A group of adjoining mid-18th century buildings (possibly incorporating 17th century fabric) on the Esplanade promontory at Anstruther Wester on the southeast coast of Fife. It comprises a corner townhouse (Merchants House), lower adjoining wing to the south (The White House) and a further three-bay house to the west (No. 3, Shore). These properties were formerly linked internally as one private house and are presently (2018) subdivided to form three dwellings. The buildings are prominent in views from the sea and from the market place and shore of Anstruther Easter across the bay.
Merchants House: This is the mid 18th century, two storey and attic corner house with crowstepped gables. The north front is largely symmetrical with timber door with a margined tri-partite window to the left and a further window to the right. There are four windows above and a curvilinear wallhead chimney with two windows at the centre. The east (sea-facing) gable has no windows to the ground floor, two windows at the first floor and one at attic level.
The White House: The eight-bay east front consists of two adjoining two-storey buildings. There is an irregular arrangement of door and window openings to the ground floor. The first floor windows are large and regularly arranged, in keeping with the first floor windows of the Merchants House. There is a larger bipartite window to the left and a narrow wallhead chimney stack. The south gable end has a tripartite window and a fleur-de-lis finial. There is a segmental-arched window to the west (rear) side.
No 3, Shore: Adjoining the Merchants House to the west, this is now a separate dwelling. It is an 18th century three bay house with a roof line matching that of the Merchants House. There is a central door, flanked by windows, and there are two windows at the first floor.
The interiors were seen in 2018. Features of note include a timber-panelled drawing room or dining room with timber-panelled doors at first floor level. There are four 18th century timber and gesso fireplace surrounds with ornate detailing in the manner of Robert Adam. Three of these fireplaces are within the Merchants House and one is in the upper hall or dining room of the White House. Some 18th century brass door furniture survives, including locks and door handles. Windows have timber boarded recesses. One window recess within the Merchants House conceals a hidden cupboard. Some rooms have ornate cornicing while others have coved ceilings. The staircase has a timber handrail and ornate newel post. Some bannisters were replaced during restoration work in 1965.
Windows are mainly 12-pane timber sash and case windows. The roof of the Merchants House and No. 3 are Scottish slate in diminishing courses. The White House has Spanish Cupa heavy slates (2017).
Statement of Special Interest
The Merchants House, The White House and No 3 Shore is an outstanding example of an 18th century coastal town house in Scotland. Possibly incorporating earlier fabric, it is believed to have been built for the politician, soldier, statesman and minor poet, Sir Henry (Harry) Erskine, 5th Baronet of Alva (1710-65) during a significant era of Scotland s political, industrial and mercantile history. It occupies a prominent corner site at the head of the Esplanade / Shore, and has been purposefully sited to provide a dominant landmark from the sea and from the market place and Shore Street across the bay in neighbouring Anstruther Easter.
As a key early project of the influential and far reaching Little Houses Improvement Scheme (LHIS) in 1965, the building is also important within the context of 20th century architectural conservation and preservation in Scotland.
Age and Rarity
The group of buildings now known as The White House, Merchants House and No.3 Shore is believed to have been built, or adapted from earlier dwellings on the site, in 1760 for politician, soldier and poet Sir Henry (Harry) Erskine, 5th Baronet of Alva.
The buildings are shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey Map (surveyed 1854) as Town House . John Adair s map of 1684 shows buildings occupying the same location, and fabric from earlier buildings is possibly incorporated into The White House, Merchants House and No.3, The Shore.
A 19th century account describes how older buildings at this prominent location were either removed or adapted - Sir Harry s Fort, as it came to be called, so conspicuous on the Esplanade […] swept away the tumble-down gables and tan-pits on the Shore […] but more than one landlord had to be bribed to sell his interest in the row (Gourley 1887).
Following the death of Henry Erskine in 1765, the house was occupied by author, historian and town clerk Matthew Forster Conolly from 1818 (Gourley 1887). The building later passed to local lawyer and banker John Smith, and then in 1879 to Burgh Fiscal, George Peebles. At the time of its sale in 1879 the Fife Herald noted that this interesting old house and venerable edifice […] long occupied by Sir Henry Erskine […] witnessed some of the most extraordinary incidents ever recorded of a Scottish election and that it was decorated and furnished in grand style (Fife Herald 1879).
