Making my way through a patch of woodland one winter afternoon my journey was guided by the span of a great wall to my side. Its overgrown and mossy surface was dappled with watery light filtering through the surrounding trees cloaked in ivy. Though my view beyond was obstructed, I could hear the sound of crashing waves a short distance away and was reminded of my coastal destination. Under my arm I carried Scotland’s Endangered Houses; the book that had become something of my bible during ruin-hunting ventures. For the past year the house I now approached had been staring out from its front cover, imploring me to visit, and I neared with expectation. Ahead the wall turned, and in its angle stood a glowing doorway like some threshold to another domain not out of place in The Secret Garden. Passing through to the other side, my eye was greeted by the splendid site of Seacliff House.
The structure I had been following was a great screen wall, its course terminating as it met the walls of this 19th century mansion. The partition had been designed to conceal the spectacular location of Seacliff atop East Lothian’s coastline, affording visitors with the unexpected and delightful view I now enjoyed. The house itself was pure asymmetry; an irregular arrangement of advancing and receding bays looking out across the North Sea. Though cast in shadow by the bright sun behind I could plainly see that the place was in an advanced state of ruin. The house was a roofless and hollow shell, with a great gash left in its flank from the collapse of a section of exterior masonry. Through this I could see tall chimneys still borne on precarious shoulders of crumbling stone rising above piles of internal rubble, while dark masses of ivy crept stealthily over the tops of the walls, looking ready to devour the entire building in suffocating plumes of foliage. Unusually, it was here on the northern aspect where the principal rooms had been arranged, rather than adopting their more favoured placement on the sunny south. The reason for this was undoubtedly to capitalize on the private panoramic seascape this position offered, as captivating today as ever before. The three main rooms were staggered to give each a direct vista out across the sea, with a wide canted bay set diagonally in the northernmost corner of the drawing room, offering a particularly stunning view framed by three tall mullioned lights.
This dynamic assemblage was the work of architect David Bryce, commissioned in 1841 by George Sligo to construct a new mansion around the core of a long, narrow earlier house of c.1750. This came at a time when Bryce had effectively been elevated to the position of partner in the firm of William Burn, for whom Bryce had worked as a clerk for several years. Burn was receiving an increasing number of English commissions and would later move to London in order to handle this side of his business, leaving Bryce in charge of the Edinburgh office and its Scottish clients. Seacliff however was taken on as a private commission, the preliminary sketches and plans for the building being marked with Bryce’s home address. These early drawings show an ambitious scheme, with the north front being dominated by a tall square tower which was in fact never built. As with many of Bryce’s projects, it seems the mansion that was constructed was a pared-down version of the architect’s initial vision. Nevertheless Seacliff was a residence on a grand scale, and, being one of Bryce’s earliest commissions for a complete house, is an important example in the development of his distinctive style. In many ways it epitomizes Bryce’s variant of the popular Scots Baronial aesthetic, informed by his work with William Burn but beginning to showcase his own particular flair, for which he would become known as one of Scotland’s leading architects of the Victorian era. With corbelled bartizans and crowstepped gables aplenty, Seacliff comprises most of the common features which would go on to recur in the majority of his later builds.
I advanced upon the house, coming to a large window set in the screen wall through which I peered upwards to a world of rampant greenery. One of the many bartizans which had enlivened Seacliff’s roofline peeked through the cascading tendrils, betraying the presence of the concealed house beneath. Walking across the lawn I looked down the tree-covered slope to Seacliff beach below. The tide had receded, revealing a line of golden sand leading to the Car Rocks, with the famous Bass Rock conspicuous amidst the blue expanse to the north. George Sligo had envisaged an impressive drive along the beach, but alas this was never carried through.
Passing through the doorway in the wall once again, I made my way to the south elevation of the house. I followed a narrow track worn through the ivy which gripped every available surface, obscuring most of the entrance front in its luscious shroud. I continued to the east wing, not yet colonized by the greedy vines. This left the building’s masonry fully visible, the soft sandstone evidently eroding in intricate lace-like patterns, eaten away by the salt of the sea air. The colours were especially pleasing; ranging from soft golden hues to shades of warm pink and the rich russet of a decorative window surround. Here a group of outbuildings neighbour the ruin. Though now a private home they were purchased by the Navy in World War II and used as the base for HMS Scottish Seacliff, a secret research facility concerned with navigation training and U-boat defence.
