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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter VII - Some Closes and Houses in High Street and Canongate


LET us walk from the Castle Gate to the porch at Holyrood and look at some places on the way. I avoid minute detail. In going over the indwellers one is apt to lose a sense of proportion, to forget that whilst Hume and Bums and Scott are of the world and all time, "auld worthy, faithfu’ Provost Dick" and Bailie Macmorran are only City folk, and Allan Ramsay, and even Fergusson, only for Scotland. Where there is such a wealth of crop you can neglect all but the finest of the wheat.

A little way down on your left hand you pass the back of the Free Kirk College. Here stood the palace of Mary of Lorraine and Guise, widow of James V., where she lived in the middle of the sixteenth century. Tradition still dwells on the high ceiling and beautiful decoration of the hall, of the long array of windows on the north side and the far prospect they disclosed, and the gardens that sloped down to the Nor’ Loch. You will not neglect its successor, the quaint little quadrangle, made up of a college on the west and a kirk—the Free High, as it is called—on the east, the Assembly Hall on the south, and the entrance gateway on the north, which opens on the Mound, and is thus rather of the new than of the old town.

It is a symbolical half-way house, for old Scotland lives for us most vividly in certain forms of its faith. This same gateway is adorned with two tall towers, and looking at it from Princes Street you see just behind the steeple of the state church Assembly Hall, at the junction of High Street and Lawnmarket, and not far from the old place of meeting in St Giles’. The view from Princes Street seemed to Dean Stanley a symbol of the dependence of the new forms on the old. It was vacation time as I strolled in the quadrangle. I read the text on the place of meeting, "Praise Him in the assembly of the Elders," and the inscription on the not successful statue of John Knox in the quadrangle. He looked "dour," not to say "sour" enough to justify Browning’s unhappy epithet. In life John Knox was the enemy of the Regent, and a certain quaintness has been found in the fact that his statue stands in her very gates. But one effect of the narrow space is to fill Edinburgh in present fact and past history with every manner of whimsical contrast. The charger of Charles II.'s statue in the Parliament Close tramples on the grave of Knox, or is only restrained from doing it by the exigencies of the pedestal.

Going down the street you pass James’s Court, with memories of Hume and Boswell and Dr Johnson. This old place, dating from 1725-27, made havoc in its time of many an ancient close. It was a daring speculation of James Brownhill, a builder of the time, hence its name. Across the way is Riddle’s Court, formerly Bailie Macmorran’s Close. The Bailie had a tragic fate. He was shot in a riot of the High School boys by William Sinclair, ancestor of the Earls of Caithness. Next it is Brodie’s Close, called from that interesting malefactor, whom we shall meet again; and just about where George IV. Bridge and the road it carries run southward was Libberton’s Wynd, and in it Johnnie Dowie’s Tavern,

"Where couthy chields at e’ening meet,
Their bizzin craigs and mou’s to weet."

Among the "couthy chields" were Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns.

Going over to the north side again, you look at Lady Stair’s Close. This Lady Stair was granddaughter of Lord High Chancellor Louden, and was married when young to Lord Primrose of Castlefield, who was scarce sane. Once he advanced with drawn sword to kill her: she saw the reflection in the mirror, and wild with fear, jumped out of the window into the street, and fled, half-dressed, to her mother-in-law. Naturally she would have none of him, husband as he was. But she was destined to see him once again, and again in a mirror. He had gone abroad, and apparently was lost, when there came to Edinburgh an Italian magician, who professed to show those interested in the absent what those same absent were doing at the moment. The lady and her friend sought the magician, dressed as servants, though their speech and their hands easily betrayed them. After certain weird rites he exhibited a mirror, wherein appeared a succession of scenes, like a modern cinematograph—a church, a bridal party, a service interrupted at the critical moment by a man with a drawn sword. Then the vision faded, not before the lady had recognized in the bridegroom her own husband, in the intruder her own brother. She marked the day and the hour, and then, as you guess, in due time the brother turned up and described how Lord Primrose was about to commit bigamy with the only daughter of a wealthy merchant in a Dutch town when he was stopped in the nick of time by the brother, who (strange coincidence!) just then strolled into the church where the service was in progress. Comparison showed the day and hour of the vision and the event to be identical. Lord Primrose died abroad in 1706, and his widow had many wooers, chief among them the Earl of Stair, one of the best parties in Scotland. She would have none of him, for she dreaded marriage, but he found means, by a not very creditable trick, of forcing her to marry him to save her reputation. He was a perfect spouse, save when "disguised in liquor," as our ancestors phrased it, when he mauled her unmercifully. Unfortunately the Scots gentlemen of the period were so frequently "disguised" in this manner that the exception seemed not seldom the rule. Once he found her in the morning covered with blood, and like one distracted he was filled with concern and grief, which increased when he discovered that he himself was the cause of the trouble. To abjure the bottle altogether was a counsel of perfection too great for a Scots nobleman; at least he would only take what drink she handed him. Contemporary accounts report, with admiration, his faithful observance of this vow, but perhaps the lady was reasonably liberal. He died in 1747. Funerals were one of the great spectacles of the time, but his was of a complicated splendour, that long lingered in the memories of admiring mourners. His widow survived him twelve years.