The town of Anstruther has its origins in the 13th century, and became a royal burgh in the 1580s. Its markets and ports were busy during the first half 17th century, with the town s early prosperity derived mainly from fishing, tanning and overseas trade. The town was also associated with smuggling during this period. Major storm damage to the harbour in the later 17th century, political events such as the Act of Union in 1707, and the decline and intermittent recovery of herring and other fish stocks, all had their effect on the town from the later 17th to 18th centuries. By the late 18th century, Anstruther had some revived fortunes due to new commercial links with its agricultural hinterlands and the forging of new industries (Davies 1977: 11). In 1760, Sir Henry Erskine established one of Scotland s first Axminster type carpet factories, known as the Royal Velvet Carpet Manufactory in neighbouring Pittenweem (Habib 2005).
Pre-1840 houses built in a traditional style for merchants and other local dignitaries can be found in many of Scotland s towns and villages. Although they are not rare, those that survive largely intact are less common. The Merchants House and The White House (including No 3 Shore) is an outstanding surviving example of a large coastal townhouse of the mid to late 18th century, possibly incorporating 17th century fabric, built for a prominent individual as a home and place of business. In this case, the extent of survival is particularly important.
The building is also important within the context of 20th century building conservation in Scotland. In 1965, it became the first property to be conserved under the restoring-purchaser agreement of the National Trust for Scotland s Little Houses Improvement Scheme (LHIS) (Watters 2006). First launched in 1960, this scheme proved to be a hugely significant conservation and preservation milestone for Scotland. Many of Scotland s small burghs were faced with the threat of wholesale clearance from the 1930s through to the 1960s. A series of pilot projects in East Fife focused on saving groups of vernacular buildings with an emphasis on townscape preservation. By the end of the 1960s the LHIS had restored over 30 properties in Fife, and by 1975 that number had risen to 140 (Dakin 2010). The scheme initially relied on a combination of improvement and repair grants as well as the resources of restoring purchasers to fund repair works.
Architectural or Historic Interest
The White House and Merchants House retains a number of significant features of eighteenth century date. These include four eighteenth century ornate timber and gesso fire surrounds in the style after Robert Adam, one of which has a Delft tile infill. The Merchants House has a timber-panelled drawing room at the first floor, with coved ceiling, overlooking the harbour and neighbouring Anstruther Easter.
A large room on the first floor of the White House (former south wing) has one of the four Adam style fire surrounds, a coved ceiling, a large tripartite window in the south gable and a segmental-arched window to the west, marking the former function of this room out as the probable formal space for business and leisure use.
The plan form of The White House and Merchants House, with large, public or reception rooms at first floor level in both the corner block and the former south wing (White House) is broadly typical of townhouses with wing additions of its type and mid-18th century date. The L-plan footprint, incorporating a lower wing (possibly adapted from two earlier houses on the site) to the south, is a notable part of the development of the property over time, adding to the special architectural and historic interest.
Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality
The group of buildings including the White House and Merchants House are important surviving traditional Scottish burgh buildings. They retain elements characteristic of their date and style including crowstepped gables, harled walls, widely spaced windows and timber-panelled interiors.
The prominent curvilinear wallhead gable dormer is influenced by the architecture of the Low Countries, demonstrating connections with continental Europe. This was especially relevant to Fife coastal villages with larger harbours when there was regular trade with the Netherlands during the 17th and 18th centuries. The four ornate timber fireplaces in the manner of Robert Adam further indicate that this house was built for a person of status. The various surviving features of interest tell us much about the development of the Scottish coastal townhouse during the eighteenth century.
The White House, Merchants House and No.3 Shore occupies a very prominent corner site at the head of the Esplanade and at the mouth of the Dreel burn. At high tide, the building is surrounded by water on three sides. It is dominant in views from the sea and from the market place and Shore Street in neighbouring Anstruther Easter.
