The Trefoil School

Northfield House, St Abbs
Northfield House, St Abbs

The story of the Trefoil School is told in a booklet: The Beginnings and Early History of the Trefoil School by Those who Still Remember, by Mary A. Crawford. I have not managed to source a copy of this book, so the following information is cobbled together from archive newspapers and from an account on the Trefoil Charity’s website.

The Beginnings and Early History of the Trefoil School by Those who Still Remember, by Mary A. Crawford (estimated publication date 1949).

In 1939 at the beginning of WW2 a group of Girl Guides in Edinburgh responded to an appeal for volunteers to give full-time assistance to evacuees. They were invited to staff a home for evacuee ‘cripples’ who did not fall under the general evacuation scheme, as they were neither in institutions nor in mainstream schools, including some children affected by thalidomide.

The Guides were led by Miss Wallace Williamson from Edinburgh, who later became secretary of the Trefoil School Executive Committee. The Headmistress of the School from its opening in 1939 until 1956 was Miss Catherine Anne Hamilton Bruce MBE. [Miss Hamilton Bruce wrote a book, “A Family Patchwork by a Scottish Cousin”, which may perhaps contain references to the School.] The Guides specifically asked to be used an undivided unit.


The help of the Edinburgh Girl Guides is being asked for various forms of voluntary National Service. Already over 200 Rangers have registered for emergency work, and of these a large number have been called up. Any Ranger and Guide over 15 who still desires to enrol should do so as soon as possible. For this purpose 33 Melville Street will be open from 9.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Under the Edinburgh Education Authority a hostel for evacuated cripple children is being entirely staffed by Guiders and Rangers.

Edinburgh Evening News, Tuesday 12 September 1939

The Guides launched their scheme at Northfield, the mansion on the St Abbs cliff owned by Lord Amulree, where a group of “special evacuees” from Edinburgh had been sent. The evacuees included physically disabled boys and girls aged between 6 and 16. In many cases their previous experience of school was limited, or non-existent. The school was staffed entirely by Guiders, and the volunteer teachers were just as inexperienced as their young charges.

More details were given in the Scotsman.

Guides Care of Cripples.

A special piece of evacuation work has been undertaken for the Edinburgh Education Committee by a group of Edinburgh Guiders and Rangers who, I am told, have made themselves responsible for the care of those cripple and invalid children of the city who were not included in any of the larger evacuation schemes. There are many such children in Edinburgh, children for the most part unable to attend school, some of whom, of course, have been taken away or sent away by their parents. Others are too dependent upon their mothers for the mothers to be willing to part with them, but a gradually increasing band of boys and girls is being collected in a delightful country spot where they can work and play undisturbed by war’s alarms. Their days are well occupied. Lessons and handcraft teaching are provided for, and country air and a well arranged dietary are bringing roses into some pale cheeks, so one of the helpers tells me. Edinburgh Girl Guide Headquarters are open both for those who wish the assistance of Guides and for Guides who wish to give assistance.

The Scotsman, Wednesday 13 September 1939

By 19th September there were about 40 children at Northfield.

About 40 crippled children have been evacuated from Edinburgh to Northfield House, the St Abbs residence of Lord Amulree.

Berwickshire News and General Advertiser, Tuesday 19 September 1939

The School’s mission and values were quickly established. The School’s ethos was to provide a life as normal as possible for its young residents. They were taught practical skills, and a sense of achievement was encouraged.

Cowdenknowes in 1915.

Some time between 19th September and November 1939, the school moved to Cowdenknowes, near Earlston, Galashiels. The Scottish Education Department inspected the school and its first fully accredited teacher was appointed.


I have found some evacuees who are content with their lot. Nor did I hear any complaints about their behaviour when I saw them the other day in their temporary home in the Borders. To be sure, the evacuees themselves would be hard to please if they grumbled at their sylvan surroundings, even in winter, for their mansion-house has central heating, as well as large windows looking down on lawns and woodland paths and river, a comfortable hump of hill standing between them and the sharp east wind. It could not protect them from the rain, however, which was lashing down heavily, delicious intervals of sunshine catching the russet tones of the hedgerows and the bushes by the waterside. Poised on these branches one morning someone saw a kingfisher, glorious in his vivid blue, and gone almost as soon as glimpsed. Thanks to the vagaries of the weather, there was something of a traffic jam at the spacious front entrance to the house about midday. The morning walk was a little late, and there was much ado to get everybody into coats and mufflers, and some people into chairs before the party could set out. And then there was every chance that, once well away from the shelter of walls, the rain would descend again in earnest. But everyone was extraordinarily cheerful. The blink of sunshine was not to be missed, and it was a very merry party of crippled Guides who set off down the drive , laughing their farewells to the few who were staying at home. Indoors , there was letter-writing to be done, and in the children’s sitting room one saw evidence that already this group is beginning to observe and to set down the result of its observations. A record had been begun about trees, and another about birds. Here was scope for the young artist. There is also scope for the story-writer. Is there not a nook in the house in which Mary Queen of Scots is alleged to have slept? To be sure, it was built just after she died, but what novelist worth the name would allow a trifle like that to deter him! There is no knowing what literary gems may not discover themselves as the result of this small group of handicapped young people making their home in the country for a space, and amid such romantic surroundings.

