architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape, Scotland, Tower

Dryden Tower, Bilston, Midlothian

On the edge of Edinburgh stands a wonderful stone tower. A first glimpse of its crenellated parapet over the roof of a vast industrial shed was followed by a few wrong turns, but eventually The Folly Flâneuse found herself in a field with a herd of cows and a very fine folly.

Photo courtesy of Mcintyre Masonry.

The Dryden estate, not far from the famed Roslin Castle and Chapel, was for generations the seat of the Lockhart family. In July 1822 the Lockhart family were given authority, by Act of Parliament, to sell the entailed estate, but the tower is not mentioned in the newspaper advertisement of the sale. The purchaser was probably George Mercer (1772-1853) and he lived at Dryden until the mid 1840s. The estate was then bought by Archibald Trotter (1789-1868), recently retired from a career with the East India Company. In 1845 he is listed as a member of the Highland & Agricultural Society for Scotland, and in the following year his gardener won first prize for his lettuces at the Roslin Horticultural Society Show. The Folly Flâneuse tells you this simply so she can say that Archibald Trotter, who sounds like a Beatrix Potter character, had a gardener called Mr McGregor.

So under whose ownership was the tower built? The available cartographical evidence is ambiguous: an 1828 map shows Dryden House and an ‘obelisk’. At that period the term obelisk could be used to refer to any tall, slender object – so a tower could have been in existence. Alternatively, the ‘obelisk’ may have been a now-lost monument to the Battle of Roslin of 1303, when the Scottish army defeated the English. The Lockhart family had been prominent Jacobites, and later generations are said to have marked the spot of the battle. The first firm mention is in May 1852, when the surveyors working on the Ordnance Survey mapping project admired the views from the top of Mr Trotter’s tower, and ‘Dryden Tower’ duly appeared on the map published in 1854.

Photo courtesy of McIntyre Masonry.

The tower is 3 storeys high and stairs lead up to a parapet, from which there are extensive views. It would also have functioned as an eye-catcher, a prominent object in the view from the mansion. The ground floor is an unusual demi-lune in shape, and contains rooms that were probably initially used for picnics or shelter when riding around the estate. By 1892 its origins had already been forgotten, and a rambler making enquiries amongst the locals concluded ‘why so called or what meant for could not be learned’. The Folly Flâneuse has reached a similar conclusion.

The Dryden estate had been mined on a small-scale for centuries, but in the 1930s the mansion was demolished, and its landscape largely obliterated by the extensive coal mining of the Bilston Glen Colliery. In 1947 the University of Edinburgh purchased the land to create a rural campus, and the Dryden Tower was included in the sale. It was offered the protection of a Category B listing in 1971, but continued to fall into disrepair and was a sad sight surrounded by “Keep Out’ notices.

Bob Heath’s elevation of the Dryden Tower, with the design of the new gargoyle

As the images here show, there is a happy ending. In 2014-15 a major restoration was carried out under the supervision of Architect and Stone Consultant Bob Heath, a long-time collaborator with the university. Amongst countless historic buildings his impressive c.v. includes working on the pagoda at Culzean Castle, and on not one but two Wallace Monuments (Dryburgh and Stirling). The mason was Donald McIntyre, of McIntyre Masonry, who with his apprentice, Bob, replaced all of the pointing and 10 tons of decayed stone. It was Donald’s idea to add to the building’s history by installing a new stone gargoyle – and it was his skilled carving that created it. Architect and mason agreed that it was a dream project to work on – completed on time and on budget – and everyone got along, even after Donald admitted that the gargoyle was modelled on Bob the architect, particularly ‘his big mouth’.

Photo courtesy of McIntyre Masonry.

Thanks to McIntrye Masonry for permission to use their bright images, as The Folly Flâneuse was not lucky with the weather in July 2020…

Thank you for reading. Please scroll down to the comments box below if you wish to share any thoughts on the Dryden Tower, or on follies in general. 

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20 thoughts on “Dryden Tower, Bilston, Midlothian”

  1. John Sanders says:

    Your posts brighten up my weekends. I enjoy seeing Scottish examples. I did think that the gargoyle looked a bit like Bob before I read your post.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you John. Bob was a great help pulling this post together. I’m glad you think it is a good likeness

  2. John Malaiperuman says:

    What a lovely idea to carve a new gargoyle portraying the architect for the restoration of Dryden Tower with his big mouth. We have a similar one on our local church at Tickenham in the form of an anthropophagus swallowing someone!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello John. I will put Tickenham on my very long list of places to see as soon as are free to travel.

  3. Garance says:

    I’m wondering if McIntyre Masonry furnished you with any before images of the tower. It certainly looks like a major restoration.
    When you do eventually get to Twickenham, try to allow time to visit the Twickenham Follies in York Gardens, by the riverside and adjacent to the church. Some fantastic nude sculptures with winged horses all set within fountains and flurries of water collecting in scallop shells

    1. Editor says:

      Morning Garance. Isn’t it a wonderful restoration. I have seen the statues in the garden at Twickenham, but many years ago now. But John is referring to Tickenham, which is in North Somerset. I mis-read it too at first. So two places on the visit list!

  4. Ivan B says:

    Anyone interested in Gargoyles should look up Silkstone Church near Barnsley ( Yorkshire) It’s growing them I’m sure. The nearby Pot House Hamlet is also worth a look

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Ivan. Silkstone Church is wonderful, somewhere else to revisit. I need a longer piece of paper! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      1. Ivan Burrows says:

        Yep it is great. There is also a memorial in the grounds to the mine disaster and nearby is another to the children killed there.

  5. Gwyn says:

    What great news. It looks a whole lot better than when I last saw it, when I didn’t hold out much hope for it. I had the same weather as you did, only slightly more dreich.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello there Gwyn. It’s a tip-top tower. Happily the weather improved hugely for the rest of our stay in Scotland.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you. I will have a look next time I am in Glasgow.

  6. Roslyn Wiegand says:

    Some of My ancestors (Wright family) were born and lived in Dryden Tower as the Gatekeepers of Dryden House. I have newspaper clippings and a pencil hand-drawn sketch of Dryden Town which is beautiful. I was named after Roslin Chapel as many of my relatives lived around Rosslyn. I can send photos of this information if anyone is interested. I live in Australia. My email is info@beach and

    1. Editor says:

      How lovely to hear your story and thanks for taking the time to share it. I will email you as I would love to know more.

  7. Roslyn Wiegand says:

    Would love to hear from you. My email is
    Sorry. It came through with spaces in my last post.

  8. Craig says:

    I grew up in bilston and spent a lot of summer’s down the glen, i used to play in there as a kid with friends.
    Me and my brother managed to get to the top via a very broken staircase, what a view from the top.
    Great to see it has been renovated as it was on the verge of falling down.
    I have many good memories from the tower.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Craig. I wish I had bumped into you when we visited as we could have done with someone showing us the way! I’m very pleased to hear that you have happy memories of the tower, and as you say it is great to know that it is secure for future generations. Thanks for taking the time to get in touch.

  9. Robert Howell says:

    As a young man coming of age, cast between wide-eyed incredulity and cynicism, while riding the bus to Morningside from Milton Bridge, I was informed by a lovely lady of Beeslack that the tower “to the right” is the witch’s tower, where the laird sent his female family members after he ran out of patience with them. I believed it. Thank you, after 55 years of enchantment, for clearing this matter up.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Robert. Thanks for sharing the local story about the tower and I am pleased you now know that it had a much less sinister purpose. It’s an enchanting building, but not in the witchcraft sense.

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