One of our motivations at 50 Objects is to reveal some of Kirkcaldy's hidden treasures.
This month we spotlight a listed building described by one informed expert as "one of the finest 16th century townhouses outside of Edinburgh".
Yet many local people will be unaware even of the presence of Law's Close, far less the story of its preservation and reconstruction.
We are also pleased to have been able to spotlight some of the dedicated people without whose brilliant work Law's Close, and many other architectural gems in Scotland and beyond, might have been left to crumble into dust.
In depth written study
Temporary socially distanced recording
A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY
THE RE-EMERGENCE OF A MERCHANT'S HOUSE
The property known as the “Merchants House” and/or Law’s Close only recently acquired that name. For centuries it had been 339-343 High Street. So what led to this change? The answers lie hundreds of years apart.
Firstly, we must travel back to the end on the 16th century. Kirkcaldy had started to stretch from its harbour towards the Tiel Burn. However, it hugged its shore, and never reached further inland than a quarter of a mile – hence the “Lang Toun”.
Although having a population just short of 3000, the Town had a busy harbour. The Town’s wealth was primarily based on its sea trading. The 16th and 17th centuries saw Kirkcaldy trading with the English east coast, the Low Countries and the Baltic ports.
Merchants and ship owners of the period made fortunes; therefore it was no surprise to find their homes close to the harbour. Originally built from timber, as their wealth increased, it became the fashion to rebuild using stone. The internal finishes and furnishings illustrated the wealth of the owners.
David Law was a wealthy ship-owner, and it was he in 1590, who built this property with its elaborate internal decoration and fine finishes.
The property and those surrounding it remained desirable homes with their decorations, fixtures and fittings keeping pace with changing trends. An example was tapestry wall hangings being replaced with ornate wallpaper.
However, as we know nothing lasts forever, and as the 19th century industrialists accumulated greater wealth, they started to move to the new suburbs away from the crowded and unhealthy harbour area.
This led to the area, and these once fashionable and desirable properties declining both in the level of decoration and maintenance. Eventually many were pulled down; others became flats or commercial premises. This was the fate which befell 339-343. It was converted to flats, with the ground floor housing retail outlets. Extensive partioning took place many times over the ensuing years. The result was the covering of the original walls and ceilings, with the art work and mouldings all but removed from view.
The passage of time saw the building continue to deteriorate until in the 1980s – it stood empty, forlorn and in poor repair. It is no exaggeration to say that it stood at the risk of demolition such was its condition.
However, David Walker – Chief Inspector of Historic Buildings in Scotland knew the property had some very important features. He saw it being at risk, and alerted one Scotland’s foremost conservation architects, James Simpson. Heavily involved in conservation, James appreciated the quality within the property’s walls.
James Simpson and others then founded the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, with the intention of saving and restoring this property and other fine listed buildings which were in a perilous condition. The Trust has since its inception saved and restored 35 properties.
Relying only on philanthropy and grants, a package was put together to purchase the building. It was then stabilised and made wind and watertight. However, lack of funds saw the building sit empty once again until fresh monies were secured. This took some time, but eventually sufficient monies were raised to complete the task
Following the removal of the partioning the original walls and ceilings were uncovered. This revealed a treasure trove including painted beam ceilings, plaster mouldings, multiple glazed windows and the use of cut stone (Ashlar). A 17th century wall painting of a ship was uncovered and restored. Another wall painting of the Town Crest came to light. Amazingly a 1660 map of sea routes to the Baltic was discovered under the floorboards – irrefutable evidence that Kirkcaldy traded with the Baltic.
Painstaking work by a raft of skilled artisans restored the property to its present condition. Even before, and especially after restoration it is/ was described as “one of the finest 16th century townhouses outside of Edinburgh”.
The property also features a long rigg garden, which weaves together a modern garden design with the history of the house. It really is a little oasis yards from the High Street
The result is a splendidly restored historical property which came perilously close to being lost.
Take advantage of the opportunities to view the property when available, and watch out for the soon to be released video the Trust have made of one of Kirkcaldy’s architectural jewels.