The visual relationship between these buildings and neighbouring structures on the Esplanade and Shore at Anstruther Wester remains much the same as it would have been in the 18th century. The White House, Merchants House and No.3 Shore make a strong contribution to a little altered streetscape, where the adjoining 1718 building (4, Shore, LB36198), and the 18th century former inn opposite, (The Studio, Shore LB36203) share architectural details such as the crowstepped gables. The Anstruther Wester Esplanade has been described as a scene of picturesque gentility (Buildings of Scotland 1988: 71) that retains the flavour of its mercantile past (Canmore). The White House and Merchants House has been described as a resplendent cornerpiece to a street of character (Pride 1999: 154).
The location and setting of the building at the centre of the town near the Wester Anstruther harbour contributes to its significance, not only as a surviving 18th century townhouse, but also in the role it played in the commercial and civic history of coastal Fife.
There are no regional variations.
Close Historical Associations
The house is believed to have been built and/or adapted from earlier buildings on the site in 1760 for politician, soldier, statesman and minor poet, Sir Henry (Harry) Erskine, 5th Baronet of Alva (1710-65).
Erskine s father was Sir John Erskine of Alva, a Jacobite sympathiser of silver glen notoriety, and one of his sons became the 2nd Earl of Rosslyn. Erskine studied law before embarking on a military career. Uncertainty over his royal allegiances led to his dismissal from the army by King George II in 1756. However, he remained a political friend of Prime Ministers John Stuart (Lord Bute) and William Pitt. Erskine was made surveyor of the King s private roads in 1757. He was re-instated as a Lieutenant-General in 1759, and became secretary of the Order of the Thistle in the year of his death, aged 55.
A long running political and personal feud between Erskine and Lieutenant-General Philip Anstruther came to a head in 1754 when Erskine made use of his family and political connections to oust Anstruther from the Anstruther burgh parliamentary seat which he had held unopposed for many elections. Erskine continued to serve as Member of Parliament for Anstruther until his death 12 years later. It is recorded that Sir Harry s lively personality and courtly manners won him great popularity in the Anstruther constituency (Namier and Brooke 1964).
Statutory address and listed building record revised in 2019. Previously listed as The White House, 1 and 3 Shore .
Canmore: http://canmore.org.uk/ CANMORE ID 94793
Adair, J (1684) The East Part of Fife surveyed and designed by John Adair.
Ainslie, J (1775) Counties of Fife and Kinross with the Rivers Forth and Tay - North East section.
Ordnance Survey (Surveyed 1854, published 1855) Fife, Sheet 27, 1st Edition, 6 inch to 1 mile. Ordnance Survey: Southampton
Ordnance Survey (Revised 1893, published 1895) Fifeshire XXII.12 (Anstruther Easter; Anstruther Wester; Carnbee; Kilrenny; Pittenweem), 2nd Edition, 25 inch to 1 mile. Ordnance Survey: Southampton
Dakin, A (2010) Little Houses, RIAS Quarterly, Autumn 2010, pp.10-13.
Davies, L (1977) The Fishing Industry and the Development of Tourism in St. Andrews and the East Neuk Burghs of Fife, c.1785-1914, PhD thesis, St Andrews Research Repository, http://hdl.handle.net/10023/14237
Fife Herald (23/08/1874) Death of John Smith, Clydesdale Bank, p.3.
Fife Herald (27/03/1879) Sale of Property, The Shore, Anstruther Wester, p.6
Fleming, D H (1886) Guide to the East Neuk of Fife. Edinburgh: John Menzies and Company.
Gifford, J (1998) Buildings of Scotland – Fife, London: Penguin Books Ltd, pp.71-72.
Gourlay, G (1887) Our Old Neighbours. Folk Lore of the East of Fife. Dundee: Dundee Courriers Office, pp.61-67.
Habib, V (2005) Axminster Carpet Manufacture in Edinburgh in the Mid-18th Century, Proceedings of the Society for Antiquities Scotland, Volume 135, pp.259–272.
Namier, L and Brooke, J (1964) The House of Commons 1754-1790, Volume 3 London: Secker and Warburg, pp.402-403.
Pride, G L (1999) The Kingdom of Fife – An Illustrated Architectural Guide, Edinburgh: The Rutland Press, p154.
Watters, D & Glendinning, M (2006) Little Houses: The National Trust for Scotland s Improvement Scheme for Small Historic Homes. Edinburgh: NTS & RCAHMS, pp.103-104
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Printed: 29/05/2020 00:51