8 Nicolson Square

Nicolson Square, built at the end of the 1700s as a three-storey residential tenement, subject to a great many alterations and additions over the subsequent centuries.

Notable former residents include:

1926 – Jenny Nord, who lived as a widow for 33 years after her husband, Henry, a steward in a private club, contracted an infection from a minor scratch, or perhaps an insect bite, and died within a week.

1920 – Maggie Campbell (32), who was six months pregnant with her fourth child when she was beaten to death by her husband, Nicholas, a plumber, who had come home drunk with six pies to feed the family and accused her of taking money from him. (It turned out to be in his pocket.)

That day, Nicholas had received a gratuity of £62 for his five years of service during world war 1 and had gone out to celebrate. When he saw he had killed his wife, he cried, “Maggie, Maggie, what have I done? I love my wife. This is what Government money has brought me to.”

 (It wasn’t the first time he had beaten her severely, only the worst. His father, who lived with the couple, was quite used to it, and knew to stay in his room or go out when they “had words”.)

In court, the defence said that Nicholas was a loving husband when sober but “a madman” when drunk—indeed, earlier on the day his wife died, his son had seen him “fighting with a pram” that someone had left in the close.

There was a suggestion that his erratic behaviour was the result of trauma suffered during the war (he had fought in France and in Gallipoli, where he had been wounded three times) and an injury sustained in 1910 when a brick fell four storeys on to his head.

He was sentenced to 12 years penal servitude. When he got out, he went back to work as a plumber and got married again. He died in 1954, at the age of 67, of throat cancer.

1916 – Emma Oliver, who saw a Zeppelin drop a fire bomb on a tenement across the square (five men were killed). Six months later, she was fined £1 for failing to obscure the light from her windows, because “carelessness may cause another unwelcome visit of hostile aircraft.”

1912 – Berthold Gibcke, a hairdresser, whose wife, Helen, went to her mother’s flat in nearby West Preston Street to give birth to their first child. (The Gibckes vanish from the official records at this point, so they likely changed their name at the outbreak of world war 1.)

1895 – Retired Sergeant James Symington, a veteran of the Crimean war, who died aged 67. At the battle of Inkerman, forty years before, he had saved the life of a badly wounded colonel by dragging him out of the melee “through a perfect hailstorm of lead.”

His friends, though no one else, knew that he had repelled a Russian attack at Sevastopol by bravely holding the line until help arrived. However, “through the death at Inkerman of the officer who witnessed the act, and the modesty of Symington, another man reaped the reward.”

He spent his later years in Edinburgh, socialising with other old soldiers of the Empire in the Queen’s Own Yeomanry Club, of which he was the secretary.

1858 – George Hogg, aged five, who was playing with some other children in the top flat when he fell out of the window. He clung on to the sill as long as he could, then dropped around 50 feet to the ground. He broke both arms and his skull and died within the hour.

1849 – Richard Weston, who had grown up wanting to emigrate to America, following his brother who went there as an indentured servant when Richard was a baby and had eventually became fairly well off, owning acres of land with orchards, horses, steers, hogs and geese.

(Somewhat strangely, his brother never sent any money home, although the family suffered through a time of dearth after his father returned from the Napoleonic wars, in which another brother had been killed.)

Richard’s father wouldn’t go to America. He said, “As poor as Scotland is, I have never seen a country like it, and I will not leave it in my old age.” He forbade Richard from going, too.

When Richard’s father and mother died, the rich brother stopped writing. Years passed as Richard tried to contact him, and eventually the brother’s wife wrote to say he had died of fever. She never replied to any subsequent letter, though Richard sent many.

Richard was married by that time, and would read to his wife passages from wonderful accounts of America published by travellers there. But she, like his father, had no interest in emigrating, preferring Scotland to any other place she had heard of.

When she died—after their children were grown up and helping in the family bookshop on Lothian Street—Richard took stock of his savings, consulted his books on America and arranged, finally, to follow his dreams and travel to the new world.

He had a perfectly dreadful time.

He returned after six months, so emaciated and fatigued that his family hardly recognised him and he couldn’t speak a word for nine days. Eventually, he wrote a book called “A Visit to the United States and Canada in 1833”, with the purpose of discouraging other emigrants.

In it, he wrote: “America had long been the object of my idolatry; its beautiful forests, its rich soil, the social manners of its inhabitants, the freedom of its institutions, and the absence of taxation, had long taken possession of my fancy…

…But the reality has dispelled all these pleasing illusions—I find it to be a fit place for the destitute, and for swindlers and bankrupts of all kinds … those simple persons who expect the pleasures described in our travellers’ pages are doomed to be disappointed.”

He died a few years later, after going bankrupt.

The bay-windowed room on the first floor of the tenement was the Gospel Hall, which was mostly used for Christian lectures, but also served as a meeting room for public lectures, debates and Burns suppers.

On the ground floor beneath the Gospel Hall was the National Restaurant, which the council opened in 1918, at the close of world war 1, because “outside of Princes Street there are no restaurants where a working man can get a good, well-cooked meal during the day”.

It was meant to be a place that would “enable the working man to evade profiteers and obtain a meal at a reasonable price”. A secondary aim was to “educate the public to a better class of cooking”.

Open from 12 to 2, it could accommodate 80 diners at a time. A year after it opened, it was serving 1,760 portions to 600 customers a day.

The Evening News said: “The management have won success by purveying food of the best quality, prepared under the supervision of three cooks who hold the diploma of Atholl Crescent Cookery School and served in a very tasteful and appetising way.”

A sample National Restaurant lunch menu:

Onion or lentil soup, 2d.
Meat and potato savoury, 4d.
Beef olives, 6d.
Cabbage and turnip, potatoes, beetroot, peas, 1d each.
Rice pudding, 3d.
Rhubarb and custard, 4d.
Biscuit and cheese, 3d.
Bread, 1/2d
Milk, 2d.

By 1922 it was so popular that the dining room was overcrowded and there were long queues. One diner said, “The sight of the crowds waiting for a feed is a disgrace to Edinburgh.” It opened another dining room a couple of doors away in the same tenement, which helped.

However, in 1935, the owner of the building sold up and the restaurant was closed. (A restaurant with the same name but a more traditional business ethos opened across the square at 24 Nicolson Street, where it operated until the mid-1950s.)

Kebab Mahal, which now occupies the premises, has been run by current proprietor Zahid Khan’s family for forty years, and is still a place where you can evade profiteers and obtain a meal at a reasonable price.


  1. Thank you for this very interesting article. I bought the second floor apartment at 8 Nicholson Square in 1994 and sold it in 2000. I loved living there with views over to the Methodist Church through the cherry blossom. Gospel Hall was the floor below me, which I had no knowledge of until I read your article. Which of the people referenced above in the article lived in my flat please. I always had a great curry on a Friday night after being out after work from Kebab Mahal and the shops next door were amazing for fruits and vegetables that were not readily available in the supermarket. Thank you so much for the memories and historical information. Karen Bignell (nee Mars)


    • Hi Karen – thanks for writing! I’m sorry to say that I don’t know who lived in which flats, because the flat numbers were rarely used in news reports. It’s one of the frustrations of this work. Even the censuses don’t record the flat numbers, which is quite strange…


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