The Chapel of St Roque

The association of the ‘Canaan’ site, occupied by the Astley Ainslie, with issues of public health stretches back some 600 years. The gardens of the present house of St Roque stand on the lands occupied in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the Chapel of St Roque, by the hospital attached to it for plague victims evacuated from the city, and by the inevitable cemetery.i

The hospital is assumed to have been composed of makeshift huts, constructed in the emergency. The site may have been chosen for the number of fresh water springs or wells here – the remaining mediaeval wells in the grounds have been sealed, so that water is now underground and largely invisible. The Chapel was a solid and possibly handsome structure. Sadly, the history and building of the chapel have been obscured by the Reformation in the mid century, which destroyed not just the religious but much of the social structure and history of earlier years. We are left only with traces of information.ii But there are probabilities, which may be considered.

Fig Sara Stevenson, mediaeval well in the grounds of Millbank house, March 2018

The King, James IV, was a strongly religious man, who was the first to be granted the title of Defender of the Faith by the Pope. He took a particular interest in Saint Roque, and he established a chapel in his name in Stirling Castle.i He may well have had an equal interest in this other chapel; for him as for his subjects, the importance of the saint, who lived and died caring for plague victims, would be critical at the time. The death toll was appalling and unpredictable, and although people now knew that the disease was spread by infection, they were desperate to understand God’s will and sorely in need of comfort. The chapel and the ministrations of the priest would have been essential.

James IV also took a direct interest in medicine and surgery. As the King, he was aware of his own responsibility for the sick – particularly during the alarming attacks of the plague. He is likely to have taken a close concern in the site and the people lodged there.

Sara Stevenson, Skulls excavated during the building of St Roque House, about 1850, National Museums of Scotland, 2018

In the course of the sixteenth century, skilled stonemasons worked on both church and domestic architecture in the City. The same skills that built the Trinity College Chapel in Edinburgh would have been available to raise the chapel to St Roque. The chapel survived as a ruin into the eighteenth century, when the landowner determined to demolish it. The story goes that the scaffolding collapsed during the demolition, killing workmen: ‘The tradesmen were killed; the accident was looked upon as a judgment against those who were demolishing the house of God. No entreaties nor bribes by the proprietor could prevail upon tradesmen to accomplish its demolition’.i Judging by the drawings made of the chapel at the end of the eighteenth century, the original building must have been larger – the size of the window, and the wall edges jutting out from the corners suggest that this was only a part of the structure.

No traces of St Roque’s chapel are currently to be seen, and it has been assumed that the carved remains found in the Astley Ainslie grounds were brought in from elsewhere to decorate the gardens in the nineteenth century. The argument says that the Chapel of St Roque was a simple structure, and since Trinity College Church in the heart of the city had been dismantled in the 1840s, pieces of the carving for this could have been stolen and sold. The fern leaves of the ecclesiastical bosses, for example, could have been attractive as garden features. But this argument is open to question: there is no paper evidence to confirm this, and no stylistic evidence which makes a convincing argument for the stones to have come from Trinity Chapel. They are there on the site of St Roque’s Chapel, and they belong there.

The DNA of the skulls dug up around 1850, is currently under investigation at the University of Harvard. The site itself has never been excavated. It is to be hoped that when we do investigate, much more will be discovered.

James King, Carved ecclesiastical boss, Astley Ainslie site, 2019
Robin Gillanders, St Roque house, built about 1850, photographed January 2018

The domestic house of St Roque was first built in the earlier nineteenth century, and was originally placed further to the west, alongside Canaan Park. William Ivory (c. 1798-1868) and Robina Cox Ivory (1814-78) moved there in the late 1840s.

William Ivory was a lawyer He married Robina Cox, second daughter of the Robert Cox of Gorgie Mills, in 1846. Her father had set up a leather working business, and his family developed a large-scale glue and gelatine factory, so she may have been an independently wealthy woman.

The Coxs rebuilt the house of St Roque, shifting its site eastwards. In 1855, Robert Chambers reported on a disconcerting gift to the Society of Antiquaries from William Ivory of two skulls (see fig): ‘The house having been lately re-erected on a different spot, certain excavations became necessary; and in course of these a considerable quantity of human remains was turned up, chiefly, in all probability, the relics of those who died of the plague. Beyond these remains nothing of consequence has been discovered, except the fact that the ground is very ill calculated by nature for a cemetery, the depth of the soil being only two or three feet at most, and even that being much encumbered by large boulders. One fact observed by a workman was, however, significant; from the disposal of the bones in one instance, it was manifest that the body had been laid on its face. The fact brings the haste and terror attending the burial of a victim of the plague strongly before us.’i According to the Listed Buildings website: ‘This is a good early example of an Italianate suburban villa dating from 1850-52 designed by the eminent practice Brown and Wardrop with sympathetic later 19th century alterations, probably by Wardrop and Anderson, including fine interiors.’ii

The house occupied a substantial garden. William was a member of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, and it was noted after his death by the Professor of Botany, John Hutton Balfour, that he ‘had long taken a warm interest in the Society, and at whose hospitable mansion of St Roque many of the members had met on several occasions to inspect the trees and shrubs which ornamented the grounds. Mr Ivory was an early supporter of the Caledonian Horticultural Society, and took much pleasure in cultivating rare plants. He was long a member of the Council of the Botanical Society, and his loss will be severely felt.’iii