The Guiders Run It.

You should know that the Girl Guiders are responsible for the running of this home for their cripple members evacuated during war-time. They really do run it, doing the cooking and housework themselves, and some of them undertaking nursing duties. All the work is arranged with off-duty times according to a timetable, and at weekends parents and visitors are encouraged. Lessons are carried on regularly with teachers, and from all I could hear, the young people — there are several boys as well as the cripple Guides — are improving out of all knowledge, educationally and physically.

“What is the effect of bringing them all under one roof? Each child must have been hitherto the centre of his or her little universe, getting all the special petting and attention in the home from mother and father, brothers and sisters.”

That is just where the young evacuee scores, I learnt. Being with others similarly handicapped, and seeing others trying to help someone other than themselves, they respond quickly to the new atmosphere, developing their latent social sense. One young knitter, for instance, was heard to murmur that that would be six squares now for her patrol — not “that I have knitted”, mark you! Another had appointed herself unofficial tidier-up after the rest. Another child, accustomed to being alone all day in her mother’s absence at work, can hardly believe her own good fortune at the good fellowship that she can now enjoy.

“Food and fads — did they present no difficulty?”

Smiles answered that question. At first they did, I was told. This one did not like this, and that one did not like that, as happens in most families until someone takes a firm hand. But the other day the arch-complainer was heard gently chiding a newcomer, “You musn’t say you don’t like it; you must just eat it whether you like it or not!” The staff are now comfortably housed and bedded, but things were not always thus. When this group was first to be evacuated there was a scarcity of beds. The Girl Guides rose to the occasion and produced the required number for the children at a day’s notice by some means known only to themselves. The staff slept, perfectly cheerfully, on the floor .

The Scotsman, Wednesday 29 November 1939
Crippled children evacuated from Edinburgh play selections at Cowdenknowes Fete.


Cowdenknowes, where a fete is to held on Saturday, August 31, is picturesquely situated on the Leader about a mile below Earlston. See particulars in advertisement columns. The present mansion house was built in 1574, by Sir James Home, but the Tower and Dungeon, which are being shown at the fete, probably formed part of an earlier house, where Sir John Home, Warden of the Marches, entertained Mary Queen of Scots during one of her progresses through the Border country: A chestnut tree said to have been planted by her on this occasion still stands upon the lawn. At present the house is occupied by special school and hostel for cripple children evacuated from Edinburgh charge of officers of the Edinburgh Guides.

Southern Reporter, Thursday 29 August 1940


A splendid effort of help to raise funds for the purpose of purchasing mobile canteen for the Girl Guides’ Headquarters in Edinburgh was made by the Cripple Guides at Cowdenknowes, when they gave an excellent entertainment. Owing to the lack of accommodation, only a limited number of friends could invited. However, those who were fortunate to be present were treated to delightful programme of songs, sketches and recitations, by the cripple children and the staff.

Berwickshire News and General Advertiser, Tuesday 14 October 1941

Although most of the evacuees had left by 1944, there was still a clear demand for the School’s services. Efforts were made to formalise the endeavour, which had remained until this point a voluntary organisation. The new name was chosen: the Trefoil School, the Trefoil being the symbol of the Girl Guide movement. The School motto of “Undaunted” was agreed along with the Trefoil Guide Badge logo.

The School remained at Cowdenknowes until May 1945, when Sir Adrian Baillie allowed them to move to his house, Polkemmet House, near Whitburn, on a two year lease. The new Trefoil School was officially opened on 26th September 1945. Sir Adrian’s death in 1947 brought forward an inevitable need to find a more permanent location.

Polkemmet House, Whitburn

The opening of the new premises at Polkemmet House by Princess Elizabeth in 1945 was reported in the local press. The Princess was then 19 years old.

