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Pearls from the Pend No.7 - St John Scotland

Knights’ town house in mint condition

Duncan McAra

MANY members attending the annual Festival of St John on 24 June 2016 in St Michael’s Parish Church in the Royal and Ancient Burgh of Linlithgow might have alighted at Linlithgow station.

In 1845 David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson conjured a calotype photograph of this station three years after its opening; it was arguably the first photograph ever taken of a railway station. St Michael’s Parish Church is clearly recognisable, so is the Palace. But in the foreground on the left is a mysterious soot-blackened saddle-backed tower.

This survival over four centuries was the former town house of the Scottish Knights Hospitaller, situated on the south side of the High Street, at the east end.  Praised as ‘the finest recorded medieval town house in Scotland’ (Colin McWilliam: The Buildings of Scotland: Lothian, Penguin Books, 1978, p. 301), it was built in the late fifteenth century, when the Preceptor of Torphichen, also titled Lord St John, was Sir William Knollis.

Its layout incorporated a two-storey hall wing extending along one side of an inner courtyard; adjoining the south-east end of this wing was a self-contained five-storey tower-house.

The Scottish architectural partners David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, co-authors of The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland (1887) have given us an invaluable first-hand description (vol. 1, pp. 508-14) of the building complex before its demolition in 1885 – despite strong protests from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Glasgow Architectural Association and the Town Council of Linlithgow – to make way for ‘modern improvements’ in the shape of St Michael’s Hotel (converted into flats, 1992):

‘A square tower, with crow-stepped gables, containing a circular staircase leading to the upper floors, was placed in the angle of the courtyard adjoining the entrance, of which a view is given looking through the archway towards the street.

‘The basement floor was vaulted, and extended along both sides of the court, and no doubt contained the kitchen and offices. On the first floor on the west side was the great hall, which was the most interesting part of the building. It contained a beautiful fireplace, with finer mouldings and better carving than are generally found in the castles or mansions of Scotland.

This fireplace was about 9 feet wide and 5 feet 10 inches in the height of the opening. … On the sloping hood of the fireplace there were three beautifully carved brackets, probably meant for holding figures or lamps. The hall had also one of the few remaining open-timbered oak roofs in Scotland.

‘At the south end of the courtyard stood the old tower, which formed a prominent object in the view of Linlithgow from the railway. It possessed some unique features in its projecting windows and internal arrangements. It was five storeys in height, the ground floor, the first floor, and the third floor being vaulted. … Probably this tower was the residence of the superior, and formed a kind of keep, and the hatch in the floor was to enable valuables to be hoisted up hastily in case of need.

There was a door from the principal room on the second floor (in which the corbelled windows were), which looked into the hall from a high level, and commanded a view of all that went on there.’

The mystery is, why was this town house, owned by a religious Order, popularly known locally as the ‘Mint’ or ‘Cunzie-house’? Adam de Cardonnel, Curator of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1782-4), states in his Numismata Scotiae (1786) that coins of James I, such as silver groats (below), struck in Linlithgow bear the words VILLA DE LINLITHE.

Nicholas Holmes, Research Associate, Numismatics, at the National Museum of Scotland, in correspondence with the Librarian, has helpfully provided the answer:

‘During the reigns of James I and II travelling mints accompanied the king when he toured his kingdom, staying at residences such as Stirling and Linlithgow. Numbers of coins struck at these places must have been fairly low, to judge by their rarity today. As to why the town house at Linlithgow was used as a mint – the preparation of blanks and the striking of coins was a hot and noisy process, so kings preferred not to have it within their own residence if possible.

If there was a handy, and secure, building in the vicinity which could be rented, this would have provided an ideal solution from the royal point of view. No doubt, the Hospitallers would have welcomed the extra income in exchange for the short-lived inconvenience!’

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