Clifton Hall, lying within the part of Kirkliston Parish that is in Midlothian and on the south bank of the River Almond, is one of the most interesting estates in the Lothians. It is beautifully situated with an imposing mansion built in the Scottish baronial style of architecture in 1857 (probably to designs by David Bryce FRSE FRIBA RSA – 1803-1876) and has a history which few estates can lay claim to and even fewer could verify. It is only possible to treat a few of the more interesting aspects from its creation nearly 800 years ago down to the present use of the mansion as an all-through (3-18) Independent School.
About the beginning of the reign of Alexander II (1214-1249), Sir Henry Graham of Abercorn gave a charter to his cousin, David Graham, of the lands of Clifton and Clifton Hall in Midlothian. David de Graham had from King William the Lion (1165 – 1214) the lands of Montrose; and the superiority of Clifton and Clifton Hall remained for centuries with that ancient family.
Provost and Lord of Session
In the 16th Century when the records are more plentiful, we find that the owner of Clifton Hall was Thomas Macalzean, of whom some interesting particulars are recorded.
On June 10th 1556, by command of the Queen Regent, he was deprived of his office by the Assessor by the Town Council of Edinburgh, for “evil, heich and unpleasant language to her Grace,” in the discharge of his official duties. The Assessor protested against this decree and after a lapse of a few months was restored by the Queen Regent.
On October 8th 1561, Thomas Macalzean was elected Provost of Edinburgh. A cordial supporter of the Reformation, he was one of those appointed by the General Assembly to decide questions and revise sentences. On October 1570, he was appointed Lord of Session in the room of Henry Balnavis, deceased, and took the title of Lord Clifton Hall. He died about 1581 leaving an only daughter and heiress, Euphame.
Euphame Macalzean was the most celebrated of all Scottish witches. After a long and notorious career she was tried by the High Court of Justiciary for numerous crimes ranging from common witchcraft to a conspiracy against the life of the King. She was sentenced to death by burning and paid the full penalty on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh on 25th June 1691. Euphame is the only Scottish witch on record to have been burned alive. Other offenders were always strangled by the common hangman before being burned at the stake. Her lands and goods were forfeited, but her children were restored on giving up the lands to the King’s favourite, Sandelands of Slamannan; but as no male heirs existed little benefit could be reaped by the successors, and the title of Clifton Hall became extinct.
Persecutor of the Covenanters
A century later, the estate belonged to a family named Douglas. Nisbet, in his ‘System of Heraldry’, blazons the arms of Archibald Douglas of Clifton Hall thus: Ermine on a chief Azure, three stars Argent, a bordure Gules; Motto – “Meliora Speranda”. Archibald Douglas was a persecutor of the Covenanters and rode in the troop of the Laird of Hatton (a nearby estate, the mansion house of which was partly destroyed by fire in 1952). Both these gentlemen were under the celebrated General Tam Dalyell of the Binns, who routed the Covenanting Army at Pentland and who raised the regiment known as the Scots Greys.
Wishart of Clifton Hall
In 1703, the estate was purchased by George Wishart, son of the Rev. William Wishart, minister at Kinneil. He served in Carmichael’s Regiment of Dragoon Guards, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and in 1706 was created baronet by Queen Anne. Sir George was an elder of the Church of Kirkliston and he gave annually one boll of meal to the poor. The following is extracted from the records of the Kirk Session: “March 14th 1714. ‘Inter Alia’ ordered Henry Gibb, Elizabeth Clathie and Janet Wilson, poor persons to each of them a firlot of Sir George Wishart’s boll of meal”.
Fergusia, eldest daughter and heiress of Sir George Wishart married George Lockhart of Carnwath (b. 1700) and was mother of James Lockhart-Wishart, one of the Lords of the Bed-Chamber to the King of Hungary. He was a Count of the Holy Roman Empire; a Knight of the Order of the Empress Maria Theresa and a General of the Imperial Forces. On the death in 1761 of his eldest brother George, who was a strenuous supporter of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, sold Clifton Hall to Thomas Gibson of Pentland, one of the clerks to the Privy Council of Scotland.
