In search of the Nisbet family in Edinburgh

Mark Nesbitt

Written in 1992 & published in the Nesbitt/Nisbet Newsletter

Mark Nesbitt


After the 1992 gathering, I took the opportunity to spend a few days wandering around Edinburgh on the Nisbet trail. As one would expect of a prominent Border family, there is ample evidence for their involvement in Edinburgh affairs. This is particularly so in the turbulent 1600s, and it is thus in the medieval heart of the city, and not in the wide streets of the Georgian New Town that most evidence of Nisbets will be found.

There are two main branches of the family represented by surviving buildings: the Nisbets of that Ilk, builders of Nisbet House in Berwickshire; and the Nisbets of Dirleton, later dividing into those of Dirleton, Dean, and Craigintinnie, the latter two occupying houses on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The civic records of the city record many other Nisbets; I've simply focused on these two families because their history can still be traced in standing stone.


What I didn't do is visit the two main repositories of genealogical information in Edinburgh, the General Register Office and the Scottish Record Office. The GRO (free leaflets from New Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YT. Tel: 031 334 0380) contains the civil registration records of births, marriages and deaths since 1855, and many earlier parish registers, and is the first starting point for anyone investigating their Scottish ancestry. A sophisticated computer system gives easy access to records and, by all accounts, justifies the fee and advance booking needed for use of the facilities. The SRO (HM General Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YY. Tel: 031 556 6585) contains the records of Scottish Government and much else, and is the place to go once you have identified ancestors whose lives you wish to follow up . The SRO does not charge fees, and publishes an excellent handbook "Tracing your Scottish ancestors: a guide to ancestry research in the Scottish record office" by Cecil Sinclair (HMSO, a bargain 5.95).


Ever since I first visited Edinburgh, at the age of 18, this has always been my first port of call. The Kirk of the Greyfriars, on the evocatively named Candlemaker Row, is situated in the old garden of the Greyfriars monastery, given to the city as a graveyard in 1562 by Queen Mary. The building of the church finished in 1620, and on 28 February 1638 it entered history when the National Covenant was first read and signed there. Many Nisbets are buried in the extensive, romantically overgrown churchyard, though none of their memorials survive.

In 1934, after the church had been extensively restored, to unite it with the adjoining New Greyfriars Kirk of 1721, Robert Chancellor Nesbitt arranged for the fitting of a memorial plaque to Alexander Nisbet (1657-1725), the eminent Heraldic writer. This was unveiled by John Buchan before a large gathering. Since 1987 the church has seen much new work, including a new organ and new seating. Overall the church has a lighter feeling to it, but still retains its historical atmosphere. The Nisbet memorial is prominently located inside, and a visit to this and one of Edinburgh's best-loved churches (open most of the time) is an excellent starting point to a Nisbet tour.


82-84 Canongate

This imposing townhouse was built in 1624 for Sir John Nisbet, Lord Dirleton (1610-1688), an eminent lawyer and unpopular Lord Advocate, buyer of the Dirleton estate in East Lothian in 1663. This house, with its broad crowstep gable, is one of the oldest dwellings in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, after being purchased by the Edinburgh Corporation in 1949, part of the house collapsed while restoration works were in progress in 1953, and it was found necessary to rebuild the facade. However the original design was followed and most of the old stone reused, and this is still a handsome building. The two inscribed stones were incorporated by the original builders from an earlier building.


The tranquillity of this ancient building contains a memorial to more tumultuous times: the Montrose Chapel. This contains the tomb raised by Charles II to this great, doomed Royalist soldier, and above it is a window glowing with shields and crests, a memorial to Montrose and his fellow officers. The coat-of-arms of Sir Philip Nisbet, uncle of Alexander the Herald, can easily be spotted in the upper left light.

Sir Philip Nisbet joined Montrose in 1644, and was captured by parliamentary forces after the Battle of Philiphaugh on 13 September 1645, and executed in Glasgow on the 28 October.

ST CUTHBERT'S CHURCH Off Lothian Road, below the Castle

This large Victorian structure towers above the site on which there has been a church since at least 1127. The only early relic to have survived the numerous rebuildings is the Nisbet of Dean vault, built in 1692 for Henry Nisbet. On the north wall, facing a flight of stairs leading to his tomb, is Henry Nisbet's coat-of-arms. Above the entrance to this lies a half-defaced inscription (apparently still surviving - I have not yet visited the church) erected by Henry, in Latin to be translated as follows:

Henry Nisbet of Dean, preferring Fame to Riches, and Virtue to Fame, despising earthly things, and aspiring after Heavenly enjoyments, being mindful of death and waiting for the resurrection, in his own life, and at his own sight, caused build this sepulchral monument for him, in the year of our Lord 1692.