The Douglas Cause in its own days excited everybody as the Tichborne Trial did in later times. Lord Dundonald told the Duke of Douglas that Lady Stair held certain views. Let him be thought "a damned villain" if he spoke not the truth. Lady Stair was equal to the occasion. She proceeded to Holyrood in full state, and in presence of the Duke and all his satellites she smote the floor with her staff three times, and each time gave the Earl, with the utmost of emphasis, the name he had craved. Scott’s story of My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror is founded on this Lady Stair tradition. Lord Rosebery restored the house in this close of his forefathers and gifted it to the town.

Legends of interest hang round all the closes. These legends are mainly of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, because the chronicler was then more in evidence. But for centuries before the close teemed with its own busy life, though its records are dim and dark. Once this close was called Lady Gray’s, and earlier it had other terms. Even yet, in the smaller Scots towns, the close is named from the chief indweller for the time being. In Edinburgh it was so till some famous character made a more permanent impression, or a time of street nomenclature fixed a transitory appellation. From Lady Stair’s Close you could see the window of the room where Burns spent the winter of 1786, though the entrance to the house was from Upper Baxter’s Close, which as a separate entry has now vanished. The tavern played a great part—harmful or otherwise—in the life of Old Edinburgh, as it did in the life of Robert Burns. Of his "howf" at Libberton’s Wynd, across the way, I have spoken. But further down on the north side, and near Cockburn Street, is Anchor Close, and there at the house of Dawny Douglas met the Crochallan Fencibles—called, it is guessed, from a Gaelic song sung by the landlord—and with them Burns laughed and drank, and they received him with open arms, and he has given them the only thing he had to give, and that was immortality.

In jumping from Lady Stair’s Close to Anchor Close I have gone over a great deal that deserves notice. We have passed Advocates’ Close, where Andrew Crosby, known to readers of Guy Mannering as Councillor Pleydell, lived. Warriston’s Close was called after that stern covenanting Lord Advocate, whose courage, a rare thing, well nigh deserted him on the scaffold. When they carried Baillie of Jerviswood along the High Street to his death—he was too infirm to go unaided—he lifted his eyes to Warriston’s window and spoke to his sister-in-law, the Lady Graden, who was with him to the end, of the high talk he had held with her father some twenty years before. John Knox had for long his abode here, as a tablet on the wall reminds. The publishing offices of Messrs W. & R. Chambers, Limited, now occupy most of this close, which is all fresh and so is famous only for its memories. A lintel built into the new part preserves the memory of the family of Bruce, earlier occupants of the close and of sufficient renown in their day and generation. Then there is Writer’s Court, famous for another tavern called Clerihugh’s, where Colonel Mannering found Mr Pleydell engaged in high jinks of the maddest.