Moving back to the entrance bay, I was glad to be accompanied by my book and its photograph of Seacliff on the cover. This section of the house is now entirely masked by a magnitude of foliage, saplings appearing to sprout from the walls, all rendering it unrecognisable from the picture I now compared it to. In another of my books, concerned with the life and work of David Bryce, the authors Alistair Rowan and Valerie Fiddes attribute considerable stylistic credence to this certain aspect of Seacliff’s design. They state: “The very particular composition of the entrance tower at Seacliffe, gabled with flanking round bartizans, seems to be employed sufficiently by Bryce to justify the term Seacliffe entrance…” in the same way that many of Bryce’s recurring motifs are “…most simply identified by the name of the building from which they derive.”
Ducking through the ivy drape I entered the shade of Seacliff’s interior. The front door would originally have given direct access to a flight of steps leading to drawing room, library and dining room, elevated to first floor level again to enhance the seaward views. In their arrangement these rooms deviated from Bryce’s usual placement of the principal apartments as the planning of the house had been partly compromised by the position of the 18th century dwelling around which he built. With no trace of these stairs remaining I instead followed three steps, still discernible amongst the earth, which led downwards to what would have been the sunken floor where the service accommodation was housed. Internally all was crumbling, the great voids now inhabited by shrubs and trees, silent but for the constant companion of the ocean waves gently caressing the shore.
George Sligo remained Seacliff’s proprietor until the 1850s when the estate was purchased by John Watson Laidlay, an indigo planter and silk manufacturer who had spent much of his life in India. Laidlay is said to have made alterations to the house in the time he spent there, enjoying retirement before his death in 1885. His son Andrew inherited and built the nearby harbour at Gegan Rock, reputed to be the smallest in Britain. Sadly, Andrew’s residence at Seacliff was to be cut tragically short. On 28th July 1907 the house was engulfed by a terrible fire which destroyed the entire building and claimed Andrew’s life, his remains being later found in the ashes. When a house is destroyed so coincidentally, it is easy to consider what might have been. Even had it not survived as a private home, Seacliff may have today been one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions, a Culzean of the East, welcoming a host of visitors to enjoy its stunning coastal location. But just 66 years after being built the house was lost in a swift act of fate, left as a shell from the early 20th century and condemned to fall further into ruin ever since.
I retraced my steps, once again finding myself at the screen wall. Where I stood, a large conservatory had originally extended westwards from the house, sheltered from sea winds by the wall behind and connected to the drawing room, benefiting from this south-facing position. I approached the window through which I had looked from the opposite side earlier, and as I did so a pale barn owl swooped silently from the vegetation above. It was an unexpected but enchanting site, reminding me that this seemingly abandoned place was still home to some. With the disappearance of the rest of the conservatory structure this window now appeared strangely out of place, giving the sense of being at once both outside and inside. Next to it stood a small square corner tower which I entered through a doorway illuminated in soft light. The space inside was tiny, but somehow magical. It had retained its lath and plaster lining and its interior was a miniature time capsule, bearing countless signatures scrawled and carved in the pink surface of the walls. November 1968, Feb 10th 1980, 8/7/89 I read, surrounded by the names of explorers who had been here before me. The potent atmosphere of times past in that small space captured my imagination and I felt as though I might step back outside and find myself in the house as it had been over a century before, it’s ruined state nothing more than an ominous premonition. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the tower would go on to inform much of my subsequent work.
Upon departing Seacliff I paid a short visit to its neighbouring ruin of Auldhame Castle, a 16th century tower house whose remains lie amongst trees in the near vicinity. A short while later and I had moved on to the famous ruined fortress of Tantallon Castle just a couple of miles away. Standing atop its summit and being buffeted by the sea breeze, I gazed out across the coastline, just able to discern the tall chimneys and gables of Seacliff amongst the trees, the youngest in this historic line of ruined structures along Scotland’s eastern fringe.