Cammo’s Hidden History

It feels odd to drive through the congested west end of Edinburgh, along affluent suburban streets, then to suddenly find oneself on the brink of fields and quiet woodland – but just off Queensferry Road to the south of the River Almond lies a fascinating little country park known as the Cammo Estate, undiscovered by most of the city’s inhabitants.

From the small car park, I followed a path along the edge of the woods and shortly came in view of two intriguing sights – a castellated water tower standing like a lone sentinel in the field to my left, and to my right, an old ruin nestled in the trees. On closer inspection the water tower’s gate was locked, its interior empty apart from rubbish – but the ruin turned out to be a former classical stable block, constructed in a U-plan with a striking octagonal tower.

The walls are scarred with graffiti, but perhaps not as much as one might expect considering the proximity to the city. The roof is long gone, but inside the ruin’s sandstone walls there is a hush, in which I could almost imagine that the stables were abandoned, forgotten, a relic hidden in the countryside far from civilisation. Light sieves through the leafy canopy, stippling the walls yellow ochre, the essence of a daydream. Birds whisper to one another from the spindly branches overlooking the central tower. The wind rustles through the undergrowth, bringing the sweet smell of nettles and mulch. But then a plane rumbles low overhead, taking off from Edinburgh Airport just over a mile away, and the illusion is shattered.
Cammo stables The stable block, built in 1811, is by no means the oldest structure on the Cammo Estate, but its remains are much more substantial than those of the once-grand Cammo House, which dates from around 1693.

The house became a target for vandals and was set on fire several times before being almost entirely demolished – now all that remains is the façade with door and pediment facing down the tranquil lawn of the South avenue, and two adjoining walls which have been shored up with earth to prevent further collapse.Cammo house

Popular Space
This is a popular space on a Sunday afternoon – children riding bikes, watched over by parents perching on the organically-shaped modern wooden bench facing the façade; couples strolling hand-in-hand down the South avenue; boisterous black Labs leaping in and out of the ornamental canal, now lined with reeds to retard the erosion of its banks; and the occasional intrepid orienteer resting in the sunshine for a few moments, before continuing to follow the estate’s recently-established permanent orienteering course. This is an appealing place to pass time; but what most visitors do not realise is that the present-day layout of the countryside they see around them is based on the skeleton of a designed landscape created in the early eighteenth century.

The Natural Look
The Landscape Movement was the fashion among landowners at that time, the idea being that the grounds around a main residence should be designed in a natural-looking way instead of being regimented and formal – integration with nature, rather than an escape from it. Sir John Clerk (1675-1755), son of the 1st Baronet of Penicuik and a polymath with interests in landscaping, poetry, writing and music, bought the Cammo Estate from the Menzies family in 1710. In 1711 he began work on an eight-year project that was to be his (and possibly Scotland’s) first landscaped garden.

Clerk created a design which centred around Cammo House and his formal gardens, comprising axial paths, vistas, avenues and roundels. A large part of his legacy was the planting of rich tracts of woodland on the Cammo Estate, including plantations on either side of the house and the prominent South avenue, a double avenue of oaks. Today there is an array of species dating from that time and from more recently, such as beech, horse chestnut, maple, sycamore, and what is believed to be the largest and oldest ash in Edinburgh.

When his father died in 1722, Clerk became 2nd Baronet of Penicuik and sold Cammo to take up residence at Penicuik, where the bulk of his estates were situated. Cammo Estate changed hands a number of times in the following centuries, and a great deal of work was carried out by the various owners.

Cammo House was remodelled and the 140-metre-long ornamental canal, a walled kitchen garden, and the ha-ha near the water tower was constructed. The East Lodge was built in 1879, and now houses the ranger station and visitor centre as well as an unusual polyhedron dial sundial, taken from the estate grounds for safekeeping. Cammo House was surrounded by lawns dotted with parkland trees, the South avenue was thinned, the formal gardens were removed, a bridge was built on the east drive, and a pinetum of exotic conifers such as monkey puzzle, giant redwood and Japanese umbrella pine was established just to the West of the house. Despite these changes, the basic framework of Clerk’s design – field lines, boundary plantations, and the East avenue – was retained.