Of the Royal Exchange, built between 1753 and 1761, and considered a great improvement in its time, I note that its chief use now is as the City Chambers or Guildhall, and a rather poor Guildhall it is for a city like Edinburgh. It contains, however, the valuable Corporation Museum, where is collected an enormous mass of material relating to the past of the town. If you want to know Old Edinburgh you must give up many days to the treasures of this collection. Across the street, on the south side, there is much of interest between the Tron and the Parliament Close. Old Assembly Close, where were held those aristocratic meetings, removed thither from the West Bow and thence to George Street, was presided over by Nickie Murray, satirized in their day by Goldsmith. Covenant Close is so called because a version of that famous document was signed there, and here, the mythical Nanty Ewart, and the real Weir of Hermiston, to wit, Lord Braxfield, lived, and hard by, in the open space of Hunter Square, near the Tron, was the Black Turnpike, where Mary spent the terrible night after Carberry Hill; and just behind, in Kennedy’s Close, lived and died George Buchanan.

The Tron Church marks the crossway over the North and South Bridges, to-day the great thoroughfare between Old and New Edinburgh and the most pronounced break in all your walk. You might call it the central part of Edinburgh, the place where the Old Town and New Town meet, and where the different currents encounter. Towards midnight on the last day of the year a great crowd here assembles to hail the hour with toasts and songs, and to depart in all directions on first footing and jollity bent.

Continuing our rapid survey eastward, the next most promising object on the north is the so-called John Knox’s house, a charming old place both inside and outside, but your modem antiquary will scarce allow it the title. He proves that Knox lived, as we have seen, in Warriston’s Close. The house belonged to a certain John Mossman, an adherent of Queen Mary, for whom he gave his life on the scaffold. Strange that such a mystery should hang over the John Knox topography. It has been denied that Haddington was his birthplace; the exact locus of his grave is uncertain, but really the house where he lived, whilst he was the best-known man in Edinburgh to friend and foe alike, how can that be doubted? Is popular tradition to go for nothing? How curiously little the men of those days thought about themselves apart from the cause on which they were engaged, for Knox himself tells us neither where he was born nor where he lived! It has been conjectured that he spent the last years of his life here, and here he died. This theory gets us out of a difficulty, and enables us to retain our belief in Knox’s study, and so forth. The Free Kirk bought the house; it is a sort of Knox Museum, furnished after the style of the period, and full of objects of interest. Among them the rushlight that is older than candles; the tirling pin, which served the purpose of a knocker; the hour-glass, wherewith he probably forgot to regulate his sermons; the panelling that is perhaps older than his time.

Across the way, and continuing from the Tron there is Strichen’s Close, formerly Rosehaugh’s Close, where dwelt the "Bluidy Advocate Mackenzie, that for his worldly wit and wisdom was to the rest as a god." Further east is the Blackfriars Wynd, or Street as it is now called. Here was Cardinal Beaton’s palace. Up this alley, in a glitter of torch-light and gleaming swords, went Queen Mary from Kirk o’ Field to Holyrood, on the night of 9th February 1567, the night of Darnley’s murder, the turn of Fortune’s tide with her, while Bothwell's accomplices were creeping down the adjacent alley of Toddrick’s Wynd to Kirk o’ Field on their murderous work. In South Gray’s or the Mint Close was the old Scots mint. Tweeddale Court, a little way eastward, was the scene of a remarkable murder and robbery on 13th November 1806. The victim was William Begbie, a bank messenger, and the booty was £4000, of which £3000 was afterwards found at no great distance. The murder was done in the midst of a crowded locality, without the least suspicion, and the murderer was never discovered, though his identity was conjectured with some probability. The neighbouring World’s End Close recalls an older and still more gruesome tragedy. It was once Standsfield’s Close, after Sir James Standsfield, an Englishman, and proprietor of cloth mills near Haddington. He was murdered by his son, as noted elsewhere.

Here in the old days, or at any rate nights, we had been sharply brought up by the Netherbow Port, with which, or with the keeper thereof, we needs must negotiate ere we passed through. Probably that is why the close had its odd later name—the World’s End. This quaint old gate was, as noted, removed in 1764 and save that the street is narrower you pass on into the Canongate without stay or hindrance.

