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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter X - About the Cowgate


THE Cowgate is, even for Edinburgh, a place of picturesque contrast. As far as a public street can reveal its story to the casual wayfarer, you come here on the bedrock of poverty and want. The shops are of the fried fish, rag-and-bone, "clouted shoon" variety. Residenters are—God help them !—pulled down by poverty and vice. The frequent public-house is an agreeable contrast, even though, like an evil growth, it draws strength from adjacent ruin. Not historic interest, not the memory of great names, not all the mystery of the past, disguises the havoc of those dark alleys that open on either side, even though you spell on the wall, familiar as a household word, the story of the world’s romance. And of this place Alexander Alesse wrote in 1530: Via vaccarum in qua habitant patricii et senatores urbis—ubi nihil humile aut rusticum, sed omnia magnifica. Here was the patrician quarter, its buildings begun in the fifteenth century, a fashionable suburb just outside the old city wall of James II., an exclusive quarter. "The palaces of the Cowgate," as the folk of Edinburgh called them, were the abode of the best in the Scots capital. After Flodden it was borne in on those gay folk that their splendid houses were in danger. It was all very well for the people of a border village to get off to the hills with their thatched roofs, and watch with indifference, nay, with a certain ironic amusement, the vain efforts of the "auld enemy" to inflict tangible harm on the hovels of mud. But here this same "auld enemy" would have the unwonted and pleasurable experience of finding something worth the lifting, and so in frantic haste—the fragments of stone even to-day tell us that—the Flodden Wall was put together, and My Lord and My Lady breathed again as they sat in their palace or walked in their terraced garden. I garner a fact here and there from the history of this famous street. The interest lies in the past. Unless you are an improvement commissioner, or a City missionary, you will not linger in to-day’s Cowgate. Not that the present street is dirtier than ever it was. There is extant a certain ordinance of the magistrates, temp. 1518—its zenith for honour - anent the "dichting of the calsey," which gives one "furieusement a passer." The Cowgate is of small compass. It is less than half a mile long, and runs between the Grassmarket and the foot of St Mary Street, though beyond that the South Back of Canongate continues on to Holyrood. It lies at the very bottom of the valley, and is crossed at a considerable height by George IV. Bridge and the South Bridge, each carrying a broad and busy roadway. I think the Cowgate is quieter and more orderly than it was. Thirty years ago I remember passing one night in a house hard by George IV. or South Bridge, I forget which. For hours after I went to bed I heard, from the very bowels of the earth, sounds of more than Morse festivities, deadly combats and wails of lamentation, as from the depths of some dread Inferno. But then, and long before and after, the Cowgate was the last word for all that was most hopeless in all Edinburgh.

Where it leaves the Grassmarket is Candlemaker Row, running south by the east side of the Greyfriars Churchyard. A few years ago this row was a choice bit, but here, as elsewhere, all has suffered change. Once this was the great approach to Edinburgh from the south; hereabouts were many places of entertainment. In the Palfrey’s Inn, at the Cowgatehead, it was noted in 1780 that thirty or forty carriers had their headquarters. The Rab of Dr John Brown’s story put up at the Harrow Inn here, and Paterson’s Inn was another famous hostelry. If you follow the Candlemaker Row southward it will lead you into Bristo Street. Here was the Bristo or Society Port in the Flodden Wall. Society, by the way, was a little district which is ended in Chambers Street, though a quaint wee bit survives west of the old College. It was so called from a society of brewers, dating from 1598. It was once a fashionable quarter. The projected development of Edinburgh towards the north in the eighteenth century had many difficulties to meet, and once or twice hung fire, and it was asked, Why not push south? Therefore were built Brown Square, which has also gone into Chambers Street, and George Square, which still exists and still retains its old-world charm though for some occult reason it is now given over to the dentists. Hard by Bristo Port, just within the wall, there stood the Darien House, the offices where the Darien scheme had its practical working out Edinburgh, in a far truer sense than Oxford, is the "home of lost causes," and none is stranger than this. Who could guess that this was but the faint vision of what was to be two centuries later? There is something affecting about the disastrous failure of the premature attempt to beat the sword into the ploughshare. No fault of the Scot that it failed! Do you wonder that they raged at English jealousy, that they hung unfortunate English sailors, that they passed the Act of Security? Read the pitiful yet heroic story and you will understand. It were vain to bewail either the lost causes or the lost houses of Edinburgh; if you did your eye would never be without tears. I suppose the Darien House had to go with the rest. If any enemies of the scheme survived in after years they must have thought it appropriate that it ended as a madhouse. In a sort of annexe thereto, called the Schelles or Cells, died poor Fergusson the poet. He was but a lad. His undoubted genius never had its fair chance. The last scene accentuated the sordid tragedy. He perished, calling in wild frenzy on his mother, whom the harsh regulation of the house denied at that hour to his embrace. The only pleasant thought is of that stone in the Canongate Churchyard and Burns’ kindly homage to his memory. When the Recording Angel weighs and balances the deeds, good and evil, of the sons of men, that one act of kindness is more than enough to atone for all the rash and hotheaded pranks of poor Robin.