Cammo water towerIn the late nineteenth century, the estate was bought by Mr and Mrs Clark. They divorced in 1909 but Mrs Clark stayed on at Cammo with her son, adopting the surname Maitland-Tennant and dismissing almost all of her employees. She rented out a portion of the land to Cramond Brig Golf Club for some nineteen years from 1910, and the building now known as Cammo House Home Farm was used as their clubhouse. Following their move to Dalmahoy, the course became farmland, the golf club’s changing room became a woodshed and their smoking room was turned into a workshop.

Its last occupant passed away a few years ago, and now Cammo House Home Farm loiters empty on the edge of the estate, an imposing listed building with whitewashed walls, red clay tiling on the roof and an open-gabled Tudor porch, its outbuildings rotting away. The District Council has yet to make a decision about what the future holds for it.

Open to the Public
Mrs Maitland-Tennant died in 1955 and, when her son Percival followed her twenty years later, he bequeathed the estate to the National Trust for Scotland on the proviso that it would forever remain open to the public as parkland, woodlands and a nature reserve. The National Trust then feued it to the District Council in 1980, who currently manage it as a country park. In early 2007 Cammo underwent some major improvements reportedly costing around £35,000, mainly with regards to upgrading the pathways to make them more suitable for disabled visitors.

Today, the estate is a delight to explore. The ha-ha topped by a clump of trees in Sheep Park provides lingering views over the west end of Edinburgh as well as the water tower, stable block and beyond to the wooded areas of the estate. The walled garden has an air of ‘secret garden’ about it, intensely overgrown, with low entranceways and integrated potting sheds, and a few discarded strands of electrical wiring snaking down the brickwork like spindly vines. Squirrels dart between trees on the banks of the Bughtlin Burn, rabbits skitter into hiding, and the gentle rustling of leaves provides a background harmony to the chatter of birds. A heron can sometimes be seen roosting in the trees by the canal, oblivious to the squeals of children and the barking of dogs on the lawn nearby, and some visitors ponder the mystery of the standing stone known as the Cammo Stane, the hook driven into its flank possibly suggesting a former use in fencing.

Any idea of intentional design has been ignored in recent times, with vegetation allowed to grow largely unmanaged, but the ghosts of the estate’s previous owners are present here, their legacy apparent in the diversity of such a small territory and the vestiges of its once-elegant manmade structures. Meadow, marsh and woodland rub shoulders with one another, making Cammo an important habitat for a variety of wildlife as well as a pleasant recreational space.

No longer just for the privileged, Cammo has become a haven where every member of the public can come to relax, explore, and of course to enjoy the beauty and diversity of nature – and all just minutes from the heart of Scotland’s capital city.

From the A90, Queensferry Road, head towards Queensferry, turn left onto the residential Cammo Road. At Cammo Lodge Visitor Centre turn left, and follow the signs for the car park.

There is a Permanent Orienteering Course at Cammo. You can obtain map packs if you  send a cheque for £1.50 for each pack, payable to ESOC, to Janet Clark, 13 N W Circus Place, Edinburgh  EH3 6SX.
Orienteering maps can also be purchased from Cammo Lodge Visitor Centre.

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29 thoughts on “Cammo’s Hidden History”

  1. I have the book which you wrote in 1995 was clearing out my flat and came across it during the week.
    Read it again last night after many years will have to
    visit Cammo estate soon.

    Where in Dean Cemetery are the Maitland Tennants buried ?

  2. Hi Alex.

    Percival and his mother are interred in the family plot in the Dean Cemetery . This is where her father is also buried, she was moved from the grave at Cammo, after Percival’s death in 1975.

  3. A fascinating History to this beautiful estate.One of my favourite places to walk in Edinburgh. A real shame that it fell into ruin its remaining contents being stolen and the building vandalised and set alight in the late seventies. Does anyone know for sure where Margaret Maitland-Tennant and her son Percival are laid to rest?

  4. Have a look at the Facebook page The Private World of Cammo, for more information and photos

  5. My friends and I kept horses in the water tower field back in the 70s and you could ride in the grounds of the house almost right up to the front door. When you rode ( or walked) through the trees and came out into the open and the view down to the house, then still standing, it was breathtaking. Rumour had it the “Black Widow” used to take pot shots with an air rifle at the golfers on Cammo golf course above the house before she died, that she was buried in the garden an still haunted the place. There was certainly an eerie atmosphere but it was also so beautiful and peaceful then with hardly a soul around. Expect it’s all changed now though.

