It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to call the hamlet of Swanston a landmark, as it sits quite unobtrusively at the foot of the Pentland Hills, but it is an important visual reminder of the communities that were dotted around Edinburgh in earlier centuries. The village features as a row of 17th century thatched cottages, slated farm workers’ cottages from the early 1900s, and an old school-house.
Swanston village lies just over the City By-pass at the end of Swanston Road nestling in the lee of Caerketton and Allermuir Hills. Long before the By-pass (or even the RingRoad!) the village was reached by the cart track or path called Cockmylane which Robert Louis Stevenson and other citizens used to venture into the foothills via the Braidburn valley.
Stevenson was a frequent visitor to the village in the 1870’s where his parents leased Swanston Cottage perhaps to allow the sickly young RLS to escape the harsher air of Auld Reekie below. He clearly took inspiration from the setting and the surrounding hills, which have stimulated a number of his writings, such as the novel ‘St Ives’. The cottage was later to benefit from work by the famed architect Sir Robert Lorimer. It is interesting too that the village played a part in the life ofanother of our much-travelled writers, the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir. His friends have placed a plaque to commemorate his visits to meditate in the relative quiet of the place.
The peace and quiet is perhaps due to almost uniquely the village has no shops or church or any of the other facilities one might associate with a collective community. Although there is evidence of farming from much earlier times the origin of Swanston’s name appears to be in the early thirteenth century when a farmer, Svienn, took up a lease to the land. The small community that grew up then became known as Sveinn’ston which then over the years translated to Swanston. Between the 14th and 17th centuries there are records indicating that the lands were held in the name of the Knights Templar.
Viewed from the city the land above the hamlet is highlighted by a ‘T’ shaped wood. Seen from above however this is actually in the shape of templar style cross. However rather than being directly linked to the Knights it is assumed that the wood was planted at a much later date by the land-owning Trotter family in honour of a fallen family member.
The main feature of the village today is perhaps the ten white cottages which, uniquely in the Lowlands, are complete with thatch from River Tay reeds, and which survive thanks to the City Council’s restoration work in the 1950s and 1960’s – a time at which, as we have explored before, some other properties in the area suffered a much worse fate. We should bear in mind that these are private homes rather than museum pieces however.
For a more detailed explanation of the subject we would recommend Malcolm Cant’s the ‘Villages of Edinburgh, Volume 2,’ John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1987 available in Morningside Library.