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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter VIII - Round about the Parliament Close


ALL through its history the daily ordinary life of Edinburgh has centred round the Parliament Close or Square, as the gentility of the eighteenth century preferred to call it. And it still does so. Destroy Holyrood and the Castle and town life would go on much as before; not so with the Close. St Giles’ forms its north side, and that takes always the head place in the Church life of Edinburgh. The south side is the Parliament House, where once the legislative business was, and now the judicial business is, done. In the shadow of St Giles’, to the east, is the Cross, the official navel of Edinburgh. And to the north and northwest of St Giles’ once stood the Tolbooth and the Luckenbooths, now gone for ever. Here has been incessant change, so that it is difficult to trace exact sites, and well nigh impossible exactly to follow all the transmutations. St Giles’ at least—however altered—covers the same ground, and with that as landmark let us look round.

To the north of St Giles’ there stood, till 1817, a mass of building planted right down, "dropped down," it seemed, as Scott says, into no wide part of the street. That left a narrow road on the north part, and a narrow passage between it and the church on the south side. Begin at the east end. Here were the buildings called the Luckenbooths, an irregular, picturesque mass of houses. On the ground floor were shops, with dwellings above, and from the fact that the shops were covered in was derived the name Luckenbooths. With their irregular heights, their frequent timber fronts, their gables, and odd bits of masonry, they gathered into themselves the picturesqueness of Old Edinburgh. The eastmost shop was once Allan Ramsay’s; he moved there from the sign of the Mercury, that old house on the north side of the High Street which some of us remember standing just a little below the North Bridge opening, and here he sold his poems, and other folks’ poems, and kept a circulating library of plays and novels, whereat the devout shook their heads and foreboded ill results to the youth of the city. Here, too, he chatted with Gay and Smollett and whatever other man of letters, stranger or citizen, strolled in, and for sign had figures of Ben Jonson and Drummond of Hawthornden, and throve steadily, though modestly, as was his wont. Later on the place was known as Creech’s Land, because William Creech held it. He was a great man in his day, was an active and prosperous publisher, and more than once Lord Provost of Edinburgh. He has a niche in the temple of fame, because he was a Bums’ publisher. Their relations were a little strained at times, for Creech was close-fisted and not prompt in producing statements when the balance was against himself. Yet Bums has some nice things to say about him, and his name is "married to immortal verse" in a highly complimentary manner.

Now, if standing on the north side of the street you desired to reach the great church, you needed not go round the intervening Luckenbooths. There was an arched passage through the middle of them called the Old Kirk Style, or more commonly the Stinking Style, a term that too plainly explains itself, and through this you attained the interior by a convenient porch. The place was of evil renown in other ways. In 1526 the Lairds of Lochinvar and Drumlanrig set on Maclennan of Bomby, and in broad daylight slew him; and the stain of blood on their romantic names is only the deeper that they were never called to account. I have said there was a passage between the Luckenbooths and the church; this was called the Krames, from the numerous little open booths that were plastered against the walls. Not the least of the evil deeds of the restorers of 1827 was that they shore off chapels, and indeed every sort of projection from the level of the old church wall; it was in these projections that the Krames found their place. Once they were important marts of linen and woollen goods, and even of gold and silver vessels, but latterly they were devoted to toys and such like small beer, and the place in day-or night-dreams was much in the thoughts of the children of Old Edinburgh. At the eastern entrance to the Krames there was a short flight of steps called the Lady Steps or Our Lady Steps. The name was originally taken from a statue of the Virgin which stood in a niche, no doubt empty since the Reformation. Sir George Mackenzie derives the name from a then modem noble lady of by no means so good repute; Sir George is a respectable authority, but one is glad to believe that the weight of evidence is against him, unless the steps had a double meaning and derived from both, which is not impossible.

