The Clerks of Penicuik
Successors to the Penicuik Estate




See also: National Records of Scotland (documents relating to the Clerks of Penicuik, ref. GD18)

Other sources

  1. The Clerks of Penicuik - portraits of taste & talent. Booklet by Iain Gordon Brown, Penicuik House Preservation Trust, 1987


Penicuik House


Penicuik House, probably soon after it was completed

Artist: possibly John Clerk of Eldin?

John Clerk
John Clerk, 1611-1674, 1st Laird of Penicuik

Portrait in possession of the Clerk family, used by kind permission

Sir John Clerk 2nd Baronet


Sir John Clerk, 1676-1755, 2nd Baronet

Portrait by William Aikman (1682-1731) (PD)

Sir John and Lady Clerk


[5th Baronet] Sir John and Lady Clerk, by Raeburn, 1792

Penicuik House, stable court


Stable Court at Penicuik House in 2017
Penicuik, House fire


Penicuik House in 2017

Although strictly speaking the Clerk family, who lived at Newbiggin after the Penycukes left in the 17th century, have no direct connection with the Pennycuick family, the indirect connections are important enough to merit more than a mention. For much of the following I am very grateful to Sir Robert and Lady Clerk for their kind reception and assistance, and for the booklet The Clerks of Penicuik by Iain G. Brown,i which is the principal source here.

The Penicuik estate and barony, including the main house, Newbiggin, were sold by Alexander Penecuke in 1604 to John Prestoun of Fentonbarns (see the Penycukes of that Ilk). That family sold it in 1646 to the Lady Margaret Scott, Countess of Eglintoune (Ayrshire). After her death in 1653, the estate was purchased in 1654 by the Clerk family, in whose hands it has been ever since.1

Clerk estate
The Clerk estate at Penicuik in 1687

Plan by John Adair, kindly given by Sir Robert Clerk

Top R: "Design for the House & parks of Pennycuik [...] 1687"

Bottom L: "The house of Newbigging with gardens [...] belonging to Sir John Clerk of Pennycuik [...]"

1st Laird

John Clerk (1611-1674), the first Laird of Penicuik, came from a family of merchants from central and eastern Scotland. He established himself in the 1640s in Paris as the 'factor' or agent for a wealthy Edinburgh merchant, dealing in works of art and luxury goods of all kinds which were shipped to his own patron and others in the Scottish aristocracy. In 1654, by then a wealthy man, he returned to Scotland and bought the Penicuik barony and estate, settling down to the life of a country gentleman. Of the various houses on the estate, he made Newbiggin his principal residence, as did his son and grandson. One source states that the crest and motto "Free for a blast" passed to his family at that time,i but the history of the House of Cockburn has it that the motto was adopted by 6th Baronet Sir George Clerk in 1807,2 and that before then, the Clerk family had used the motto "Amat victoria curam" ("victory and care go hand in hand").

1st Baronet

Sir John Clerk (1649-1722) consolidated the achievements of his father by purchasing the baronies of Lasswade and Loanhead in 1700 and developing coal-mining in the north Esk valley. A paper mill was also established in Loanhead in the mid-18th century. He was made a Nova Scotia baronet3 (a sort of 'cash for honours' system set up by James VI of Scotland) in 1679 and was a member of the Scottish Parliament, propounding various academic and cultural ideas (he inherited his father's artistic taste), and paving the way for the Scottish enlightenment of the 18th century. In 1687 he had plans drawn up by John Adair for the landscaping of the estate around Newbiggin House (see map above), which were eventually executed by his son and grandson. Sir John's sister Catherine married Sir David Forbes, who bought the neighbouring Newhall estate in 1703. (See the Pennecuiks of Newhall and Romanno.)