As the parish historian points out, Henry Nisbet may have been exhibiting quiet humour, for his building of the tomb resulted in heaps of unpaid bills and uncleared rubble in the church, both cleared only after a number of court cases.

This was not the first Nisbet of Dean to battle with the church authorities; in 1680 Sir Patrick Nisbet, Henry's father, was found to have borrowed large amounts of money -some 2000 merks- from the poor fund of the parish. How the case was eventually resolved is not known; what is clear is that Scottish judges did very well out of payments from both sides; the record of the church's outlays (discreetly paid through servants and sons) still survives.


The old House of Dean was demolished in 1845, to make way for the Dean Cemetery (open 9- 5, dusk in winter). Although the house is long gone, many sculptured stones from it survive in the cemetery, which itself is well worth visiting for the romantic situation above the Water of Leith and its marvellous collection of Victorian monuments. Its an attractive (but steep) walk from the city centre, down through Dean Village and up to Dean Path.

The Dean Estate was acquired by Sir William Nisbet in 1609, when the house was greatly enlarged. After its demolition, many of its sculptured stones were built into the terrace wall supporting the edge of the cemetery at the valley edge (to your left as you enter through the main gate). There is a full list of these in "Nisbet of that Ilk". A present day inventory and photographic record would make an worthwhile project, especially as I could only locate 11 of the 20 inscriptions recorded in "Nisbet of that Ilk" (pp. 295-299). Those remaining include, from the Lodge end of the terrace, the arms of Henry Nisbet, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and his son Sir Patrick; also Sir William Nisbett, and of their spouses.


The Craigintinnie estate was owned by that branch of the Dirleton Nisbet family from the 17th century to 1765. The house (easily reached by bus 35 from the St. James Centre to the corner of Marionville Road and Restalrig Road) is a large baronial mansion of the early 17th century, restored in the 1850s. The house is now owned by the Lothian Regional Council, but is in good condition and playing a useful part in community life. It is four stories high, with a prominent stair turret and smaller turrets projecting from the other corners. To the east of the house is an ugly modern extension built in 1978; to the west are the remains of massive foundations, of the 1852 extension demolished after bomb damage. The garden wall, with handsome gate piers and corner turrets, still survives. I was able to visit the second floor of the house, a community mental health office, where the main room has a fine stone fireplace with two inscriptions in Gothic lettering, bearing stern religious thoughts.


I also took the opportunity to investigate N/N references in a variety of libraries and archives. I'm still digesting the mass of data I found (with a view to publication in the Newsletter, of course), but give here a brief guide to N/N resources in Edinburgh:

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SCOTLAND (George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EW. Tel: 031- 226 4531. Open Mon 9.00-17.00, Tues-Thur 9.00-21.00, Fri-Sat 9.00-17.00). The largest and best library in Scotland, functioning both as a major copyright library with holdings of modern books in all fields, and as a comprehensive library of books of Scottish interest dating from all periods. Combined with exceptionally helpful staff and a policy of unrestricted admission, this is a great place to work. The size of its stock does mean that most books are in store, so you do need to know what you want to look at. But the cataloguing is excellent, and I found publications here that are in no other library. I also spent a lot of time in the Manuscripts Room (again, helpful and fast) looking especially at the numerous deeds relating to Nisbet House, given in 1947 by Lord Sinclair. A good knowledge of 17th century legal hands is necessary to read these, but I enjoyed seeing the signatures of Sir Alexander Nisbet, his wife Katharine Swinton, and of others involved in the stirring tale of how Nisbet House was lost after the Civil War. Another prize was a letter from Alexander Nisbet the Herald, on the trail of more genealogical information. There is a mass of N/N manuscripts here, and anybody with ancestors likely to write - for example, missionaries and preachers - should look here.

SCOTTISH GENEALOGY SOCIETY (15 Victoria Terrace, Edinburgh EH1 2JL. Tel: 031 220 3677. Library open Tues 10.30-5.30, Wed 2.30-8.30, Sat 10.00-5.00. Membership 12; 2 for one day use for non-members). The SGS has recently found a permanent home in this cavernous basement. A relatively young society, founded in 1953, the SGS is actively expanding its library and collections. I found the lack of a library catalogue unhelpful, but the collections are very varied and well worth a browse. The holdings of memorial inscriptions are very strong, and there are microfiches of the International Genealogical Index and Old Parochial records of Scotland. The quarterly "Scottish Genealogist" is good reading for those actively working in this area.