Bristo Street meets the Potterrow, which runs east of and makes an angle with it. It is a shabby street now, and there is no monotonous tale of degraded splendour to tell, for it was never other than shabby. It has its place in Scots history since here was unearthed, on a certain day in June 1567, the famous Casket that held those famous letters. I have no intention of discussing yet again the authenticity of these documents. If you wish to make up your mind whether they were Mary’s or no you must fall to study of the works of Mr T. F. Henderson and Mr Andrew Lang. Hard by Candlemaker Row there once stood the Horse Wynd, for whose disappearance you must again call Chambers Street to account. It is a little odd that so great an admirer of Old Edinburgh as William Chambers should, by his improvement scheme as Lord Provost, and even after his death, be mixed up with the change of old into new. Why should he of all men play the child of Babel and raze to its foundations the city he loved? Because, you believe, he saw that the claims of the living and of to-day were superior to those of the dead and yesterday. If it seem hard that here and there some particular house was not saved, it was because if you began making exceptions there was no end of them. Horse Wynd, albeit its name, was once a highly fashionable quarter. To live here was a certificate that you had blue blood in your veins; but I am not writing another edition of Douglas or any other Scots Peerage. I will only mention Catharine, Countess of Galloway. She was far too great a lady to stir out except in her coach, and that must be drawn by six leaders. As in Old Edinburgh everybody was in literal touch with everybody else, it happened not seldom that the heads of My Lady’s horses were at the door of the house she proposed to visit ere My Lady was in her coach and ready to start. The wits of the time had much to say, in the Holyrood Ridotto and elsewhere, on the tricks of Lady Galloway, but My Lady’s coachman was for sure equal to the occasion. There was such a cracking of whips and prancing of horses, and frenzied running hither and thither of lackeys, as gave this progress of ten yards all the éclat of a journey of ten miles. Next you see written up at the end of a short and dingy alley, "College Wynd," the most famous and interesting passage in the Cowgate. This was once the Wynd of the Blessed Mary in the Field, and led to Kirk o’ Field. You remember that as the scene of the Darnley murder and how the Town’s College was built on the site, and quite naturally the old name got altered to College Wynd, and though only the stump of it remains I am thankful for that small mercy. And here Oliver Goldsmith was in 1752; and here in 1771 the great and good Sir Walter was born; and up this on Sunday, the 5th August 1773, toiled, or rather rolled, Dr Samuel Johnson, escorted by James Boswell, Esquire, and the Very Reverend Principal William Robertson, on his way to view the college. Lest you think that Chambers Street swallowed up everything, let me add that Guthrie Street is responsible for much of the Horse Wynd and College Wynd. And if you ask why they did not retain the old names, the answer is that the whole place has been so mauled about and muddled that to have done so would only have made error darker. Dr Guthrie’s memory is connected with a Cowgate anecdote good in itself and illustrative of the place. He had climbed to the top of a tall land on some charitable visitation. Entering the room, he perceived a huge sow, of which the family were obviously proud. "However did you get that great animal upstairs?" said the Doctor, panting from his journey. "Ay, but it never was doon!" was the conclusive reply. Another anecdote, or rather phrase, is of an earlier day and a higher social scale. Across the street you have a back view of the huge mass of buildings which now comprises the Parliament House, and you can try to trace where the Back Stairs led from the Cowgate up the steep slope. Here on the Cowgate was the Meal Market, where in 1707 a huge fire burst out. Now, besides the various burnings by the "auld enemy" already noted, Edinburgh was raked by some terrible conflagrations. One in 1824 did fearful havoc to the Parliament Close and all the buildings down to the Tron, so that Salamander Land (where now are the Police Buildings) was well nigh the sole survivor. The Tron steeple and bell alike were destroyed. The bell dated from 1673, and was the "wanchancy thing" cursed by Fergusson. Drinking. quaichs were made from the molten metal, a transformation that had vastly delighted the poet. I do not know whether the 1707 fire was a worse business, but according to Forbes of Culloden, in a letter to his brother preserved in the Culloden Papers, it was the most terrible he had ever witnessed, "notwithstanding that I saw London burne." And again "All the pryde of Edinbro is sunk; from the Cowgate to the High Street all is burnt and hardly one stone is left upon another." He notes that there were "many rueful spectacles," such as "Corserig, naked with a child under his oxter, happin’ for his life." How to beat that for word. picture? The old Scots of an educated man had something uncanny in its force. The spelling of the future Lord President, however, requires riddling. The unfortunate referred to was Sir David Hume of Crossrig (1643-1707), from which place he took his title as one of the Senators of the College of Justice, and so was a Lord, albeit a paper one. He had a wooden leg, whence the "happin’." "Naked" means, no doubt, in his nightdress. An Edinburgh fire must now be a long way distant from the Cowgate before it renders such spectacle again possible.

