By Graham Johnston
In the early 1970s the order of nuns who had occupied the property as a retreat since 1954 moved out and sold the property. Some time elapsed with no refurbishment or development until 1999 or thereabouts when the first putative developers of Elie House, Alex Braidwood & Co Ltd. sought planning permission, not only to refurbish the main house and out buildings thereby creating individual apartments, but in addition build a number of houses in the grounds of Elie House. These grounds extend to about 10 acres. The project was based upon the premise that refurbishment and division of Elie House into apartments would be financed and could only be financed by the “new builds” in the grounds.
On application being made for planning permission there were a number of objections and support from the community in Elie and Earlsferry. Many saw the development as a positive move for an ancient house which had fallen into disrepair and was likely, unless a solution was found, fall as a ruin. There was a vociferous campaign to refuse permission in that to build new houses in the otherwise virgin grounds would be unsightly and that what the village needed was affordable private housing since the majority of houses in the village were owned and kept as weekend and holiday homes with prices similar to property in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The problem with that, of course, was that even although the first owners of these houses might be first time buyers or the houses were “affordable”, re-sales of these properties would presumably reach the level of most of the housing in the village.
Various consultations were sought and a public meeting was held at which there were about 100 in attendance. The planners got a clear message that whilst redevelopment of Elie House was a positive move the applicant’s plans would seriously diminish the amenity. The alternative of simple refurbishment of the house did not seem at that time to have been a financially viable option. In the event, the planners turned down the application. The then applicant decided that without the ability to finance the refurbishment from new build houses in the grounds there was no future in the development. Two of his then professional advisers prevailed upon the applicant to give them the opportunity of completing the development. Eventually planning permission and a warrant was granted in 2004, but that extended only to refurbishment of the main house and the building of three town houses.
A separate application had been made by Braidwood to develop the area to the north of the house towards the loch known as the “Water Garden”. The original developer retains that area of ground.
The conditions attached to the development, inter alia, included that permission to demolish the chapel – a modern and rather ugly building which lay alongside the main house – would be granted subject to the stained glass windows being re-sited and that only three houses would be permitted to be built in the grounds on the site of that demolished chapel (later known as “The Orangery”). Further conditions and restrictions were applied to the grant of permission. This included various traffic calming measures in the High Street in Elie and that no work should start on the new build houses on the footprint of the chapel until all the apartments in Elie House itself had been completed.
Work commenced with funding from the Bank of Scotland. The then developers, Seven Residential Ltd, completed eight of the apartments and had commenced building on the footprint of the chapel before the main house apartments were completed before running into cash-flow difficulties and going into administration in 2007. The proprietors of the properties in the main house who had purchased prior to the administration (eight in total) were therefore left in limbo whilst the Bank of Scotland, as heritable creditors, decided what to do with the remaining parts of the main building and what was left of the shell of the new building on the chapel footprint. Various attempts were made to interest developers in the scheme but the financial climate was not conducive to developers taking the risk. In the meantime, the rest of the building started to suffer from lack of investment. The administrators – and therefore the bank – were reluctant to spend money in making the building survive the period between administration and a new developer taking over.
By July 2007 some had expressed interest but in the main the interest was in the new-build properties rather than the refurbishment of the rest of the main house. The building was left in a parlous state for three years with little or no maintenance.
During this period the then owners experienced considerable problems. The Klargester bio-disc sewage system started to float spontaneously, the partly built orangery buildings became seriously damaged by the weather, the whole site was in a mess but the then owners did what they could to maintain the building and surrounds. Lead mysteriously disappeared from the roof (about three square metres). It was a mystery how the thieves managed to get it to ground level. As a result of the building not being sufficiently watertight substantial deterioration took place to the main front hall.
The west-most stone pillar at the entrance way which was owned by the Nairn family was seriously damaged by a lorry. It took over eighteen months for repair to be commenced. The then residents spent much time and effort in trying to do interim repairs until the new developer took over.
Further complications arose in relation to a two metre wide strip of ground at the entrance to the main drive which the Nairn family had retained as a “ransom strip” requiring any new developer to make substantial funds available for permission to cross this two metre strip of land. That was resolved with a payment to the Nairn family. The roadway however from the main entrance up to the Square is and was owned jointly by the original applicant for planning permission and the residents of Elie House. The residents during the administration paid substantial sums to try to keep the roadway in a serviceable condition and the new developer completed the work.
Eventually, in October 2010, a new developer was engaged by the bank to complete the development. The new developer started by attending to the balance of the apartments in the main house and then having demolished the previous structure commenced building the new build in the Orangery which was completed in the summer of 2012 and eventually all the apartments and the Orangery were sold by November 2012.
The grounds have been carefully maintained by the current residents and the area is privileged to have an abundance of wild life.
The original residents kept their spirits up during the hiatus by musing that “…it will be fine when it’s finished…!”
No doubt many have memories of the property as the family home of the Nairn family until 1953 and subsequently as a convent and retreat when it was purchased by the order of Reparatice nuns. Anyone who visited the house at this period and may have used it as a retreat is invited to advise the Society of their experiences and even better, if they have some photographs of that time it would be much appreciated. Email firstname.lastname@example.org