sir Fergus Comyn, Lord Gorgyn, allowed the Canons of Holyrood to establish a Mill at Saughton on the Water of Leith. This was amended by Sir William De Lewingston in 1328 stating that if the mill were to flood, the Canons may build it wherever they wish.

Sometime after 1328, the lands were under the ownership of the Abbey once more, possibly only being rented to Comyn and De Lewingston, during this period, they were likely used as farming and crop lands. There is reference to a charter of c.1585, in which the Abbey lands of Saughton were sold to various portioners – holding portions of the lands.

Some of these portioners were notable characters, including the Bellendens of Broughton, the Lawties; Writers to the Signet and Edinburgh Commissioners, John Morrison, and Edinburgh Baillie and Merchant Burgess (who held several lands around Edinburgh including Prestongrange) and a large portion of the Somervell family, starting with Peter.

However, between c.1636-1650, Thomas Mudie of Dalry purchased these lands from the various portioners, and, upon his death in 1652, left them to his daughter, Jonet, and her husband, Sir Alexander Maxwell of Calderwood, who was then designated ‘of Saughtonhall’. Mudie also left 20,000 merks, which was used to construct the Canongate Kirk. Jonat eventually sold the lands to Sir Robert Baird in 1669 for £54,341/4s/8d - almost exactly the same price it sold for in 1900 by Sir Robert’s descendants.


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The Bairds - Who or what are the Bairds?


“The Bairds” are now known locally as a cluster of 5 streets, established in the 1930’s in the district of Saughtonhall, Edinburgh, likely in recognition of the noble family who owned the surrounding Estate.

The Baird family can be traced back at least to the 13th century beginning with Thomas de Bard of Posso who was sheriff of Peebles in 1296. The descendant line continues through the centuries and we join it with the birth of Robert Baird, in 1630, the 5th son to James Baird, Commissioner of Edinburgh and his wife Bethia Dempster.

Robert in his adult life is a successful entrepreneur and Edinburgh businessman. During the Dutch wars in the mid-17th century, he had part shares in various ships and engaged in business both in Rotterdam and Archangel. Between the years of 1677 – 1684 he entered a partnership with two others to manufacture sugar in the Kirkgate, an area of Leith, which became one of the early Scottish sugar houses.

It was Robert who purchased the lands of Sauchtonhall from Janet Moodie (or Mudie) in about 1660. These lands lay in the west of Edinburgh in their own grounds and extended to what is now the railway line in the north, and beyond our modern day Stenhouse to the west.

Sir Robert was created a Knight Baronet in 1667 and 1st Baronet Baird of Sauchtonhall Edinburgh (Nova Scotia) in 1696. He died the following year and the title was passed onto his eldest son, Sir James Baird, 1657-1715

Sir Robert’s descendants continued to occupy the mansion house until the 1770’s when it was let out to various tenants by, the now, 6th Baronet of Saughton Hall, Sir James Gardiner Baird. One of the tenants was Helen Bannatyne, wife of Dugald Stewart, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, to which a monument was erected in his honour on Calton Hill.  She died at Saughton Hall in January 1787.

In around the year of 1824 Saughton Hall was leased to The Institute for the Recovery of the Insane as a “private lunatic asylum designed for the patients of higher ranks”.  It operated as a private asylum until around 1900 when the grounds were purchased, along with other lands, by the Edinburgh Corporation; they also purchased the mansion house in 1907 thus ending the Baird association with Saughton.

Saughtonhall Asylum


Throughout the Nineteenth Century Saughtonhall housed a private lunatic asylum for the well-off, noted for its humane and innovative treatment of patients.

It was first mentioned as a lunatic asylum was in 1796, run by two prominent Edinburgh medical men Thomas Wood and James Bryce, both members of Royal College of Surgeons. This was unusual for the time, as most asylums were run by people with no professional qualifications.  In the early days of Saughtonhall, their patient numbers were fairly low by today’s standard, with only 18 patients (both male and female) by 1807.