VISIT OF ROYALTY – Princess Elizabeth Opens Trefoil House.

Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth visited West Lothian on Wednesday and formally opened Trefoil House (formerly Polkemmet House), near Whitburn, as a home for cripple children. The gathering was of a semi-private nature, only those more or less directly interested in this good work being present, Fortunately fine weather prevailed, and the Princess was able to see the children at work and play in the beautiful grounds as well as inside. Girl Guides from all over the county formed a guard honour and lined both sides of the drive leading to the mansion, which was most fitting, as Trefoil House is the outcome of a worthy war-time activity of the Guides.


Her Royal Highness, wearing the uniform of the commandant of the Sea Rangers, arrived by car and was received at the school by Mrs J R C Greenlees, deputy chairman of the Scottish Executive of the Girl Guides Association. Captain C A Salvesen, chairman of the Trefoil School Executive Committee, presented other members of the executive committee of the school to her, including Harriet, Lady Findlay, Lady Rosebery, Mrs Henderson, Miss Drysdale, Mrs Slater, Mrs Hope, Mrs Stewart Lamb, and Miss Wallace Williamson, secretary of the Trefoil School Executive Committee and Edinburgh Commissioner, and Miss Hamilton Bruce, Guider, in charge. On approaching the door Master David Cruickshank, whose home is at 57 Broughton Road, Edinburgh, asked Her Royal Highness if she would be so kind as to open their school, and a key for the purpose was presented by Miss Margaret Cooney, who hails from Eire. Princess Elizabeth smilingly complied and, opening the door, passed inside, where she found the little ones playing with toys in the hall. She spoke to several of them, and it was delightful to see how they treated her as a big sister and spoke to her with becoming reserve but entirely unconfused.


Having inspected the interior of the house and seen in operation the good work being carried out by Miss Hamilton Bruce and her staff, the Princess expressed herself delighted with some of the efforts of the children, such as model ships in wood, boxes for spotting planes at night, etc.. She also expressed her pleasure at the arrangement made for the care of the children. Going outside, she viewed the gardens, where some of the young people were busy in the sandpit and at other occupations and recreations suitable to their various disabilities. While there she was invited to partake of coffee by Miss Thady Lavelle, whose home is at Riccarton Mains, Currie, and before leaving was presented with a beautiful bouquet by little five-year-old Ruth Mackenzie, 17 Hanfleld Terrace, Kingskettie, Fife, the youngest inmate of the home. Thereafter the Princess posed for photographers before leaving. Those present then went over the premises.


Trefoil House is the outcome of a fine piece of work done by the Girl Guides during the war. The originator of the scheme was Miss Wallace Williamson, daughter of former well-known Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In the early days of the war she and other Guiders In Edinburgh volunteered to give full-time assistance to evacuees. They asked to be used a unit, and they were asked if they would start a home for evacuee cripples who did not come under the general scheme through not being in institutions or at school. They started up at St Abbs, and after a short time transferred to Cowdenknowes, where, until last May, their efforts were centred.


As the end of the war drew near it became obvious that the good work being done here should continued, as of such a place there was much need to fill lamentable gap in our schemes of care for those handicapped In leading a normal life. Cripples need education, they need surgical and medical care, and, most of all, they need as normal a life as possible, and companionship. As things were, many of these children could not attend school. Some who have been admitted were unable to read or write though ten years old. They were unable to play or meet with children of their own age and were apt to develop sense of frustration and grow up with grudge.


Now all that has been changed. One has only to see the bright and smiling faces and watch the activities of those at Trefoil School to realise what it means to them. The effort to continue the school met with a ready response from local authorities, organisations such the Cripples’ Aid Society, the Scottish Orthopaedic Council, the Girl Guide Association, and private individuals. A council was formed, a constitution drawn up, a two-year lease of Polkemmet House was got from Sir Adrian Baillie on very generous terms and the home moved there from Cowdenknowes last May. Previously it had been run on a voluntary basis, but it has now been put on a permanent paying basis, local authorities contributing £2 per week for each child sent there. It was realised that the success during the war years was attributable to the staffing by Girl Guide personnel, and it was resolved that this same atmosphere should be continued. Accordingly the home is still staffed by Guides or ex-Guides, with Guider Miss Hamilton Bruce in charge.


