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Cammo House

 

                                                                                                                                                           
The ruins of Cammo House lie in a wooded area near to the river Almond in West Edinburgh. It was built in 1693 and is thought to have been the inspiration for the 'House of Shaws' in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped. I knew Cammo House in 1969 before it was burnt down by vandals and for a brief moment back then, I touched the end of an era and a way of life.

 

At around 3am on a cold clear night during 1969, a telephone call to the West End Police Station in Edinburgh was made by Percy Tennant who was reporting lights and suspicious noises coming from his house in the woods of Cammo Estate. I had met Percy before, he was about 80 years old, almost bent double and he spoke with a crackly voice. He now lived in the old farm cottage, near to the main house, where I had visited him during the summer a few months previously. On this occasion I was to meet him in the driveway, leading up to Cammo House which was somewhere in the woods.
 

When you are very young in the police, especially when you are the 'spare man' in the van, you get all the work thrown at you. I dealt with road accidents, sudden deaths, fires, thefts, you name it, I got it and it came as no surprise to me when I was dumped near to the driveway leading to the woods at Cammo House. The van went off to another call, which to the driver and my sergeant, was more important. I watched the police van hurl around the corner into the main Queensferry Road with tyres screeching and it's blue light flashing as it roared away.
 

I had heard all the stories about Percy Tennant, the grand events that had taken place at the house in the latter part of the 19th century when he had been a young boy. How his brother had apparently left for America and the mother, broken hearted had lost the will to maintain herself and the house. Over the years for whatever the reasons, Cammo House started to disintegrate and it became uninhabited. Percy had moved to the farmhouse in his old age for company and care. As in most cases the story became tinged with the supernatural and his mother was supposed to be buried on the estate and her ghost now walked the lawns at night. Also there was the story about the howling and barking of dogs in the darkness.
 

I slowly walked up the driveway towards Cammo House which was hidden amongst the trees deeper into the estate. It was more like a lane and it was overgrown with bushes, weeds, cloaked by trees and very dark. Some 100 yards I walked and then I saw it, it’s high roof gleaming in the moonlight. The full moon beamed down on the scene and I saw in my mind's eye, Robert Louis Stevenson watching it from the same angle. The novel Kidnapped was spawned and Cammo House was immortalised for ever more. I saw Alan Breck, David Balfour, his wicked old uncle Ebenezer and then I saw old Percy as he stood at the rickety entrance gate with his leery lamp swinging in the wind, the yellow glow lighting up his thin pointed face, he looked like wee 'Willy Winky' but he was real.
 

He said,  “Hello sonny, climb the gate” and as I landed on the other side, I was avalanched by about thirty crazy dogs of terrier size as they set about trying to tear off my trouser legs at the ankles, with Percy jumping around like a demented demon shouting and screaming at them “Don’t mind the doggies, Constable, they think your an intruder”. Don’t mind the doggies, I thought, as I fought with their hairy faces; much growling, yelps and barking followed as we all staggered up the main driveway towards the house. By the time I got there, they had all calmed down, I think mainly because they all had a piece of my trousers. So much for the dogs howling at night, now I only had to meet the ghost of his mother.
 

The front of the house was impressive and the walls were very high. The view down from the front, spread across a huge lawn which extended into a long grass driveway with a view of Edinburgh through the trees. I imagined the turn into the 20th Century with servants, party frocks, horse drawn carriages and much laughter as the guests arrived through the gates and up the driveway. The glow from the lights and into the most beautiful of houses, with opulent fittings, grand pictures on the walls and a style of living, which was hard to match. Now, it still stood majestic in the moonlight amidst the same trees as it did back then, all serving as an exquisite backdrop.
 

I stared at Percy under the yellow light of his lamp, he was a strange old man. He gestured to the back of the house and we (dogs and all) forced our way through the undergrowth to the back yard of the house; every seen the Dracula Movies and you get the picture. Percy fought with the door to open it, while I kept staring in every direction as I scoured the area for his mother. The door finally opened and we all stepped up, a step I thought, and a strange feeling under foot. I shone the torch down and saw dog excrement all over the floor, generations of dog excrement, which had piled up about 6 inches high and although it was hard, all the new stuff was white with mould. Percy was using dogs to guard the property and allowing them to live and roam free in the house at night.

We had entered into what appeared to be the staff  quarters for I could see the staff bell system, still on the back hall wall, covered in cobwebs, just barely hanging there. As we walked through the house, I saw old faded and damp encrusted paintings. Rotting decor, a staircase and worse, no electricity. Through the gloom Percy led me upwards and gesturing, he said “stay to the side sonny, avoid the middle of the floors” I hugged the old flaky walls and shone my torch at the dogs, who were puffing and panting as they ran alongside. Percy led on, his thin frame and night-shirt illuminated by the yellow glow from his paraffin lamp. I’ll say one thing for Police work.......... it was never dull.
 

Finally we reached the main room upstairs and filled with paintings and old furniture. All the chairs had their springs up through the cloth (rotted by dog urine) and the furnishings were yellow and discoloured. I shone my torch around and suddenly I jumped back against the wall as I realised the middle of the floor was missing and was in fact downstairs in the room below. I peered through the dark hole and at that point I developed a distinct weakness at the knees and an acute inability to walk or even move. Percy was jumping around on the solid parts of the floor, which he obviously knew and gesturing at empty spaces where the thieves had stolen paintings from the walls. I decided to retrace my steps very carefully.
 

Downstairs, I took the theft report and left him standing in the middle of the grounds, surrounded by his dogs, yellow lamp swinging, the glow on his face, the full moon over the house and somewhere the old lady was watching it all. My heart went out for Percy, I still see him today, a man trapped in time, dreaming off the regal days at Cammo. He died and the National Trust took over the estate and the house. At that time, vandals set fire to it and it remains in ruins along with the deserted farm cottage where Percy had spent his last days.
 

I re-visited the Cammo Estate in 2010 and discovered that the grounds had been turned into a country park, used by tourists, dog walkers and families out for a picnic. The walkways had been tidied up and the main entrance driveway had been refurbished and was a great deal wider. Cammo House was in ruins and the collapsed walls were covered over with soil and grass. The ruins seemed so small and failed to provide any guidance as to the actual size of the original building, which had been substantial.
 

The farmhouse where Percy had spent his last days, was now derelict and overgrown with trees and bushes. It was in a sorry state and now a pale imitation of the building it once was. I looked at the boarded up window where he had once stood and waved to me as I entered the courtyard. I could still see him as I did one summers day over  40 years ago and I admit I was poignant and touched with sadness for what he had endured and the downfall of such a beautiful place.
 

What would Robert Louis Stevenson make of it today, as it stands demolished to the ground and overgrown? Has the soul of Percy found peace at last and moved on or has the story become embellished? Perhaps Percy has found his mother, perhaps when there is a full moon you will be able to see them walking in the grounds, hopefully without those dogs.
 

During my return to Cammo Estate, I captured some images to document my visit and you can see the full series by clicking on this link - Cammo Web

 

 

 

If you have enjoyed this article - please donate to my Charity of Choice   -   The Sick Kids

 

Adapted from 'Carved by Society' written by

Richard Lawrence
Scotland
United Kingdom

 

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