The Maitland Family
By the marriage of a granddaughter of Thomas Gibson of Clifton Hall to Alexander Charles, son of the Hon. Alexander Maitland, first baronet of Clifton (England), and the fifth son of Charles, sixth Earl of Lauderdale, the estate passed to the Maitland family. Sir Alexander Charles Maitland, the second baronet, fought in the American War and was present at the battles of Brandwine, Long Island and Bunker’s Hill. He married a daughter of George Ramsay of Barntoun, an Edinburgh banker, and their son inherited the Barntoun estates in 1865 and assumed the additional names of Ramsay and Gibson.
Clifton Hall remained in the possession of the family Ramsay-Gibson-Maitland until about 1880 when it was purchased by Robert Bell, a pioneer in the coal and shale oil industries and who discovered sulphate of ammonia, one of the now numerous by-products of shale.
The estate had been partly broken up when Robert Bell died at the end of the nineteenth century, leaving the remainder to his family. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the family sold the estate to St Cuthbert’s Co-operative Society Limited who had already acquired one of the farms.
St Cuthbert’s Co-operative Society sold the policies to Argyll Lindsay, a grain merchant in Leith, and retained the well-known farms of Clifton Mains and West Clifton. The Society held these farms (and the neighbouring farms of Bonnington, Claylands and Overshiel) until 1957, when they were sold to James Rennie of Ratho Mains Farm, who farmed Clifton Mains having disposed of the other units. The policies were sold by Argyll Lindsay in 1929 to R.R. Killick, founder and first Headmaster of the school.
The school was founded in 1930 when the joint owner-headmasters, formerly teachers at Merchiston Castle School, Richard Killick and Robert Ainslie admitted their first four boy boarders. The depression made early growth difficult but by the time Captain Ainslie left to found Blairmore School in 1937 the roll had grown to 43, three of whom were day boys. Owned by Richard Killick and financed through fee income (£50 per term from 1930 – 1947) Clifton Hall’s early years were, by all accounts, a time when parents rarely saw their offspring during term-time and entrusted the care of their boys entirely to Richard and Mabel Killick. Rugby, Cricket and Latin featured heavily in the curriculum, and with the considerable sporting and academic successes, the school’s reputation grew.
Further development was abruptly stopped by the war when the buildings and grounds were requisitioned by the Air Ministry, who made Clifton Hall the administrative headquarters for R.A.F. Turnhouse. Apparently a decoy runway was constructed on adjacent fields to attract German bombers away from Turnhouse! The boys fled to Kinloch House in Amulree, Perthshire (home of Lord Salvesen, Mabel’s cousin). The school remained intact; both physically and in terms of pupils whose parents must have been glad of their boys’ safe haven.
After the War, the school grew rapidly to its then capacity of about 100 boarders from 8 – 13 years old. New rooms and facilities were added and the number of teachers increased. New playing fields were created. The children were taught citizenship: living together in this small community gave a unique opportunity to learn the skills of sharing and team spirit. Richard Killick retired in 1958 leaving a stable school that he had nurtured from its conception.
His successor, Walter Mitchell, continued the good work including some ambitious school trips throughout Europe in a Ford Prefect, but tragically died of leukemia shortly after his failing health forced him to retire.
A teacher from Cargilfield, George Mathewson, then developed the school from 1962 until 1984. During these years he built and modernized Clifton Hall, including the pool, games hall and science laboratory. In 1964 the school ceased to be proprietorial and became a company limited by guarantee governed by a Board of Governors, as it is today. He spotted the trends away from all boys / all boarding and introduced girls, weekly boarding, day children and lowered the entry age down to 5.
At a time of rapid roll change from all boarding, from boys to mixed, and from older to younger, David Berkley took charge for three years. He and his wife Trish travelled the world in search of boarders and, in the face of all the trends, managed to retain a healthy pupil number.
Mark Adams was appointed in 1987. The trend towards younger, day children continued: the Nursery opened in January 1989 and became one of the principal entry points to the school. Full boarding was stopped in 1994 and weekly boarding stopped in 1996. The school’s age range adjusted from 3-13 to 3-11 in 1995 and in many senses a new school had emerged.
Rod Grant became Headmaster in 2005, just as Clifton Hall celebrated its 75th Anniversary (and becoming only the sixth Headmaster in its history). In 2008, Clifton Hall merged with another small independent school, St. Serf’s. The St. Serf’s building, located in Edinburgh’s Roseburn area, was sold and the proceeds of the sale were invested in refurbishing Clifton Hall and providing, for the first time, secondary education. Over the next 5 years the school tripled in size, and the academic year 2015-16 commenced with 365 pupils.