The Ivorys’ pride in the growing garden is glimpsed from mentions in the Caledonian Horticultural Society’s Minute Book: ‘Thanks to William Ivory, Esq, St Roques, for a sprig of myrtle covered with fine ripe fruit from a plant in the open air, and specimens of a new hybrid Savoy [cabbage]’, and in the same year of 1854, similar thanks, ‘for beautiful Wallflowers and good Spinnage and Cos lettuce’; and, impressively, in a display for the Botanical Society in 1863, of ‘thirty-one species and varieties of plants which were in flower on 12th February, at St Rocque’.iv Given that the gardener working at St Roque in 1876, Mr A. Stalker, won a prize at the Caledonian Horticultural show for 6 flowering rhododendron trusses, it may be that the rhododendrons still growing in the St Roque gardens are now over 150 years old.v

The St Roque garden is the focal point of the grand trees on the Astley Ainslie site – justifying the idea of an arboretum. Edinburgh was already provided with excellent plant nurseries, but this was the crest of the plant hunting enthusiasm. Following the great discoveries by David Douglas, including the magnificent Douglas Fir, which can grow to 250 feet (or 76 metres), the excitement grew. William Ivory joined a company, the Oregon Botanical Association, to send a botanist to America to collect plants and seeds, which were distributed to the members. The reports mentioned ‘a beautiful new pine’, which grew to 150 feet (named Abies Pattonii) and two spruces which grew to 250 and 280 feet high: ‘We can hardly realize the idea of such stupendous trees; but it may help… if I compare them with some familiar object here. The height of the brick stalk of the Gas Company’s chimney, from the stone pedestal, is 264 feet… the top of that chimney is five feet higher than the top of Nelson’s Monument; so that if we fancy a tree growing down in the valley between the Canongate and the Calton Hill… overtopping Nelson’s Monument by ten feet, we may form some notion of the monarchs of the forest which are now being introduced into this country.’vi This association came to a halt in 1854, when the botanist, John Jeffrey disappeared – he may have died, he may have joined in the gold rush. But in 1862, the company was revived and Robert Brown was sent out to collect in the Rocky Mountains and Vancouver Island.

There is a strong possibility that the magnificent trees we see now were first planted by the Ivorys from these seeds.

Sara Stevenson, Giant Redwood in the St. Roque Garden, January 2018

After her husband’s death, Robina Ivory continued to live in the house, which was inherited on her death by her daughter, Miss Ivory. She maintained the family interest in gardening, regularly contributing to horticultural exhibitions.

By 1890, John Cowan, a Writer to the Signet (solicitor) moved into St Roque from Greenhill Gardens. As a lawyer, and latterly the senior partner in the firm of Cowan and Dalmahoy, he occupied a number of public positions, including Crown Agent for Scotland and Justice of the Peace. He was also an elder of the Free Church of Scotland for 51 years. He died at the age of 91 in 1927, and his sister, Mary Euphemia Cowan, inherited the house. She died on 11 February 1945, leaving a personal estate of £54, 784.i The house and land was then bought by the Astley Ainslie Trustees to expand its activities in Occupational Therapy.

Sara Stevenson, Grave of the Cowans’ dog, Darby, who died in May 1920, buried in the garden of St Roque, grounds of the Astley Ainslie, December 2018.
Ronald Robb, Isabel Reid, photographed about 1942 when she was a theatre sister at the Royal Infirmary. Ronald Robb lived at St Roque, when the house belonged to Mary Cowan. Isabel Reid later came to work at the Astley Ainslie Hospital. From the collection of her daughter, Mrs Anne Stevenson.

i ‘Wills and Estates’, Scotsman, 25 May 1945.

i Robert Chambers, ‘Notes on St Roque and the Chapel Dedicated to him, near Edinburgh’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1855, vol. 1, p. 270.


iii Meeting of the Society, 11th June 1868, Transactions and Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, vol. 9, p. 399.

iv Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh Archive, and Report of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 1863, p.325.

v Report in Edinburgh Evening News, 5 April 1876.

vi ‘Botanical Expedition to Oregon’, The Phytologist: a popular botanical miscellany, vol. 4, part 3, 1853, p.1140.

i Hugo Arnot, The History of Edinburgh, W Creech, Edinburgh and John Murray, London, 1779, p. 250.

i ‘James IV made over 650 documented dedications … to honour the saints – commissioning masses and lights, building churches, locating relics…’ ibid., p. 113.

i For the recent exhaustive account of the chapel and its history, see Douglas Baugh,St Roch’s Chapel and Plague on the Burgh Muir of Edinburgh with
Which Chapel of St Roch did James IV visit in 1507?’ Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, vol 13, 2017.

ii ‘’The Reformation … dealt a final blow to James IV’s devotional initiatives: churches, shrines, and sites of popular veneration were left in ruins and the textual histories of the saints in Scotland… were destroyed en masse. What was left, the holy wells and storied local landmark, were gradually separated from their traditional devotional origins.’ Melissa Coll-Smith, ‘Royal Devotion and Cultic Promotion. James IV’s Dedications to Saints’, in Premodern Scotland: Literature and Governance 1420-1587, ed. Joanna Martin and Emily Wingfield, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 123.