James Gowans (architect)

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James Gowan's tenement on Castle Terrace Edinburgh
James Gowan's window and door detail
The grave of Sir James Gowans, Grange Cemetery

Sir James Gowans (1 August 1821 – 25 June 1890) was a maverick Edinburgh architect and builder.


Born in Blackness near Falkirk he was the son of a local mason Walter Gowans (1791–1858) and his wife, Isabella Grott (d.1854).[1]

He trained under the Edinburgh architect David Bryce. In 1848 he married his first wife Elizabeth, daughter of James Mitchell a railway contractor. She died in the bath, in their home at 34 Rosebank Cottages, in what would appear unusual circumstances on 26 September 1858 and Gowans remarried. His second wife was Mary, daughter of William Brodie (sculptor).[2] He married Mary very soon after the death of his first wife and built "Rockville" on Napier Road for them to live in, his tour-de-force, including a fine five storey viewing tower. Sculpture in and around the house was by his father-in-law, William Brodie.

He suffered serious financial losses in 1875 due to heavy investment in his own project of the New Theatre Edinburgh, with Frederick Thomas Pilkington as co-investor. It was sold in 1877 to the United Presbetyrian Church for one third of its build cost. He became Edinburgh's Lord Dean of Guild in 1885 (holding the post until 1890)[3] and was largely responsible for organising the Edinburgh International Exhibition on The Meadows in 1886. He was knighted by Queen Victoria the following year on 18 August, in recognition of his contribution. He was particularly involved in railway building contracts and is famed for his unusual use of multiple stone types in any one building. He was bankrupted in 1888 following the Caledonian Railway's obstruction of a quarry extension at Redhall. He was forced to sell Rockville his masterpiece home and moved to a very modest house at 1 Blantyre Terrace where he died.

He is buried with his first wife, Elizabeth Mitchell, in the Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh.[2] The grave lies against the north wall and is designed in Gowan's distinctive style. His second wife outlived him and is buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.


Gowans had a habit of living in buildings he had built, perhaps receiving a property as part of his fee for many. His homes were:

  • Gowanbank, his family home near Armadale
  • Lynedoch Place, Edinburgh 1840–1848
  • 1 Randolph Cliff, Edinburgh (which he built) (1848–1855)
  • Pittacher House, Crieff (during his railway project in Perthshire) (1855–1862?)
  • 34 Rosebank Cottages, Edinburgh (which he built) (1855–1858)
  • "Rockville", Napier Road, Edinburgh (designed and built for himself) (1858–1885)
  • 31 Castle Terrace (an office which he built himself) (1875–1888)
  • 1 Blantyre Terrace (1885–1890)


Standing on a prominent corner at Spylaw Road and Napier Road in the Merchiston area of Edinburgh this house has been described as "the strangest house ever built in Edinburgh".[4]

Local names for it included "The Pagoda", "The Chinese House", "Tottering Towers" and "Crazy Manor". It was a wild gingerbread house style affair with a five storey (64 foot) tower with viewing platform. Every dormer was in a different pattern and style, every chimney stack was highly elaborate and different from the next. Its gate lodge was like a Hansel and Gretel house. Both lodge and house included stones from every quarry in Scotland plus some Chinese stones to reflect its style. It was the "embodiment of a Gothic novel". But Gowans did not see it as frivolous or extravagant: it was built on a grid system with "no desire to create novelty". It was intended to create an economic and aesthetically pleasing result and certainly succeeded.

It sat in an acre of ground filled with statues by William Brodie his father-in-law.[5]

It had gas lighting in all rooms and elaborate interiors to match its extravagant exterior. Above the kitchen range it read "Waste not, Want not".

It was demolished in 1966 after a public outcry and 2500 signature petition attempted to save it (a rarity in those non-conservation-minded days) and replaced by three blocks of flats ("The Limes"). All that survives on site is its boundary wall and some gateposts. However one statue was removed and now sits on the lower path in West Princes Street Gardens: "The Genius of Architecture crowned by the Theory and Practice of Art".