The Canongate of old was not Edinburgh at all. In Catholic times it was under the Abbey of Holyrood. Then the Earls of Roxburgh were its over-lords or "superiors," in the terms of Scot’s law. In 1636 this superiority was acquired by the Magistrates of Edinburgh, and now the town spreads all round and far beyond it. Once it was adorned with three crosses: that of St John, at the head of the present St John Street; the Market Cross, the shaft of which still remains at the Tolbooth; and the Girth Cross, 100 feet west from the Abbey Strand. This last had three steps and a pillar, and marked the western limit of the sanctuary.

Canongate Tolbooth The most striking thing to-day in the Canongate is the Tolbooth, with quaint tower and spire, and all manner and touch of French detail. It stands midway on the north side, and right and left are places, the centre of storied tradition. One house has a legend, commemorated by Scott in the ballad of the "Friar of Orders Grey" in Rokeby, of a clergyman taken at dead of night to give ghostly comfort to a dying woman. The worthy divine found the lady as well as could be expected of one just delivered of a child. He ventured to hint as much, but was sternly admonished of his task, which he performed with fear and trembling. Betimes next morning the house flared to the sky, and the clergyman learned, with sinking heart, that the daughter of the owner had perished in the flames, and though there was suspicion of a fearful deed, yet the authorities did not rashly interfere with family matters in those days, and nothing definite was known or done. And then you pass Morocco Land, adorned with the figure of a Moor, to which the surrounding grime has added superfluous blackness. There is a romantic story attached, how in the depth of the great plague year, 1645, a pirate ship appeared in the Forth, which turned out to be an Algerine rover, commanded by an old Edinburgh fugitive boy, one Andrew Gray. He came to destroy, but stayed to marry the provost daughter, whom he cured of the plague, by love, magic, or eastern charm; but he had vowed not to enter Edinburgh, and so he dwelt in Morocco Land.

Also there is Golfer’s Land, won by John Patterson in James VII.’s time by a truly royal game of golf; and there is the site, at any rate, of my Lord Seton’s lodgings in the Canongate, which you connect with Roland Graham and charming Catherine Seton.

Quite near is the White Horse Close. It was well known as the regular starting-place for a journey to London. From here a band of Scots nobles were riding forth to join King Charles I. at Berwick when the populace rose and hindered all except Montrose. This was known as the "Stoppit Stravaig." A stravaig is an old Scots word for a haphazard march or excursion. The White Horse Inn, where Dr Johnson put up, was not here but at St Mary Street, at the Netherbow; the Watergate, it is said, took its name from the pond attached to the older inn.

Beyond the Watergate, and within the Palace grounds, was the Royal Tennis Court, long since vanished. Early theatrical representations were here, and it is possible that Shakespeare himself may have trod that stage.

In later years, when the Duke of York, afterwards James VII. and II., came north to set up Court for a little at Holyrood, he brought with him a troupe of players. Devout men in the Canongate were mightily incensed, but time has not preserved their outpourings. In a quite different quarter, among the actors left in England, there was also considerable irritation, and as they had Dryden for a mouthpiece their abuse is classic. Glorious John mocked merrily at those ancient themes—Scots pride and poverty. Actors of a certain sort have all gone north to Edinburgh :—

"With bonny blue cap there they act all night
For Scotch half-crown, in
English threepence hight."

As a Scots pound only made one English shilling and eightpence, the gibe was near enough the mark. The poet goes on to hint that supernumeraries and doorkeepers may very well be pressed into service and palmed off as competent performers in the ignorant north. But it would never do to give the natives a sight of gorgeous clothes.

"Laced linen there would be a dangerous thing;
It might perhaps a new rebellion bring,
The Scot who wore it would be chosen King."

Near the Watergate was Luckie Wood’s, one of those famous old Edinburgh taverns, whose memory lingers in the verse of Allan Ramsay:-

"She gaed as feat as a new preen,
And kept her housie snod and bien,
Her pewther glanc’d upo’ your een
  Like siller plate;
She was a sonsie wife and clean,
  Without debate."

On the south side there are matters of equal interest. Huntly House, with its quaint gables and its profusion of inscriptions, is always for me a lesson on the value of popular tradition. The street arab here is a bit of an antiquary, though of an uncritical kind. If you stop to look at a house, he, with a possible tip in view, is sure to supply you with extraordinary information. "There," I was once told, "is the Tolbooth" (the Canongate Tolbooth was indicated), "where Effie Deans was tried for her life, and there is Huntly House, where Lady Jane Grey lived when she was in Scotland." Lady Jane Grey never was in Scotland, and the house was not built until after her young head had fallen on Tower Hill. But the tradition is curiously persistent, and is supposed to have arisen from some confusion with another Lady Jane. Effie Dean’s prison was, of course, the vanished Heart of Midlothian.

