Livingston is the most successful of Scotland's new towns. It has grown to become the second biggest settlement in the Lothians after Edinburgh, and has a population larger than either Perth or Inverness. While Livingston has a great deal going for it, the one thing it is really short of is interesting old buildings.
Which makes it all the more heartening that the the most prominently located of Livingston's old buildings has been restored to use after years of neglect and dereliction sent it to the very brink of oblivion. Howden House stands on the north side of the valley of the River Almond, at the upper end of the rising sweep of Howden Park. It commands huge views south over the centre of Livingston to the Pentland Hills beyond: and its white harling ensures it stands out prominently in views north from much of the town.
Howden House was completed in about 1770, possibly for Thomas Farquharson of Howden. In 1834 the house was purchased by Henry Raeburn, son of artist Sir Henry Raeburn. It was later the property of the daughter of the noted local industrialist James Young, who lived here until her death in 1931, when the house was sold to Sir Adrian Baillie of Polkemmet.
Howden House was purchased in 1946 by the Ministry of Agriculture, who used the estate to test new agricultural machinery. The 1960s saw the growth of Livingston New Town in the surrounding area, with the immediate grounds of the house becoming Howden Park. Howden House itself was bought by Livingston Development Corporation in 1966 for use as a community centre and meeting rooms.
The building was later boarded and went into decline. Photographs taken in September 2010 show the condition it had reached. The house remained a Category B listed building, but was increasingly become an outdoor showcase for Livingston's graffiti artists. Meanwhile, press reports that the house was to become an art gallery or the focal point of a residential development extending back onto land parallel with the plot of the nearby St John's Hospital came to nothing.
A particular irony of the dereliction was that Howden House was especially obvious in views from its near-neighbour, Livingston's Civic Centre, itself planted in what had previously been open parkland on the north edge of the centre of Livingston at a cost reported to be around £53m. Or perhaps Howden House had just become such a fixture in the landscape that its presence simply no longer attracted attention from any distance. Close-up, however, its condition had become pretty difficult to ignore, and it was also detracting significantly from another multi-million pound project. Anyone visiting the superb Howden Park Centre, which had blossomed dramatically out of what were originally Howden House's stables, had to drive right past the frontage of Howden House.
And then, in November 2011, it was reported that Howden House had been sold at auction, for £98,000: by some accounts for conversion into a pub or hotel. By December 2011 the new owners had ensured that the window openings were securely covered for the first time in a long time, and a coat of fresh white paint had covered up the graffiti.
This time it wasn't a false dawn. Scaffolding swathed the building by March 2012 as Howden House underwent major refurbishment. The result is a triumph. The main house has been converted into a number of apartments, and a square of housing has been built to the rear of the house, very much in keeping with it. There remain some who feel that it would have been better had Howden House been returned to community use rather than being converted into housing. They are probably right, but what is there now is vastly preferable to the derelict building that stood there previously.