EDINBURGH CENTRAL LIBRARY (George IV Bridge, long opening hours). This should be one of the best sources for Edinburgh history, but an atmosphere of gloom surrounds this building, and everything is done to discourage the reader. Starting with the Edinburgh Room, no books are on public access, making this collection useless unless the exact book needed is known. An idiosyncratic subject index is maintained, and I was able to find some interesting press cuttings from it. The library does hold some attractive paintings of the mansions of Dean and Craigintinnie, but a staggering 15 (compared to 50p in my local library) was asked for copies, so I have not been able to study these in detail. One painting could not be found.

The Scottish Room, in the basement, is a better bet, although virtually no recent books are to be found and, again, much of the stock is hidden from the public. However, there are two copies of Nisbet of that Ilk, and the Scottish history section repays browsing. Xeroxing, at 15p a sheet, is expensive.

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY LIBRARY (Special Collections, Edinburgh EH8 9LJ. Tel: 031-667 1011; open office hours). This library is an example of how, despite all the pressures on university library funding in the last 10 years, a good service can still be maintained by committed staff. Jo Currie, Archivist (and author of an excellent article on Edinburgh alumni records in a recent Scottish Genealogist) showed me a variety of Nisbet documents from the Manuscript collection. I enjoyed Alexander Nisbet the Herald's handwritten Blazon of Arms' beginning with 8 pages of accounts and a medical prescription "For Alex. Nisbet July the 14 1688". There are also a number of letters from the 18th century Dirleton Nisbets and others. It was particularly pleasing to find a copy of my ggg-grandfather's Medical Thesis, handsomely printed in Latin, submitted for his M.D. in 1827.


There are a number of N/N relics I never had time to track down. In the hall of the National Museum of Antiquities is a memorial to Alexander Nisbet and other great figures from Scotland's heraldic past; in the Museum itself is a painted ceiling from Dean House, and the Carre Heraldic panel from Nisbet House, this latter given on loan to the museum by R.C. Nesbitt. As a consequence of the reorganisation of the museum as the new Museum of Scotland, both items may be difficult to see in the near future. The missing carved stones from Dean Cemetery need some detective work - perhaps the cemetery office knows about them, and there is the 17th century Renaissance door-pediment, bearing the arms of Nisbet of Craigintinny seen in the 1950s in the garden of Viewforth, Cammo Road, Barnton. There is even a 1960s council block in Restalrig Park called Nisbet House, presumably in memory of the earlier local landowners. The National Gallery of Scotland has the fine collection of paintings bequeathed by Mrs. Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy (of the Dirleton line) in 1921; these include a portrait of Mary Manners (1756-1834), wife of William Hamilton Nisbet, by Gainsborough.


I hope this brief tour of Nisbet/Nesbitt history in Edinburgh will be found useful by visitors. Bear in mind that most of the buildings can be seen on a Sunday, when libraries and archives are shut. Bear in mind too that in this necessarily incomplete account I've left out the context, the amazingly rich and evocative history of the city itself.


M. Cant (1986) "The villages of Edinburgh, Volume 1". Edinburgh: Donald.

J. Gifford, C. McWilliam & D. Walker (1984) "Edinburgh". London: Penguin.

J. Grant (1882) "Cassell's old and new Edinburgh". London: Cassell. Most of my illustrations come from this invaluable book.

G. Lorimer (1915) "The early days of St Cuthbert's Church". Edinburgh: Blackwood.

R.C. Nesbitt (1941) "Nisbet of that Ilk". London: John Murray. This is still the major source. There are copies in the National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh Central Library.

R.V. Nisbett (1990) "The progression of a branch of the Dirleton Nisbets to Australia: a monograph". Nesbitt/Nisbet Society (Australia). Soon to be reprinted by the UK society. Brings the story of the Dirleton Nisbets up to date.

A. Ross & F.J. Grant (1892) "Alexander Nisbet's Heraldic Plates". Edinburgh: Waterston. Tells the story of the Nisbet estate during the Civil War, drawing heavily on the documents now in the NLS.

Royal commission on the ancient and historical monuments of Scotland (1951) "An inventory of the ancient and historical monuments of the City of Edinburgh". Edinburgh: HMSO.

D. Wilson (1891) "Memorials of Edinburgh". Edinburgh.