As a child growing up in the 1960s in the area called the Braids on the south side of Edinburgh, one of the most exciting places to play was the Hermitage. This was a leafy glen with a burn (small river) running through it and lots of exciting, gnarled old trees to climb, an activity that was strictly against our parents’ injunctions.
My friends and I had learned about hermits at school and so were excited one day to discover the entrance to a hermit’s cell built into the sloping side of the glen, at a slight distance from the large dilapidated-looking house that also stood in this wooded valley. A rusting iron gate was chained shut with a padlock, but we were able to peer through the bars of the gate and shiver at the chill emanating from the first few feet of the passage into the cell. Beyond that there was darkness. We breathed in the cold air, tasting its dank and earthy flavour, and wondered at what heights of religious fervour could have persuaded anyone to live in such a ghastly place.
Subsequent visits to the Hermitage failed to unearth any other hermits’ cells and we eventually gave up searching for more, contenting ourselves with illicit tree-climbing, playing Pooh sticks from one of the rickety bridges spanning the burn, or speculating endlessly about what it would be like to snog a boy under the branches of a huge weeping willow that overhung the river. We rarely approached the big house, as rumour had it the occupant was old and grumpy and kidnapped children and locked them in the basement. Once my best friend dared me to look in one of the windows of the house. I approached with my heart in my mouth, stood on tiptoe and peeped in, but saw nothing as dust and cobwebs lay thick on both sides of the glass.
I left Edinburgh when I was 17, and returned only sporadically over the next four decades or so. After returning to live here in 2013, I paid a sentimental visit to the Hermitage and discovered that the whole glen had been refurbished, with proper bridges installed over the brook, and route markers, maps and information boards put up for visitors. The house in the centre of the glen had been refurbished and proved to be a handsome Georgian building containing a Visitor Centre. It was then that I discovered for the first time that the house is known as Hermitage House, although it is also known as the Hermitage of Braid, the name of the whole park in the valley.
The question of where exactly the hermits had lived, who they were, and when they lived there only came to intrigue me once more when I began researching this article. Nothing I can find in historical records, or in learned pamphlets, explains why the area is called the Hermitage. Some sources cite references to a Hermitage Castle existing in the Braids area in the 13th century, but not to actual hermits. I returned to the site and consulted staff at the Visitor Centre, but they tell me there never were any hermits there. I did, however, find our “hermit’s cell”, now also refurbished, but still locked. It turns out to be an 18th century ice house that was used to store fresh produce for the occupants of Hermitage House! A display board explains the cunning design of this precursor of refrigeration and is interesting in itself, though reality is less romantic than my childhood fantasies. Sadly, the huge weeping willow has gone so my other childhood fantasy can never be fulfilled!
Nostalgia aside, the Hermitage of Braid is peaceful and beautiful and still offers a pleasant walk in semi-wild urban countryside. Along with neighbouring Blackford Hill and Pond, the Hermitage forms part of a Local Nature Reserve where dozens of species of birds can be spotted. The Visitor Centre gives information about these, as well as about the geology of the area and some of the historical figures that have been associated with the house.