If ancient stones could talk, what would they say about Adam Smith and what would we learn about his final years at Panmure House, his Canongate mansion in Edinburgh?

Lord Cockburn, writing in Memorials of His Time about the funeral of Smith’s friend, the philosopher Dugald Stewart, 30 years after Smith’s death, said: “[Stewart] was buried in the north-west angle of the Canongate churchyard ... I could not resist going to the Calton Hill, and contemplating a ceremony which awakened so many associations. The very Canongate has a sort of sacredness in it.

Independently of more distinct historical recollections, such as its once containing the residences of many of the nobility of Scotland, by whose titles its principal places are still marked, and its being the avenue to [Holyrood], Parliament House, and the Castle, an interest is imparted to its old ridgy back and smoky chimneys by the still unchanged houses of Smith, Kames, Monboddo, and of [Stewart] whose ashes were that day committed to its soil!”


Panmure House in the Canongate is being reborn. The 17th-century mansion dates back to 1691 when a house was built by Lieut-Col George Murray and sold to James Maule, the 4th Earl of Panmure in 1696. It stood in a quiet and pleasant courtyard from which, beyond a terraced garden, there stretched the soft green slopes of Calton Hill. Panmure sold the house to the Earl of Dalhousie who lived in this Scottish vernacular building before Adam Smith took up his tenancy in 1778.

From the sash-and-case window of the refurbished reading room on the first floor, with its' tulip wood panelling, decorative plasterwork and its fine mantelpiece, you will see the circular window of Canongate Church, surrounded by its cemetery. It must have been a comforting sight for an increasingly maladyridden Smith. In this room, we can imagine Smith would have been editing and refining his work, preparing for his own mortality. From his home to the churchyard, Smith made his final journey five days after his death in July 1790.

Panmure-House.jpgToday, the repointed stonework, much of the original stone-hewn from 17th-century Lothian quarries and hauled by horse and cart to the capital, is bright and golden, encased in lime mortar, with the sand brought from pits near Leslie in Fife. Behind this sensitive regeneration, visitors will find a modern building with steelwork, concrete, digital screens and cabling all exquisitely concealed behind the panelling, architraves and skirtings.

Panmure House today, with its sturdy walls, stepped gable ends and tiled roof timbers, would be instantly recognisable on approach to the distinguished philosophers, academics and other leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment who would take tea with Smith.

For too long this Canongate building, off the Royal Mile, was neglected and forlorn.

It was saved by a Category A-listing that prevented its demolition to make way for more 1950s apartments. An original plan was blocked by Historic Scotland and, after a public inquiry, Scottish Ministers overruled Historic Scotland and confirmed the project could go ahead. The planning application has been about securing consent to make modern changes to the building using appropriate materials. Edinburgh Council then consulted Historic Environment Scotland, the new conservation body, and the final scheme was approved and work began in November 2016.

“The original house was T-shaped, but now it is L-shaped, with one of the wings removed many years ago,” explains Martin Sinclair, the Project Manager for Panmure House.

On the actual appearance, much is down to interpretation and a bit of guess work. “There is very little information about how the house looked in Smith’s day, so the proposals are an interpretation rather than a pastiche of what the house was like,’’ said Sinclair. The visitor will enter through a new interpretation centre with panels explaining the writing and modern relevance of Smith’s work, and an early copy of the original 1776 work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, on display.

The walls, lined with opaque glass with digital screens behind them, will bring to life Adam Smith’s writing. There will be presentation screens with rolling images explaining Smith’s influence on society and economics.

Then the visitor will move upstairs to the two main rooms, the Reading Room, where it is hoped books from Smith’s original library will be displayed, and the flexible yet cosy Lecture Room, on the floor above. The whole building is only around 350sq ft in total, which gives it a very intimate and homely feeling for those who will be touching Smith’s legacy. There will be study spaces for visiting scholars to gather their thoughts and be inspired by the atmosphere.

“You can see by the state of the building that it has been altered many, many times over its life and as a result there are almost no features remaining from Adam Smith’s time in the 1780s,” explained Sinclair.

Before the present contract, there were two earlier phases of building work, one to improve the foundations, and another to repair the fabric of the building, ensuring that it was wind and water tight, and ready for the final phase of development.


“From the outside, the building actually looked complete, but inside it was far from it and there is a tremendous amount of work now being done to create this special space that reflects the life and times of Adam Smith, but can also function as a centre for thought and discussion inspired by Smith," explained Sinclair, a Partner with Gardiner & Theobald.

In addition to Gardiner & Theobald, the wider team involves EKJN architects from Linlithgow, structural engineers Robertson Eadie, mechanical and electrical services engineers EDP Consulting, quantity surveyors Thomson Bethune and Maxi Construction Ltd, the main contractor.

View-from-Panmure-House.jpgBrian Waters, the Site Manager for Maxi Construction, is a Heriot-Watt University graduate, having studied structural engineering and architectural design from 2000 to 2004. “I’ve been here since the start and I’ll be here until the finish. It’s been a very interesting job and I feel as if I’ve come full circle from graduation to working on this project for the university.” Previously, he was involved in the refurbishment of the Botanic Cottage in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh; a regeneration rebuilding project of a similar vintage.

The final member of the external team is Addyman Archaeology, who carried out an archaeological investigation of the site before the current works commenced. These investigations discovered a number of significant archaeological finds, including the remains of a medieval kiln.

The work is on schedule for completion in April 2018 when it will be handed over to Studio SP to complete the interpretive fit-out in preparation for opening in the autumn.

In this ancient city, where the ghost tours ply tourists with tales of ghouls and apparitions, surely the ethereal and kindly spirit of Adam Smith will dwell in this wonderful new place.

KENNY KEMP is an award-winning journalist and business writer. He is currently writing a history of Clyde Blowers Capital, one of Scotland’s leading private equity firms, which specialises in mission-critical engineering.