“I was more in that house than any other in Dumfries”
Moat Brae has had more than one role since it was built to the design of Walter Newall in 1823 – gracious family home, private nursing home, victim of vandalism – but whatever its function the house has stood with the dignity of a Greek revival villa at the east end of George Street in Dumfries for over 190 years…
...and now it awaits new adventures with the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust.
Robert Threshie, a solicitor and Postmaster of Dumfries, bought the land on which to build Moat Brae from the Dumfries Academy Trustees in 1822 and the original garden from the estate of John Clark Maxwell of Middlebie in 1824. It was an extensive site that swept down to the river, a suitable situation for a house that was planned to be the home of a leading citizen of Dumfries.
In fact it became one of the foremost dwellings in the town.
Moat Brae takes its name from the earthwork castle or ‘Motte’ which previously stood on the site on the high bank of the river Nith, nothing is now readily visible of the castle. The land on which the house stands was part of the so-called Middlebie estate of John Clerk Maxwell. It had come into the possession of the Clerk family of Penicuik by marriage and associated with this was the adoption by John of the surname Clerk Maxwell. By this time, however, the failure of family investments in coal mining resulted in the sale of much of the estate, leaving only Glenlair on the Urr water as the family home.
We can still admire the balanced exterior of Moat Brae with its five bays and its central pedimented Doric porch, but it is more difficult to visualise the original interior, at first altered to become a nursing home and then ravaged by vandalism and left for colonies of birds and for every sort of rot to do their worst. One feature of the house which we cannot see from the outside is the dome above the entrance hall positioned on the level of the second storey and concealed by the roof pediment.
Everyone who knew the building in its heyday commented on the beauty of the entrance hall with its circular gallery.
Robert Threshie lived in Moat Brae with his family and three women servants until 1841 when it was bought by a minister’s widow, Mrs Babbington.
1860’s – 1906
It was on Mrs Babbington’s death in 1863 that Henry Gordon bought the house. As a bank agent and solicitor he was well able to maintain it as a premier dwelling in Dumfries. His two sons, Henry and Stewart, grew up there and attended Dumfries Academy where they became friends with the young J. M. Barrie.
Barrie at this time was living with his elder brother in a house a few hundred metres from Moat Brae. As well as attending school there was time for play. Perhaps the boys practised flying in the attic bedroom at Moat Brae; they certainly let their imaginations run free in its garden which Barrie later confessed was ‘an enchanted land’ for him, laying seeds for what would become Neverland.
Moat Brae remained in the ownership of the Gordon family until 1906 when it was bought by James McGeorge, the knitwear manufacturer in Dumfries.
On James McGeorge’s death in 1914 it was purchased by the Royal Scottish Nursing Institution and was given the title Moat Brae Nursing Home. It provided a private facility for surgery and medicine and also respite care for the elderly. During the years up to 2001 Moat Brae Nursing Home was owned by a number of trusts, and in 1922 was even in the hands of the Matron, Miss Isobel HR Cochrane, but it always maintained the highest standards of nursing care.
In 2001, however, it was bought by a Paisley businessman who planned to develop it as a themed hotel. He failed to secure funding for this project and so sold the building to the Loreburn Housing Association.
It was in 2009 when the Loreburn Housing Association planned to demolish Moat Brae and to use the site for affordable housing that the Peter Pan Action Group and then the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust was set up to save Moat Brae for the future, aiming to restore it to its former glory and providing Dumfries with a facility to benefit children and young people of which it can be proud.