Merchiston and its Napier Lairds

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Probably the most famous branch of the Napier Family is the Merchiston Napiers. The Merchiston estate, in Edinburgh, lies to the south-west of the Wrychtishousis estate. The early forms of the name, Merchinstoun (1266), Merchammestoun (1278) and Merchenstoun (1371) suggest that the name is Anglian, incorporating a British personal name in "Merchiaun's tun" or farm place. The reference to "Overmerchampstone" in 1337 shows that the estate had by then been subdivided. The original estate stretched from the Gorgie Road in the north to the Pow or Jordan Burn in the south, and from Meggetland in the west to the Wrychtishousis estate in the east. This was an area of about 1 square mile (640 acres or 259 hectares). Merchiston Tower was built right in the middle of it, on the highest part of the estate, and the district around it is still known as Merchiston to this day.

No documentary evidence has so far been found to prove who were the ancestors of the Napiers of Merchiston. Statements have been made that the Merchiston Napiers are descended from the Kilmahew Napiers, but this has not yet been substantiated. The coats of arms of the two families are completely different, which suggests that there is no close family relationship. However, there is documentary evidence to show that there might be a close blood relationship between the families, but until such time as it can be conclusively proved, we must just accept that we do not know.

The first known reference of a Napier who can definitely be connected to the Merchiston family is in the records of Edinburgh which shows that an Alexander Napier was Provost of Edinburgh in 1403. Nothing is really known about this Alexander, except that he had at least one son, also called Alexander.

In 1647, the second Lord Napier was sued in Parliament for the £10,000 fine which his father had not paid. In his defence, he claimed that had mortgaged his lands of Merchiston and his lands in the west were "ruined and overburdened". That his family were in dire straits, and did not approve of his association with Montrose at that time, is shown by the letter that his Uncle Robert (Napier) wrote to him in May 1647:

"Consider upon this very nick of time depends the utter ruin or safety of yourself, of your house and estate, lady and children and posterity, your nearest friends and of all, that by the link and tie of nature should be dearest to you, for certainly if you continue longer in that evil course your forfeiture will not be long delayed, your lady and children shall be reduced to extreme want, whereof they already feel the beginnings, your whole estate being already cantoned divided and taken up that neither have they their necessary maintenance of it; neither payeth it any of your father's debts, neither shall your sister have anything to maintain her, and we your uncles, branches of your house, who are engaged auctioneers for your father's debts, shall be undone in our estates."

His Merchiston estate was indeed mortgaged, to John Cant who, 26 years earlier, had bought the Lauriston Castle estate from Lord Napier's half-brother, Alexander. John Cant's son, Ludovic, sold the Merchiston estate to Ninian Lowis in 1659. The Lowis family history says that " . . . . [Merchiston Castle] was acquired under a redeemable mortgauge October 1659 and by an irredeemable on August 12th 1668, the first from Trustees and the second from Archibald, 3rd Baron Napier on his coming of age." Archibald succeeded his father to the title early in 1660, but probably only lived in Merchiston Tower until the early 1640s.

After the Restoration, Lady Napier, now a widow and probably the legal owner of the estate as her son, the third Lord Napier, was under age, appealed to the King for restitution and in 1662 her own right to Merchiston was affirmed. However, she never redeemed it, and it was disposed of to James Lowis, son of Ninian, in whose family it remained until 1729. In that year John "the Gambler", son of James Lowis, sold the estate to the Governors of George Watson's hospital. In those days a "hospital" was really a charitable school for poor children. Today, it is one of the biggest "public" (i.e. fee-paying) co-educational schools in Edinburgh. The school buildings, together with the playing fields, occupy a significant part of the old Merchiston estate lying to the north of the Tower.

It is doubtful if either Lady Napier or the third Lord Napier could rightly claim to be the eleventh Laird.

In 1775, the Tower passed into the hands of a lawyer, Robert Turner, who, ten years later, sold it to Professor Robert Blair, professor of astronomy at Edinburgh University. In 1818, the Tower came back into Napier ownership.

To complete the story of Merchiston Tower, it was taken over by the Merchant Company Education Board in 1930, which was also responsible for George Watson's School and the other fee-paying "public" schools in Edinburgh. By this time, the original Tower building could hardly be recognised because so many additions had been made by Merchiston Castle School. The building was becoming overcrowded and badly in need of repair. The School moved to a green field site on the western outskirts of Edinburgh, at Colinton, where it remains to this day. After the School had deserted the Tower, it passed into the ownership of Edinburgh Corporation, and it stood empty for many years. However, during the Second World War it was used by the National Fire Service (the wartime fire brigade). In 1956 a technical college started to be built on the site and the Tower was restored and used as administrative offices. The institution is now Napier University, Edinburgh's third university. Externally, Merchiston Tower has now been restored to something approaching what it must have looked like when it was first built. Internally, it has been tastefully restored and adapted for present-day use. It can be visited by prior appointment with the University Authorities.

© Charlie Napier,
Morningside, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Last modified:
31 October 2015

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