Terminating the Luckenbooths to the west was the Tolbooth. It stood to the north-west of St Giles, and finally consisted of three parts; first was an old building, massive, ancient, grim and imposing. It was thought to date from 1466 and to have been built by James III. as a chapter house or provost’s residence, or for some such like purpose in connection with the Collegiate Church of St Giles. You know how badly off Old Edinburgh was for space; and this was used as a Parliament House and as a Law Court, and for other important meetings. In Latin it was called the Praetorium of Edinburgh, or in English the Tolbooth, and in Queen Mary’s time the western part of it had become ruinous; so in 1561 she addressed to the magistrates some strong words on the subject, urging them to pull down and rebuild. Funds were scanty so they were at their wits’ end what to do. However, they preferred to make a new Tolbooth, which stood at and was attached to the south-west end of St Giles, and this in its time was used for Parliament House and Law Court, and so forth till the present Parliament House was built, when it was left to the City fathers for their Council Room, until they migrated across the street to their present quarters in the Royal Exchange. Finally they stuck on to the western side of the original Tolbooth another building, which was apparently finished in 1641. It was of plain rubble work and not at all so impressive or remarkable as the part to the east. A small addition was again added to the west part of this. It was an affair of only two floors, the ground floor being used as a shop. It had a flat roof, on which a frequent gallows was erected for the ending of some of those malefactors wherein Old Edinburgh abounded. When Parliament and Law Court were housed elsewhere the Heart of Midlothian, as the folk called it, was used as a prison; the newer building as a debtors’, the older as a criminal hold. The door of entry was on the south side next the church; at the turret (containing a turnpike stair), in front, stood a private of the Town Guard, and there was another in the hall. Here the common criminal was allowed to run about much as he chose. For decoration there was a board containing some passable verses beginning: "A prison is a house of care." These have been traced to an English source, and were indeed written for the King’s Bench in London. There was also a pulpit, wherefrom it was reported Knox had held forth. You proceeded by the stair to another hall on the next floor, where the more desperate felons were held secure, those condemned to death being chained to an iron bar in the centre of the room. (Thus was retained our old friend the Deacon.) If Old Edinburgh was crowded and unclean, this was its worst spot in every way; fortunately the records are not voluminous. We have poked enough into the corners of this strange old place of grimy and romantic memory. This was the building that the mob stormed on the famous night of 7th September 1736 and dragged Jack Porteous to his doom. The door and the lock seemed monuments of massive strength, but it was in seeming only. If a man had powerful friends or a well-filled purse he got away from the Tolbooth with surprising ease. These old Scots laws pressed most heavily on the poor and the unfortunate. Life was held cheap; a criminal was destroyed because they did not know how otherwise to dispose of him. The place was so strongly built that its demolition in 1817 caused the housebreakers no little trouble. Scott got some rare pickings from the ruins and you may still see them at Abbotsford.

A prick on the topmost north gable of the old part carried the head of some illustrious criminal; Morton, Montrose, Argyll, each in turn looked down in this ghastly fashion on the once familiar street. Surely a subject of sober reflection to the prominent statesmen of the day who needs must pass by so often! There was only 14 feet of space for the traffic of the city on the north side of the Tolbooth. The spot here was named the Purses, or the "Puir folks’ Purses," where the Bluegowns or Bedesmen received their annual dole. Each had a roll of bread, a tankard of ale, a blue gown and a curiously-made leather purse, and then they went to hear service in St Giles’. The ceremony was afterwards transferred to the Canongate Kirk aisle, and then it vanished; but you remember Edie Ochiltree in the Antiquary, and in romance the Bedesman lives immortal. Out of all this curious mass of building but one tangible thing is present to-day. A little beyond the west door of St Giles’ the stones of the street take the form of a heart, to denote the chief entrance to the Tolbooth.

