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Old Edinburgh Club
Volume 20
Biggar's of Edinburgh


Woolmet House was a late 17th century L-plan house just outside Edinburgh, now demolished, although it seems to have replaced an earlier castle. 

It is often said to have been built in 1686 however it was to here that Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, retreated to in 1594 after rebelling against James VI. 


Sciennes Hill House - Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, was a Scottish historical novelist, poet, playwright, and historian. Robert Burns,  was a Scottish poet and lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland

Half a mile to the east of the Drum stands Woolmet House, which was also inspected, the leader being Mr. W. Forbes Gray, who drew .attention to its architectural features and read some notes relating to its owners. Woolmet, with its quaint towers and turrets, and its fine series of dormer windows, is a notable specimen of the Scottish Baronial type. The mansion, which bears the date 1686, is three stories high. In front is a little courtyard, entered by an imposing gateway, arched and ivy-covered. Situated in the middle of a field and isolated, the avenue of approach having become grass-grown, Woolmet owes not a little of its interest and charm to the fact that it has never been modernized. The ground floor is still occupied, but the rest of the mansion has been tenantless for a number of years. In early times the lands of Woolmet belonged to the Abbey of Dunfermline, and subsequently to the Edmonstone family, a branch of which occupied the ancient manor house.


In 1673 James Edmonstone sold Woolmet to Major John Biggar, whose only child married William Wallace, a nephew of Sir Thomas Wallace of Craigie, Lord Justice-Clerk. On uniting himself to the heiress, Wallace (a descendant of the Scottish patriot) assumed the name and arms of Biggar. The present mansion probably was reconstructed by this family. Over the main doorway and on several of the dormers are carved the initials 'W. B.,' together with the coat-of-arms of the Biggars.


Early in the eighteenth century, the fortunes of this family became connected with the south side of Edinburgh. The first to settle there was Robert Biggar, grandson of Major John Biggar of Woolmet, and one of the unfortunate shareholders in the Darien scheme. He was a famous golfer and archer and had two sons-John and Walter who, forsaking the family tradition, sought their fortunes in trade.


About the middle of the eighteenth century, they erected a linen manufactory in Sciences and rapidly built up an extensive and profitable business. It is noteworthy that the firm was presented by the British Linen Company with a service of the silver plate as an acknowledgment of the perfection to which it had brought the manufacture of linen. John Biggar, the elder of the two brothers, lived at Sciennes Hill House, where Burns and Scott met.

Walter, on the other hand, resided in an old house (now demolished) at the east end of Sciennes Road. The brothers owned considerable property in Sciennes, land as well as buildings. John Biggar, whose portrait was painted by Sir George Chalmers, married a daughter of Charles Butter, Deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights, and the great-grandfather of Anne, Duchess of Sutherland. Mrs. Biggar's brother figures in Kay's 8 Portraits. He held the honorary appointment of Carpenter to His Majesty's Household and was a member of the Town Council. Butter resided .at Kirkbraehead, an old mansion that stood at the west end of Princes Street.


John Biggar had a large family, several of whom rose to eminence. • Charles published in 1804 'A Narrative of the Escape of Mr. Charles Biggar from Valenciennes, through part of Germany, Effected under Circumstances peculiarly Difficult and Distressing.' This member of the Biggar family once conversed with Napoleon, and in the 'Narrative ' tells that on one occasion he had an excellent opportunity, if there had been two persons along with him, of bringing Napoleon a prisoner to England.  Charles Biggar shared the family enthusiasm for music and was the grandfather of John Hullah, the musical composer.


A younger brother, Walter, entered the linen manufactory in Sciennes, but in later years gave himself almost wholly to music and the drama.  About 1820 he brought out a collection of Scottish dance music. In this work will be found 'Mr. Biggar's Strathspey' and 'Mr. John Biggar's Jig.'  Walter Biggar also compiled a ready reckoner, which was published when he was seventy-four. Bankers .and merchants in the middle of last century were much indebted to ' Biggar's Interest Circle.' Of commanding appearance and high education, Walter Biggar was fond of sport and rode to hounds with ·the Duke of Buccleuch. His wife, Rachel Heggie, was a relation of Dr. Thomas Chalmers.


Walter's youngest brother, John, was the first to enter the architectural profession, with which the family were prominently connected for three generations. Born at Sciennes Hill House in 1772, he was apprenticed to Robert Burn, who designed the Nelson monument. In 1796 he was admitted a burgess of Edinburgh, ' in right -of John Biggar, linen manufacturer.' Later on, he bought the property of Rosehall, in Dalkeith Road, his object being to erect villas thereon, but for some reason only one was erected. John Biggar died in 18ll at his house in Argyle Square. His wife, a daughter of William Murray, co1·n merchant, Edinburgh, traced collateral descent from David Hume, also from Alexander Home of Kennetsidelands, the -Covenanter, who perished at the Market Cross in 1682. Her sister was the wife of James Callender, manager of the Union Bank of  Scotland


The eldest son of John Biggar, the architect, bore the same na~e as his father and followed the same profession. In 1828 he married Jane Gray, daughter of John Gray, baxter in Edinburgh and a member of the Town Council. Mrs. Biggar was related to George Combe, brewer at Livingston's Yards, the parent of the celebrated brothers, George and Andrew Combe-the former phrenologis~, _moral philosopher, and husband of Cecilia Sid~01_1s, the latter _Phys1man_ to Queen Victoria and the author of Principles of Physiow~y, which reached a fifteenth edition. A sister of Mrs. Biggar marned Hugh Nimmo baxter who built the first house at Montpelier, Bruntsfield Links ~nd resided there.


John Biggar, the second architect, was factor of the property in the south side of Edinburgh belonging to John Hope, W.S., and for many years was a Commissioner for the eight southern districts of Edinburgh before they became incorporated with the city in 1856. A member of the High constables  of Edinburgh, he became Captain and Custodian. first  Insignia.  J01 mng the Scottish Episcopal Church at the Disruption, he was treasurer of St. Peter's Church, Roxburgh Place, and had much to do with the building of the present church in Lutton Place. The edifice, which was designed by an eminent London architect, was erected under the superintendence of Biggar's son, who bore the same name and was, like his father, a well-known architect. John Biggar, the second architect, died in 1862. He was the last distinguished representative of a family which could trace descent from the lairds of Woolmet, and which had been closely connected with Newington, first as linen manufacturers and then as architects, for nearly a century and a half.

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