Queensberry House and Milton House are fallen on commonplace, not to say sordid days, though they still impress by their mass. The former was the scene of a peculiarly atrocious murder by the lunatic heir, whilst most of the family were away at the Parliament House engaged in the Union negotiations; at least that is the popular tradition, perhaps it is not true. One can at least hope that the gruesome details are mythical. Queensberry was on the unpopular side, and the Edinburgh mob was mad with rage, both from national and civic patriotism—and those old Scots were terrible haters, had absolutely no bounds to their resentment.

The mention of the Union directs us to the adjacent spacious and imposing Moray House. In its garden was a summer-house, where the Treaty of Union was signed, or half signed, for the Commissioners were rudely disturbed by the mob and driven elsewhere. Here Cromwell lodged, and here, it has been rumoured, the resolution to execute the King was made. The balcony in front recalls one of the most dramatic scenes even in Scots history. Upon the 18th May 1630, Lord Lorne, the son of the Marquis of Argyll, was wedded to the Earl of Moray’s daughter, and there they stood after the ceremony when there passed a procession through the Watergate and up towards the High Street. It was the captive Montrose, bound on a cart, led by the common hangman, with every circumstance of ignominy, to his doom. The cart was stopped in front of Moray House and the mortal enemies confronted one another. Tradition errs, or Montrose comported himself with patient dignity that made him come off not second-best from that ordeal. Time soon brought its revenge. The two Argylls and Warriston, one of the guests, before very many years, trod the same Via Dolorosa, suffered at the same place of death.

After this other things seem tame, but you may remember that Playhouse Close and Old Playhouse Close are connected with the struggles of the Drama in Scotland. Here on 14th December 1756, was produced Douglas, by John Home, minister of Athelstaneford, and a nice pother the Church made about that now quite neglected piece. And St John Street cannot pass without a word, for here lived Smollett some little time in 1766, and here he gained those life-like impressions of Edinburgh reproduced in The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. Here resided James Ballantyne, and here he was wont to give those famous supper-parties, when he would bring forth and read something that "outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine," and that was nothing less than the choicest portions of a forthcoming Waverley. Finally, on the west side, and, as far as you can judge, little if at all changed, is the meeting-place of the Old Canongate Kilwinning Lodge of Freemasons, which received Burns with open arms and crowned him Poet-Laureate.

When the Court left Scotland in 1603 the decay of the Canongate began, and after the Union in 1707 this was accelerated, though till the New Town rose across the valley it had not lost all pretension to gentility; but now is its Nadir. Gasworks and tanpits touch with acrid odour the air, already none of the sweetest. Its dingy and noisome closes are the haunts of "broken men, wasters and somers," as the old Scots Acts branded the ill-starred in life. The movement towards better things that is evident in the High Street and round the Castle has not yet reached here. Are those frowsy jades or bloated hags that hang listlessly around the close "fits" the rightful successors of the gay and frolicsome ladies, the subject of many an old song, many a courtly stave, that rings in your head as you pace the stones?

"As I came down the Canongate
I heard a lassie sing."

But to-day the daughters of music are mute, and again:

"The lasses o’ the Canongate,
Oh, they are wondrous nice;
They winna gie a single kiss,
But for a double price."

Time has blunted the point of that hit which remains obscure. And where, too, has gone the elusive and seductive Bonnie Mally Lee?

"And we’re a’ gaun east and west,
We’re a’ gaun agee,
We’re a’ gaun east and west,
Courtin’ Mally Lee."

Her very ghost has shivered, and fled those grimy ways. The most terrible thing in the Canongate are the faces of the women. And in odd contrast, almost overhead, is the great park and hill and silent nooks at hand, yet how far removed! And still nearer and closer and on the same soil is Holyrood. Nature, history, letters, romance are there in the very grime.


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