  6. My interest in Cammo has been refreshed We used to play around the estate in the 50s
    The Tennets used to go out for grocers on Fridays and they drove a Austin 12.
    There was a vintage Bullnose Morris parked in the farm
    I wonder what happened to that.

  7. I remember discovering and playing in the house as a kid around 74/75. I remember the snooker table, some rooms were completely covered in dog mess inches deep. There was a draped four poster bed my pal and I used as a trampoline oblivious at the time to the fact that hundreds of fleas were waiting for an opportunity to leave the estate and accompany us home to nearby Clermiston. On seeing our infestation my pal’s mum grabbed his younger siblings and ran screaming from the house whilst my mum threw me fully clothed into a bath in an attempt to drown them all, Happy days.

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  10. I have been involved in an art project for a couple of years called In Through The Outdoor. An idea I had 3 years ago which has grown into a collection of now >200. It’s a simple idea, I take photographs of abandoned, derelict buildings and old ruins of doors and windows looking in and out, and I put them together side by side. It involves a little bit of digital manipulation.

    Anyway I recently took a lot from Cammo Park and Queensferry, which you can see here-

    The latest ones from Cammo can be seen if you scroll down.

    Just wanted to share.

  11. Vivid memories of being sent to the estate c1968 re the number of dogs about the big house. When I called there, I noted quite a few were dead and others looked to be mal-nourished. I contacted the SSPCA who attended the next day. They found no evidence of what I had seen. I now believe Percy managed to get help from the Home farm to tidy up the area. After Percy died I am told that in the dead of night a furniture van was driven up the main track, the occupants emptied the house of contents that were considered valuable. The house was then set on fire. Those believed responsible were then classed as ‘bogus workmen!’. Nowadays they are very wealthy with mega business interests in and around Edinburgh

  12. hi as a kid we used to go to the river almond walk past the farm house and see percy in his wellies and black overcoat. we to were scared of the dogs but i would talk to friends that used to go into the house for a nose about they told me about the snooker table being through the floors also throwing darts at paintings and looking for things of value this would be my fasination cammo to this day and would love to see photos of the house in its grandure

  13. After walking my dog at Cammo for the first time yesterday, i have been trying to find pics of the house before it burned down . Would love to see how it looked. Was really touched by the atmosphere of the whole place. Really something special.

  14. I too remember the dogs barking when living in Cammo Brae in the 60’s (am now in New Zealand).

  15. He died in America at the age of 94. He apparently returned to Scotland at least twice prior to his death, who knows if he revisited his brother. You have every reason to be intrigued I’m fascinated!
    I remember seeing the hermit in his van picking up sacks of food for his dogs.

  16. HI I spent a large part of my young life at cammo when it was a farm I rwmember the Black widow and her son going out in there big black hudson on a friday night I can also remember there deaths. I now live in australia and went back to cammo in2000 bu the big house was already destroyed by fire I have been searching for any photo’s of the big house but have had a negative response so far.
    woul love to hear from anyone interested in the site

  17. I lived in Cammo in the 1960’s and we were able to see the house and stable block from the road. The only access to the house was from the gate/driveway, which was permanently locked. The whole place was very overgrown and the inhabitant of the house was known to us as the hermit, his mother had been known as the “black widow” only ever being seen been driven in a black car that had curtains in the windows, from the estate to Davidson’s Mains to visit the bank. I went to visit the estate the other day and was saddened to see that the house and other buildings were ruined. It must have been fabulous in it’s day with wonderful gardens. We used to cross the field from the road to try to get into the grounds, being curious, only to be greeted by the barking of dogs, which guarded the property. I had no idea that there was such a treasure on out back doorstep as nobody, except a few ever gained access to the grounds or the property.

  18. I knew Percival Maitland-Tennant well, and spent many days with him and is 40 odd dogs at the house. In
    springtime, look for a large circle of daffodils to the west of the main house. That is the location of the grave of his mother, and he visited the spot every day. In the final years of his life, he was a hermit and did not like people, just his dogs, I was indeed fortunate to have known him, and
    when the house stood it was a treasure trove of fine
    art and antiques, mostly ruined by the elements.

  19. i went here with the college and i enjoyed the walk it was very interesting to know aboot something new i enjoyed it.i very much liked it.
    i took some interesting photos of things and now i am going to put them in a parcentation and show it to everyone and let them now that i have been there and that it was interesting. the spirit of the current owners still lies there.

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