From about 1835 it was managed by Drs John Smith and William Lowe. Lowe was a noted botanist himself and introduced an early form of ‘horticultural therapy’ by encouraging patients to work in, and enjoy the extensive gardens

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While some of the reasons given for being admitted may seem strange today, the patients were well-cared for, rooms were unlocked and restraint was only used in extreme cases. The effect was that of a well-furnished private home, except for the high number of attendants. Most patients were thought to be curable, and only spent a few months in the asylum. 

In 1873, Smith’s nephew Sir John Batty Tuke joined the management of the asylum, eventually taking sole charge. He was one of the most eminent psychiatrists in Scotland at the time and was director of Saughtonhall until it closed. 

During this time the asylum expanded, and the number of patients almost doubled from an average of 40 to 75. It continued to receive glowing reports during frequent inspections, where they praised both the buildings and treatment. There were many activities to occupy the patients, and the gardens continued to provide outdoor relaxation. The asylum was seen as a model institution, and had doctors visited from as far away as the United States.

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Tuke had bought Mavisbank House in Midlothian, and after Saughton was sold to Edinburgh Council, the patients were transferred there. The last patients left Saughtonhall in December 1906, and a new chapter in the estate’s history was about to begin.

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Scottish National Exhibition 1908

In June 1907 the hall and grounds, apart from the golf course (to become Whitson in 1931) were let for two years in order to host the six-month long Scottish National Exhibition. The Exhibition was based around industry, such as Agriculture, Engineering and Horticulture. As well as art and social issues such as housing. It was for the Exhibition that the entrance at Gorgie road was constructed – being one of the oldest ferro-concrete structures in the country – And the original winter garden.


The Exhibition was officially opened on 1st May 1908 by His Royal Highness Prince Arthur of Connaught, the son of Queen Victoria, and was a massive success from the outset. Advance sale of 38,558 season tickets meant that finance was guaranteed, and these sales were swelled by an opening day attendance of 125,000, made up of 122,500 season-ticket entries and 2,819 day admissions.

After a total of 3.5 million admissions, the Exhibition closed on 31 October 1908, but not without incident of a typically Scottish type. Due to a disturbance at the Terrace Bar it was closed half an hour earlier than advertised. This only incensed customers, who attacked the police when they arrived to enforce the decision. A pitched fight spread to the bandstand, with chairs and music stands reputedly making convenient weaponry! As the Bandstands at the Exhibition were such as success, Edinburgh Corporation purchased 2 Lion Foundry No. 23 bandstands from the Kirkintolloch-based foundry in 1909. One being situated in the Meadows, with the other in Saughton Park, the park’s one can now be seen restored front-and-centre after a 30-year hiatus. 

Among the Exhibitions features were the Canadian Pavilion, Gondola rides on the Water of Leith, a Japanese Exhibition in Saughton Hall, a Senegalese Village and Baby Incubator exhibits, including many more.

20th Century

Edinburgh Corporation had purchased the park in 1905 from the Bairds, however, it wasn’t until June 1910 that Saughton Park and Gardens were at last opened to the public. The Scotsman described the opening on a Saturday afternoon in “lovely summer weather” It described a rock garden created within the walled enclosure fronting the mansion house and the bandstand on the ground between the western wall of the mansion and the Water of Leith. 

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During the speeches there was speculation as to the fate of the mansion house and it was suggested that it become “a home for jaded councillors” much to the crowds amusement! The Park was laid out by John William M’Hattie, Superintendent of Parks and Gardens, with the £4,000 from the Exhibition fund.

Throughout the 20th Century Saughton Park became well-known in the hearts of Edinburgh’s residents with the Winter and 22,000 strong Rose Gardens, Paddling pool and bandstand. An Italian Garden and Garden for the blind were set up in the 1950s featuring stone statues, urns and busts, the blind garden featured scented plants and braille tablets, the newly-established Physic Garden is now here. It hosted the Royal Highland show, and the Highland and Agricultural Society shown, attended by the Prince of Wales at the North end of the Park. During WW2 several tons of Onions were grown here for Edinburgh’s hospitals.

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