Now walk across the square, push aside the swinging doors, pass along the lobby, and so into that spacious and ancient hall which still retains the name of Parliament House. It is 122 feet in length and 49 feet in breadth. You are most impressed by the pinnacles and open beams of the noble roof, and whether you admire or not the quite modem (1868) stained glass window, at least the subject was inevitable—obviously the foundation of the College of Justice by James V. on 27th May 1532. But the hall is full of interest. True, the old portraits of the Kings and the tapestry on the walls vanished after the Union, but there are busts and portraits of many famous judges and lawyers, chief among them the almost kindly-looking "Bluidy Advocate Mackenzie," and the sternly-scornful "Bluidy Braxfield." I am taking popular names and portrait impressions, and though I am quite sure that Raeburn has his "Braxy" all right, I am very far from sure that Kneller gives you the real "Mackenzie." Then there are busts of Lord Presidents Dundas and Blair, Duncan Forbes, and so forth. This hall is only the salle des pas perdu of the Scots Bar. The Courts open off the hall or the lobby. There sit the Lords Ordinary or Puisne Judges, as they say in the south, in one direction, the Inner House (or Appeal Court in two divisions) in another. From time to time you see rushing across the hall at a great rate, with several agents or doers, as they call solicitors in the north, at their heels, the half dozen men at the Scots Bar who have got enough to do. Desperately busy, no doubt; still, you remember that subtle touch in Chaucer’s description of the Sergeant of Lawe, "And yet be seemede besier than he was." So much for the half dozen, but what of the half hundred who very plainly have nothing to do at all, and the others who do not even put in an appearance? You will find some of them in the library downstairs, as down, down you go—room after room piled with books in apple - pie order, perfectly catalogued, for this is one of the great libraries of Britain, with a right to a copy of each new work. It was Mackenzie who founded this. Almost his last public act in the stress and storm of the Revolution was to inaugurate the Advocates’ Library in a stately Latin oration, Nobis haec otia fecit, very neatly quotes Mr Taylor Innes, of the same persuasion, but by no means of the same way of thinking in Church or State, as umquhile Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, whose dark and gloomy memory seems to me a little too oppressive in this same Laigh Parliament House, for it was here that he and his fellows of the Privy Council examined and tortured with boots and thumbikins and what not the Covenanting prisoners. A Scots advocate occupies one of the desirable positions of life; he has an excellent position, none better or so good in Edinburgh, the literature of the world at his command, something romantic about his calling. Ah, yes, but has he a calling at all? The ingenious R. L. S. has some very pertinent remarks on the final dreariness and hopelessness of that daily promenade in this ancient hall of many memories.

On the spot you think most of the old judges, scholars like Kames and Monboddo and Hailes and Tytler; great jurists like Stair and Dirleton and Erskine; and more than all of the great carousers, Newton, Hermand, Gardenstone and so forth. The stories about them are endless, how they drank all night and judged all day with equal zeal and relish, and their biting, if often coarse and witty sayings, with the twang of the old Scots speech about them, still live in the memories of men. Portly, full blooded, they look real in their pictures on the wall, yet I fear they would think those courteous and learned gentlemen who have succeeded them rather a milk-and-water lot, if they were to step out of their frames and revisit the scene of their labours. If you look in at one or other of those Divisions you will not be much edified, for the terms of Scots law seem strange to a layman’s ear, especially if that layman be from the south. You will note that the robes are very fine; they remind you of those of the judges in the Appeal Courts of Paris, and you solve the riddle of this, as also of many a law term, by remembering old French influence and the old French league.

In 1639 the Parliament Hall was finished; the outside had a quaint, old Gothic front, which you can only now see in pictures, since in 1829 it was concealed under a classic dressing, with piazza, sphinxes and so forth, as you have it to-day. Those were great times in Edinburgh when the old Scots Parliament met; there was the Riding of the Parliament, the opening procession from Holyrood of the nobles and burgesses in all their splendour. In the hall there was the great throne at the south end for the Sovereign or his Lord High Commissioner, the ranges of benches on either side for the nobles and barons, and the lower ones in the centre for the commissioners of boroughs; and on the table was solemnly laid the glittering Honours of Scotland, the Crown jewels that you have seen in the Castle. When a bill was passed it was touched with the sceptre by the Commissioner and so made valid law. When, on the 22nd April 1707, the estates adjourned to meet no more, others besides the Lord Chancellor Seafield might have called it "the end of an auld song." There is still the Lord High Commissioner’s walk when he opens the General Assembly, but it is no disrespect to the right reverend and right honourable to call this but the ghost of the past.

In modern times increasing wealth has called for other buildings. The Writers to the Signet have their library at the west corner of the square, and hard by the S.S.C.’s, which are another species of solicitors, have edified their house. Now and again the hall wakes to something of its old life, but always I fear less so. The King’s birthday was of old celebrated with great state. There were loud rejoicings: the "Auld callants" of Heriot’s Hospital dressed the statue of King Charles with flowers, the old Town Guard were drawn up in the square, and, as the health of the King was drunk in the hall, they fired off their muskets in a royal salute, and then the populace, as at a signal, went for them with angry glee. The mud of the streets soon defaced their uniforms; sticks, stones, fists, anything came in handy to hurt with. The Highland blood of the old soldiers was up in a minute; they laid about them, sometimes with deadly effect, but always with the same result. They were swept from the streets; the peace, and many things besides, were broken; there were scenes in those saturnalia such as modern Edinburgh never dreams of. The Hogmanay merrymaking at the Tron is not even a shadow of it. After all they are better forgotten. Let us draw the curtain!


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