History of the site

History of St Roque’s Chapel and Astley Ainslie Hospital

13th – 17th Century

It is difficult to distinguish fact from legend but it seems likely that St Roque was a M. Roche, a Frenchman born in Montpellier in the late 13th or early 14thcentury. He gained a reputation for caring for victims of the plague. He travelled to Italy then extensively throughout Europe and some of the victims recovered. It was thought he was capable of miraculous cures but he contracted the plague himself from which he probably died, although some accounts claim that he recovered and returned to France only to get caught up in a war, be imprisoned and die after five years in jail. . He was canonised and became the patron saint of the afflicted. He is known variously as St Roch, St Roc, San Rocco and St Roque. Chapels to St Roque appeared throughout Europe. One was built for victims of the plague on the present site of the Astley Ainslie Hospital.

The plague was an unpleasant illness, often fatal. The bacterium Yersinia Pestis is spread by rats. It was introduced into humans by bites from rat fleas.. It caused fever and abscesses in the groin and axilla which sometimes burst. At times plague reached epidemic proportions. During epidemics the victims developed Yersinia pneumonia, passing the bacterium directly to others through coughs and sneezes. Even in the 14th century, the infectious nature of plague was appreciated and the sufferers were quarantined. They were treated by Plague Doctors who wore grotesque masks similar to those seen in Venetian carnivals. Many Edinburgh sufferers were moved out to the Burgh Muir (now the Grange) and housed in huts. On their way to the Muir, they passed the Burgh Loch (now the Meadows) where their clothes were either boiled in cauldrons or burned. Fresh clothing was kept for them in the Chapel of St Roque. The Chapel was probably just west of the Astley Ainslie School building near to St Roque House.

The chapel was built between 1501 and 1504. In 1513 James IV mustered troops on the Burgh Muir before the battle of Flodden. He is said to have prayed in the Chapel of St Roque. The chapel became derelict by 1789. An early attempt to demolish the dangerous building had to be abandoned when scaffolding collapsed with several fatalities, thought to be retribution for destroying a sacred building. It was finally demolished in 1791 and now nothing remains and its exact site is unknown. It had an associated burial ground, probably with mass graves for the plague victims but the site of these is also unknown, although when St Roque House was rebuilt in the 1850s, human remains were found with evidence that bodies had been buried face-down as was the custom for plague victims. The last major outbreak of the plague was in 1645 when nearly half the population of Edinburgh died.

In the late 16thcentury, areas of the Burgh Muir were feued out to raise money for Edinburgh City. The Canaan estate was one such feu. This feu was divided and several large mansions built in the early 19th century.

19th Century

John Astley Ainslie

John Astley Ainslie was a member of the wealthy Ainslie family of Lasswade and Haddington. He was orphaned and his only brother also died leaving him to inherit a large estate. He was close to his uncle David a bachelor and wealthy sheep breeder with whom he spent his holidays. John was sickly and went to Algiers where he died age 26 leaving his fortune to his uncle David.












20th Century

David died in 1900 and left £800,000 to establish a hospital or institution “for the relief and behoof of the convalescents of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh”. A large oil painting of John still hangs in Canaan House in the Astley Ainslie Hospital where David’s sheep breeding trophies are also on display.

David’s bequest was to be invested for 15 years before being used to purchase property in south Edinburgh for the Astley Ainslie Institution. The Great War delayed the purchases which were made in 1921 of Canaan Park, Canaan House and Southbank, a total of 31 acres.




Canaan Park was the first building to be adapted for patient use and accepted the first 13 female patients in 1923.

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Canaan Park

At that time convalescence was a passive process of rest, massage, good food, fresh air and sunshine. Verandas were built onto the south side of Canaan Park and patients wheeled out into the fresh air with as many blankets as they needed. An account of the early days of the institution as it was then called is given by Mary Cunningham who, as the daughter of the first medical superintendent was brought up on the site. In later life she became the head of the Occupational Therapy Training Unit.

David Ainslie’s very considerable bequest allowed the trustees to continue expanding the hospital which required no subscription or other fund-raising. In 1929 the East and West Pavilions were built.