The hon. president is Mrs Elliott Carnegy of Lour, and the hon. vicepresidents include the Countess of Rosebery, Lady Craigmyle, Sir John Fraser, Bart., Dr J R C Greenlees, Lord Rowallan, Lady Stratheden, and Lady Victoria Wemyss. The chairman is Captain C A Salvesen, Councillor J B Crawford Lamb, Edinburgh, is vice-chairman, Miss Wallace Williamson is hon. secretary, and the hon. treasurer, to whom donations should be sent, is Mr Ian MacGillivray, W.S., 32 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. Many of the above were present at the ceremony on Wednesday. Among others there were Mrs Lang Bathgate, and Guide Captain Miss J Caldwell, Prestonhill, West Calder. who are members of the governing council. The aim of the home as now carried is to give the cripples a sound education, a craft training by which they can earn their living and suited to their disability. One boy for example, has been trained to make fishing flies and is kept busy with orders from several tackle merchants. They are also given recreational interests, and by the time they return to their own homes thev will be well fitted to take a useful place In any community. Local Guides and Guiders, we were informed, are supplying much appreciated and useful help in the work. The capacity of the home is 35, and at the moment there are several vacancies. Children from five years old are admissible.

Linlithgowshire Gazette – Friday 28 September 1945

In 1948 the school found the permanent accommodation it sought at Kirklands, Gogar, near Hermiston, Edinburgh. The house incorporated 22 acre grounds and related properties. It was initially referred to as ‘dismantled’, and the purchase price and renovations had to be paid for by fund raising events. The Guides spent the next three years preparing the house and the organisation for its new role.

The Trefoil School Association was inaugurated in September 1949. This British Film Institute film shows the School in 1949, when it was still at Polkemmet House. The film was used to raise funds for the purchase and adaptation of Kirklands.

British Film Institute film of the School in 1949.

The film shows a two week summer camp, probably at the campsite on the school grounds, the brake donated by the Scottish Branch of the British Red Cross, children following a woodland trail, arriving back at school, in one of their dormitories, laying the table in the dining room, saying grace, attending lessons with a faithful collie dog and a pet canary, learning crafts, and playing in the grounds, and enjoying a senior common room. It then shows the new property, Kirklands.

Re-roofing of the north wing at Kirklands was completed by August 1950, together with the walls of a new wing.

In April 1951, the school moved into Kirklands, even though the renovations were incomplete. Raised garden beds were built so that the children could access these from their wheelchairs, and money was raised to build a hydrotherapy pool. In 1951 a site in the lower south-east field was allocated as a Girl Guides camp.

The Trefoil School at Kirkland House, Hermiston

The official opening took place in June 1951.

Princess Margaret to open new Trefoil School in June

Princess Margaret will open new premises of the Trefoil School at Kirkland House, Hermiston, Midlothian, on June 26. This indicates that Princess Margaret will be accompanying the King and Queen on their Scottish visit. They will be in residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse from June 21 to 28. Trefoil School’s present premises at Polkemmet House, Whitbum were opened by Princess Elizabeth on September 26, 1915. It was on the initiative of the Girl Guides that this residential school for disabled children was formed, but Polkemmet House was only held on lease. Permanent accommodation was found in 1948 at Kirkland House, and since then the building has been undergoing extensive reconstruction. It should be ready for the removal from Whitburn in April. The school was formed shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, when crippled children were evacuated to St Abbs. During most of the war they were in Berwickshire, and moved to Whitburn in 1946. Both girls and boys are accommodated.

West Lothian Courier – Friday 19 January 1951

This bench commemorates the former Headmistress Miss Hamilton Bruce, who left her role in 1956.

It reads: “In loving memory of Catherine Anne Hamilton Bruce MBE, founder of the Trefoil School for Handicapped Children, 1940, for all the wonderful help and love she gave to so many people, who will always be grateful. From Grace with love.”

In the mid 1970s a change in the government’s provision of facilities for severely disabled children precipitated changes to Trefoil’s role. The funding arrangements meant that local authorities sought to keep children within their own areas, so Trefoil very quickly lost the majority of its income, and for a while it seemed that it would close completely.

An alternative use of the House and the estate was agreed and the Trefoil Holiday Centre opened in 1976, giving disadvantaged children access to relatively inexpensive holidays. Again, legislation regulating care services and the requirements for Care Home registration had a negative impact on Trefoil, and in 2002 the Trustees decided to cease providing direct services and to lease the House to the City of Edinburgh Council as a care facility for frail or isolated people and a holiday centre for the disabled. Edinburgh Council remained in residence until the end of 2007, and after several years of uncertainity, St Columba’s Hospice took a lease from 2010 to 2014. As no further tenant was forthcoming, and with the costs of upkeep rising, the Estate was sold in September 2015. Trefoil now operates mainly as a grant giving charity.


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