List of Works[edit]

  • Building of Randolph Cliff and north section of Randolph Crescent, Edinburgh (1846)
  • Railway contract for Edinburgh to North Berwick section of the North British line (1847–1850)
  • The pedestal for Sir John Steell's statue of the Duke of Wellington at the east end of Princes Street in Edinburgh (1852).
  • Rosebank Cottages, Edinburgh (1854) He lived here with his first wife until her death in 1858.
  • Re-erection of statue to the Duke of Wellington in Falkirk (1854)
  • Redhall Bank Cottages, Edinburgh (1857)
  • Rockville on Napier Road as his own house (1858) demolished in 1965 to build flats (boundary walls still remain).
  • Monument on his father's grave in Torphichen churchyard (1859)
  • Monument to his wife in Grange Cemetery )1859) where he was eventually buried himself
  • Workmen's houses in Crieff (1859)
  • Pair of villas at 23/25 Blacket Place, Edinburgh (1859)
  • Lammerburn on Napier Road, a miniature version of Rockville (1860)
  • Railway contract for the Lochee diversion on the Dundee to Newtyle Railway (1859–1861) including Lochee railway station.
  • Railway contract for the Creetown section of the Portpatrick Railway (1859) including the railway station in Creetown.
  • Railway contract for the Birnam to Dalhousie and Dalwhinnie to Kingussie sections of the Perth to Inverness railway (1861–1865)
  • Rebuilding of Gowanbank, his father's house near Armadale (1862)
  • Lodge house at Redhall, Edinburgh (1863)
  • "Pineapple tenement" at Castle Terrace/ Cornwall Street, Edinburgh (1866) Gowans ran an office from here 1875 to 1888.
  • School and schoolhouse at Kingscavil, West Lothian (1870)
  • Workmens Cottages, Drumbowie, West Lothian (1871)
  • Laying of tracks for the Edinburgh Corporation Tramways between Edinburgh and Leith (1871)
  • Remodelling of Drumbowie House, West Lothian (1873)
  • New Edinburgh Theatre, Castle Terrace (1875), converted to the Synod Hall in 1877 following its financial collapse. Demolished in 1965 for an opera house that was never built. Redeveloped in 1990 as Saltire Court.
  • Waverley House (82 Colinton Road, Edinburgh) for the penmaker Duncan Cameron (1884)
  • 1–4 Lockharton Gardens (off Colinton Road near Waverley House) (1884)
  • 68–78 Colinton Road (1885/6)
  • Brassfounders Column for the Edinburgh International Exhibition on the Meadows (later moved to Nicolson Square) (1886) note: the figure on the column is by John S. Rhind.
    The Brassfounders Column from the Edinburgh International Exhibition
  • Model houses for the Edinburgh International Exhibition (1886) later moved to 157–159 Colinton Road.
  • 64–66 Colinton Road (1886/7)
  • Masons pillars and sundial for the Edinburgh International Exhibition (1886) still in-situ on the Meadows.


  1. ^ Grave of Walter Gowans, Torphicen
  2. ^ a b "James Gowans", Dictionary of Scottish architects. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  3. ^ Memorial to Lord Deans of Guild, Edinburgh City Chambers
  4. ^ Eccentric Edinburgh by JK Gillon; ISBN 0-948473-18-5
  5. ^ "Dictionary of Scottish Architects - DSA Architect Biography Report (March 28, 2016, 3:42 pm)". www.scottisharchitects.org.uk. Retrieved 2016-03-28.
  • Dictionary of Scottish Architects.
  • Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh by Gifford McWilliam and Walker
  • Buildings of Scotland: Lothian by Colin McWilliam
  • McAra, Duncan (1975). Sir James Gowans: Romantic Rationalist. Edinburgh: Paul Harris Publishing. p. 60. ISBN 0904505006.