In 1930, Millbank House became available for use by the Board of Governors. Millbank had belonged to Professor Sir James Syme, a famous 19th century Edinburgh Surgeon. He had a great interest in horticulture and built greenhouses which he filled with exotic plants obtained through the Royal Edinburgh Botanic gardens. Millbank was the location of the marriage of James Syme’s daughter, Agnes, to his assistant, Joseph Lister; Lister later became Lord Lister, Professor of Surgery in London and the inventor of antiseptic surgery. After it was acquired by the hospital, the old house was demolished and a pavilion similar to the existing ones was built on the site and the greenhouses demolished.

That same year, a Nurses Home (on the site of Southbank) and the two gatehouses on Canaan Lane were built, followed in 1932 by a new house (also called Southbank) for the Medical Superintendent, Lt Col Cunningham and Sentry pavilions at the foot of Whitehouse Loan.

At about this time, it became appreciated that rehabilitation with active exercise achieved better results than passive convalescence. The Astley Ainslie became a pioneering unit researching into the best way of helping patients to return to good health and full mobility.

Science Block
Scientific Unit

An “experimental” Scientific Unit was built with physiotherapy and hydrotherapy. “Electrical” treatment was used where paralysed or weak muscles were built up by stimulating them with galvanic electricity. Later, the x-ray department, pharmacy and laboratory were housed in the Scientific Block. Canada had a burgeoning specialty of Occupational Therapy (OT). Therapists were brought over from Toronto and a new specially designed OT unit was built.

When war broke out in 1939, the Astley Ainslie Institution was requisitioned by the government for civilian war casualties. The three wooden huts by South Oswald Road were built but the casualties never arrived. However the hospital was kept busy with cases of hypothermia and frostbite amongst the reservists manning anti-aircraft defences on the hills. After the war these huts became the Occupational Therapy Training School, which moved in 1978 to become part of Queen Margaret University.

St Roque

In October 1945, the AAH returned to being a rehabilitation hospital and the adjoining estates of St Roque and Morelands were purchased giving the hospital a total of 42 acres of landscaped grounds. The policy was to retain the stone walls and trees to give the area a parkland feel. St Roque had earlier been the home of William Ivory another very keen horticulturalist who supported plant finding expeditions. He was a contemporary of Sir James Syme.

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The hospital became part of the National Health Service in 1948, and another ex army doctor, Col Fraser, became Physician Superintendent. He arranged for a number of fragments of stone of ecclesiastical origin to be incorporated in the stone wall to the south of his house Southbank. At first these were thought to be from St Roque’s Chapel but it now seems more likely they came from the demolition of Trinity College Church to make room for Waverley Station.

The hospital still had sufficient funds of its own to build a new school in the grounds in 1957 and the large Charles Bell Childrens’ Pavilion in 1965. This unit later became the Head Injuries Unit. Huts were also constructed in the early 1950’s for the Vehicles for the Disabled Centre (which provided Wheelchairs and Invacars to disabled people throughout Lothians, Fife and the Borders), a Nurses Training Unit and a Miners Rehabilitation Unit, which included a coal face. In 1971, a new Day Centre and Outpatient clinic (called the Cunningham Unit) was opened. There was also a patients’ garden with raised beds for those in wheelchairs and two greenhouses but it is now abandoned and overgrown.

In 1974, Col Fraser retired and the NHS went through a major reorganisation. A number of new consultant staff were appointed in the succeeding years to expand the range of services offered. In 1979, a Disabled Living Centre was opened to advise people on the selection of aids which might help them compensate for their impairments. The number of older people requiring treatment and care was increasing steadily and in 1983, the Balfour Pavilion (named after the last Chairman of the Board of Governors David Balfour, Lord Kinross) was opened to help deal with their needs. A national assessment service for disabled people wishing to start or resume driving was established in 1984 as part of the Vehicles Centre and these services were united with the Disabled Living Centre as the Mobility Centre in 1992. The Southeast Mobility and Rehabilitation Technology (SMART) Centre was built in 2007, amalgamating the services of the Mobility Centre with the Prosthetic and Bio-engineering Unit from the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital whose other facilities had closed a few years before.

The history is not only of development unfortunately, for since 2000, the Astley Ainslie Hospital has lost its Nurses Home to Napier University and properties in Canaan Lane and Grange Loan have been sold off for redevelopment. Now the intention is to sell the remainder of the site in 2020.

Roger Kellett and John Hunter March 2017