The Worthies
The Worthies, at Leith Tavern

Painting by William Aikman, at Newhall House

(see page on the Pennecuiks of Newhall for details)

2nd Baronet

Sir John Clerk (1676-1755), the second Baronet, was an important figure in Scottish cultural, scientific and social life. In the booklet on the history of the family,i he is described as "the most notable virtuoso in the Scotland of his day". To pick out a few highlights: architect of the Treaty of Union; Grand Tourist; long-serving judge; antiquarian (connected with William and Robert Adam); architect (especially at Mavisbank, a Palladian villa near Loanhead);4,5 poet; composer (a pupil of Arcangelo Corelli); amateur of science in the areas of geology, mining and astronomy.6 He belonged to the Edinburgh circle of virtuosi and literati known as 'The Worthies', who met at Penicuik House and at Newhall, and whose members included the Forbes family, the poet Allan Ramsay, painter William Aikman, and Alexander Pennecuik of Romanno.

3rd Baronet

Sir James Clerk (1709-1782), 3rd Baronet, is primarily known for building the Palladian mansion that is Penicuik House, on the site of Newbiggin in the 1760s (thus ending the ending the direct connection with the Penycukes of that Ilk), together with the Stable Court, which was used as the principal residence of the family after the fire of 1899. His original intention had been to incorporate parts of Newbiggin House into the new building, but gradually the project changed and he decided to rebuild the house entirely.7,8 The landscape was laid out by William Adair9 - perhaps the son of the above John? Sir James also redeveloped the village of Penicuik as a 'planned village' in 1770, including the fine classical church. In the graveyard, alongside the ruins of the previous building, is a mausoleum for the Clerk family. The design for the spire on the Stable Court (see photo left) was inspired by the architect James Gibbs, but probably not originally intended for the parish church, as is sometimes claimed.1 He also constructed the monument to the poet Ramsay, a dramatic pierced obelisk. He was, like his father and great-grandfather, a man of great artistic taste and talent, and Penicuik House was of course richly decorated and furnished.

The subsequent generations of Baronets, although of general and local importance, have no direct connection with the Pennycuick family.10 The 4th Baronet, Sir George Clerk, married Dorothea Maxwell, heiress of the Middlebie estate in Dumfriesshire, hence the name Maxwell which is occasionally added to that of the Clerk family. John Clerk of Eldin (1728-1812), not himself a baronet but the younger brother of the 3rd and 4th Baronets, was a skilled artist: from his pen came the drawing of Newbiggin on the Penycukes of that Ilk page, and possibly that of Penicuik House (above). He also took an interest in geology (he was a friend of the geologist James Hutton), and made important contributions to that science. His son, John Clerk, Lord Eldin (1757-1832), was Solicitor General for Scotland and a noted art collector. The 5th Baronet, Sir John Clerk, was painted with Lady Clerk (Rosemary Dacre) in 1792 in a fine portrait by Raeburn (left). The 6th Baronet, Sir George Clerk (1787-1867) was the uncle of James Clerk Maxwell, born in Edinburgh in 1831, one of the greatest physicists of the 19th century.12 According to the history of the House of Cockburn,2 this Sir George Clerk was the first of his family to use the motto "Free for a blast", from 1807 onwards. The family of the 7th Baronet Sir James Clerk were also the main movers behind another church in Penicuik, St James the Less, at the foot of Broom Hill (see page on the Penycukes of that Ilk).

Penicuik, House fire
The fire at Penicuik House in June 1899

Postcard, Penicuik House Preservation Trust Appeal, used by kind permission

During the time of the 8th Baronet, Sir George Douglas Clerk (1852-1911), disaster struck. He had put Penicuik House up for sale, and during this time it was lived in by tenants. A fire broke out in the night of 16th June 1899 and gutted the house. Insurance money was for technical reasons not forthcoming, and Sir George was not able to meet the rebuilding costs himself, and so the house stood as a ruin for over a century. The handsome stable block was converted for use as a residence, and the family have lived there ever since. In 2014, after eight years of restoration work, the house was made secure and prevented from decaying further, and now exists in a state of 'conserved ruination'.