St Ninian's Manse and Quayside Mills Exterior

St Ninian’s Manse and Quayside Mills

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The restoration of St Ninian’s Manse and the adjoining Quayside Mills building from 1996 to 2002 succeeded in creating desirable waterfront accommodation and office space whilst also preserving two important historic structures and a key part of Leith’s history.


Simpson & Brown Architects

Jim Johnson Architects

Completion Date(s):

1999 and 2002

Project Cost(s):

£580,000 and £1.8 million


St Ninian’s Manse is a rare and particularly old example of a clerical dwelling associated with an urban church. With origins dating back to 1493, it is thought to be the oldest building in Leith and is topped by Edinburgh’s sole surviving 17th-century steeple. The site’s 19th-century conversion to a granary and then mill reflects Leith’s industrial development, just as its abandonment during the mid-20th century reflects this industry’s demise.

The name of St Ninian’s Manse derives from the fact that it was built alongside and connected with St Ninian’s Chapel. Both buildings were commissioned in 1493 by the Abbot of Holyrood, the abbey having been given a substantial portion of land in Leith at its foundation in 1128.

The manse was substantially enlarged with a four-storey extension completed in 1600, not long before the chapel was converted into North Leith’s first parish church. The religious function of the site was clearly expressed in the centrally placed inscription ‘BLESSED AR THEY YAT HEIR YE VORD OF GOD AND KEIP IT LUK XI 1600’. The final major addition to the manse was the prominent five-storey stair tower, built in 1675 and topped with a Dutch-style belfry.

The manse and church continued in their original uses until the early 19th century. As a result of the parish’s growing population, a new North Leith Parish Church was constructed in Madeira Street and opened in 1816. The St Ninian’s site was then sold to a shipbuilder for £1840. The church was at first adapted into a granary before being substantially demolished to make way for Quayside Mills. The manse retained by being converted into offices.

The site continued in industrial use until the mid-20th century, when it fell into disrepair and was gradually abandoned. By 1970, when the building was surveyed and given its Category A listing, it was described as ‘semi-derelict’. The Cockburn Conservation Trust made initial enquiries to purchase the St Ninian’s Manse in the 1980s after McGregor and Co Ltd, the then owners, suggested its demolition. Neither the purchase nor the demolition went ahead and in July 1996 the Trust was able to acquire the whole site on friendly terms.


The projects to restore St Ninian’s Manse and Quayside Mills were intricately connected, but the buildings were ultimately given separate functions. The first important decision for both parts of the site was to demolish the poor-quality late-19th and early-20th century additions, which obscured the older buildings.

For the manse, focus was given to a use that would involve the least intrusive alterations. Therefore, the decision was made to maintain the building’s previous function as office space, with modern insertions restricted to the areas that had been most altered during the 20th century. Quayside Mills was converted into a number of one and two bedroom flats, many having spectacular views across the Water of Leith.

Simpson and Brown Architects were employed to restore the manse and the exterior of the mills, whilst Jim Johnson Architects were responsible for converting the interior of the mills.

The exterior stonework of Quayside Mills was cleaned and repaired where necessary, whilst inside and as many of the old beams inside were retained as possible, becoming historic features in otherwise modern interiors.

St Ninian’s Manse was covered in traditional limewash, the colour of which was based off surviving fragments. Inside, all the surviving historic chimneypieces were retained and fresh lime plaster was applied directly to the old walls, as it would have been originally. Finally, replicas of the gilded copper finial and weathervane were created to go atop the belfry, based on the originals surviving in the National Museum of Scotland.

St Ninian's Manse and Quayside Mills Today

The restoration of St Ninian’s Manse was completed in 1999 and that of Quayside Mills in 2002. The new waterfront flats were individually sold, whilst St Ninian’s Manse was retained and used as the Simpson and Brown headquarters from 2000 to 2016. Following the merger between the Cockburn Conservation Trust and the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust in 2010, the latter acquired ownership of the manse and continues to oversee its occupation and upkeep today.

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