Edinburgh History Insights #3: Bute House, New Town

On the north side of Charlotte Square stand a series of handsome terraces built from 1792 to 1805. The largest, and by far the grandest of the three, is number 6, the official residence of the Scottish First Minister since 1999, and better known as Bute House. Thishis is Scotland’s equivalent to 10 Downing Street or the White House, and hosts many of the First Minister’s official activities, such as weekly cabinet meetings, or welcoming visiting overseas dignitaries.

Bute House is the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland.

Bute House was originally designed by prominent architect Robert Adam, who was also responsible for buildings and structures such as the Edinburgh City Chambers or the Pulteney Bridge in Bath. Unfortunately, Adam died in 1792 before his plans could be completed.

The first inhabitant of the house was a local shoemaker named Orlando Hart, who bought it for the princely sum of £290, a veritable bargain. Just over ten years later the house would be sold again, this time for £2950, proving just how financially successful the New Town scheme had become. It was not until 1903, however, that John Chrichton-Stuart, the 4th Marquess of Bute, from whom the building takes it name, first moved in. A patron of the arts and architecture, Bute restored the building to its original glory, sensitively repairing damaged features. It is thanks to him that Bute House, as well as the neighbouring terraces, retain their present integrity.

Unlike most Georgian townhouses in the New Town, the exterior of Bute House is adorned with lavish and ornate detail. Bas-reliefs of grecian urns and cherubs, exquisite corinthian pilasters and carved stone balustrades elevate this building from mere private residence to majestic office of state.

The interior is no less refined, with a sumptuous vestible room designed by Balfour Paul, a gilded rococo chimney-glass by John Mackie, and elaborate plasterwork on the ceiling of the Drawing Room. Despite such luxury, Alex Salmond, the current First Minister, was reportedly less than impressed with the state of the property upon first moving in. He was even caught on camera complaining that his wife was on her hands and knees all day scrubbing the house clean!

Bute House is also blessed with a fine selection of Scottish art, with works by the likes of Harry More Gordon, Allan Ramsey and James McIntosh Patrick adorning the walls. Unfortunately, Bute House is not open to the public, however, the adjoining house at number 7 shares many of the architectural and interior design features, and the National Trust run guided tours of the property. If you fancy some merchandise relating to the buildings, or the wider New Town area, the National Trust also run a well-stocked gift shop in the basement. The shop and attraction opens from 10am to 6pm in the summer months, as well as from 11am to 3pm the rest of the year. Admission is £6 for adults.

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