Some of the great houses of old times had their root, so to speak, in the Cowgate, whilst their upper stories were only a little back from the High Street. Hope House, which gave way to the Edinburgh Free Library after a life of much the better part of three centuries, was the most noted. Here dwelt Sir Thomas Hope, King’s Advocate under Charles I., a strong Presbyterian, a great landowner, and something of the scholar. The house was plastered all over with curt Latin apothegms, "Tecum habita," "At hospes humo," and the like, commingling moral emblems with anagrams on his name. The stock anecdote concerning him is that he had two sons on the Bench, hence he was allowed to wear his hat whilst pleading, a right retained by his successors. A ludicrous nickname of King Jamie’s preserves the memory of another statesman of the period just before. Where there is now the south pier of George IV. Bridge there once abode in considerable splendour Tam o’ the Cowgate, King’s Advocate, Lord President of the Court of Session, and first Earl of Haddington, to give but a few of his titles. A mass of more or less authentic anecdote has gathered round this old-time statesman. One evening as he sat over a bottle of wine, a babel of youthful voices and the bicker of a strenuous fight surged round his mansion. Tam’s ears were not so old as to have forgotten what the sounds meant. The lads of the High School and the College were at deadly blows, and the High School was getting much the worst of it. But my lord was an old High School boy. He sallied forth in dressing-gown and slippers, and rather, you fancy, by the majesty of his port than by the weight of his arm changed the fortunes of the night. The College faction were driven pell mell from the Grassmarket and fled through the West Port. Tam secured the yett, returned to his wine, philosophically reflecting that a night in the fields would be an excellent sedative for too impetuous youth. One other story. Tam acquired wealth at a rate that seemed miraculous. ‘Twas said he had found or discovered the Philosopher’s Stone. You fancy how King James’s mouth opened and his eyes well nigh started out of his head at this prodigy. Here was something to stir the mettle of the cutest witch-finder in all Britain. My Lord did not deny the soft impeachment. There was a secret, he confessed, but let King and courtier dine with him and all would be plain. They did dine, and then Tam with rich humour rolled out a set of the driest and most commonplace maxims in the copy-book: "Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day!" "Labour conquers all things!" with other masterpieces of the trite and the obvious. How Solomon’s jaw must have fallen as he listened! This was in 1617, and it was not till twenty years after that Tam, with his usual sagacity, took himself away from days of increasing darkness and evil. Hard to bid good-bye to so many worthy and entertaining people. The most fascinating remains, for opposite Niddry Street there once stood the town house of the Bishops of Dunkeld, and here Gawin Douglas lived in 1515 and you are sure he wrote and read much, though seven years afterwards he was put to rest in the Savoy Churchyard. Patria sua exsul, said his epitaph with pathetic simplicity. You remember the famous mot uttered to Beaton, Archbishop of Glasgow, who just before the fray of "Clean-the-Causeway," in 1520, in talk with Douglas, smote his breast, the while protesting his peaceable intent. "Your conscience clatters," said the poet, with a happy play on the double meaning of the word in Scots, as the concealed coat of mail rung under the blow. He is better known, I daresay, by this story than by his admirable translation of Virgil and the charmingly original prologues, for how few of us have the key of that long-disused court Scots?

At the foot of St Mary Street, across the way, a tablet on a commonplace corner house tells you that here was the palace of Cardinal Beaton. But we are now come to the Cowgate Port, or at least where that used to be, and though there are curious pickings in this South Back of Canongate and St John’s Hill and the Pleasance, we leave them untouched.


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