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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter IX - In and Near the Grassmarket


My last impression of the Grassmarket is in the late dusk of a summer evening. The folk were at rest after their day’s labour. At each "stairfit" women with shawls on their heads or their backs discussed the affairs of their neighbours and their own; men lounged and smoked at the Bowfit well; clothes hung up to dry from far-off windows in the tall lands did duty for banners and tapestry; the sound of revelry came through the open door of the White Hart Tavern, and from many a "howff" with a less pretentious history but of quite as ancient an appearance. There was the Castle Wynd by which you could climb straight up to the Castle—a mighty mass that loomed exactly over you in the darkness. Then as I moved idly about there was a note of music; a piper came marching along from the Cowgate, playing some Scots airs, and the children deserted their games on the pavement and thronged dancing and singing at his heels. The darkness and the accident of the hour were kind, this was the life of the place for centuries. Not then the time to take stock of the much that had gone and the little that remained.

The Grassmarket is an oblong lying exactly south of the Castle in the hollow, for the ground rises immediately again to the High Riggs. In earlier days it was more of a square, when buildings connected with the Corn Market took up some of its west side, but these are now removed. Of old the Flodden wall ran southward across it, and there was a gate, the famous West Port, and you read the name there to-day, though gate and wall are alike vanished. Not altogether, however, since there is a little bit of the latter at the passage called the Vennel, which steeply ascends the High Riggs and takes you towards Lauriston and the Meadows. Everything is interesting and curious about the Grassmarket. At the northwest corner there is King’s Stables Road, where was the great tilting-ground. And then the street opposite, outside the West Port, has its own memories, though of another kind. Portsburgh Square, which is neither venerable or impressive, reminds that here stood Wester Portsburgh, the trade suburb of Edinburgh in one direction as the Canongate was the Court suburb in another. In the days of the wall the West Port was the only exit from Edinburgh in this direction, and all manner of royal processions, as well as the daily business of life, passed by it through the Grassmarket. Portsburgh Easter and Wester, the former lying away by the Potterrow, have of themselves an interesting history not here to be traced, but the very names of the ways are suggestive. The High Riggs is now a street, but it recalls the old-time name of the ridge and of High Riggs House, where the ancient family of Lawson had their seat, and the name of one of them is still perpetuated in Lady Lawson Street. To the south of the Grassmarket, Heriot Bridge leads to what was once the chief entrance to George Heriot’s Hospital, and to the east of that again there stood the famous Greyfriars Monastery, whose memory Old Greyfriars and New Greyfriars Church and Churchyard still in some sort continues. The Monastery came to a swift end at the Reformation, and Royal and noble entries were no longer graced by attendant friars bearing sacred relics to be kissed by fair and Royal lips. On the north side I have said the Castle Wynd climbs straight up to the Castle. Wreckers and improvers may do what they like, but they cannot alter the fall of the ground, and if you toil up it to-day you will feel just as the old-time citizen did as he climbed up and up its infinite ascent. On this Wynd was built an early Gaelic chapel, where the Highlanders went to hear service in their own tongue. The first pastor was a Macgregor, though, as the clan name and dress were proscribed, he had to content himself with the base English translation of Robertson and the prosaic modern attire instead of the magnificent kilt. The time will come, no doubt he muttered, and in 1787, when the proscription was removed by Act of Parliament, the time did come. Clad in the correct garb of his clan, and rolling the euphonious Gaelic like a sweet morsel under his tongue, his reverence proudly paraded the length and breadth of Edinburgh, the admired of all beholders, a Highland butterfly suddenly developed from an apparent Lowland grub! For a long time the Highlands supplied Edinburgh with certain classes of its population; the City Guard, or "Town’s Rottens" (rats), were Highlanders; the caddies, the linkmen, the hewers of wood and drawers of water generally were from the glens. This Celtic blend gave a distinct flavour to city life. You meet it again and again in the pages of Fergusson. In the railway epoch the Highlander well-nigh vanished; his old trades were gone, and whatever be the reason he disdained the work of the mere navvy. Then an enormous host of Irish descended on Edinburgh; they filled the Cowgate and the Grassmarket, so that these became Hibernian colonies, and modified with foreign touch the lower life of the city. But that again is changed. The Irish have done their work, and though they still hold possession of some subordinate fields of labour there is not a continual large immigration.

Just as there are two exits to the west of the Grassmarket, there are also two to the east; that to the north begins with the famous West Bow. Of old time that was a steep and tortuous alley, which ran in the form of an Z from the Bowhead, at the junction of the Lawnmarket and Castle Hill, to the Bowfoot at the north-east end of the Grassmarket; a bit of it still remains at the bottom. You go along it some way, and then, where Victoria Street begins, you turn sharp to the left and climb by a succession of stairs to the Lawnmarket. These stairs must pretty nearly follow the old route, but the high, gloomy, impressive houses, with all the quaint features of old Scots architecture, are clean gone, and it is only from the antiquary that you pick up details of the Templar Lands at the foot, of the old Assembly Rooms and Provost Stewart’s Land on the west side, or Mahogany Land and Major Weir’s Land on the east. Scott has rendered the "Sanctified bends of the Bow" classic, though Bonnie Dundee did not, as a fact, ride down them on his way to the West Port. He left Edinburgh by the Netherbow and Leith Wynd, as we note elsewhere; and Scott, who must have known the truth of it well enough, took him right through the quarters of his Covenanting foes for the sake of effect in contrast. One reputation the West Bow had, however, or at least one of its inhabitants had, and that was cleanliness. Old Edinburgh, whatever its virtues, was not a dust-hating place, it was a well-known reproach; witness the ponderous pleasantries of Dr Johnson.

The Edinburgh citizen was not without excuse. The standard of material comfort in old-time Scotland was a low one; you could scarce expect otherwise in a poverty-stricken country. You might hope for better things from the capital, but the capital had its own peculiar difficulties: the want of space, the dark, narrow closes, the tall lands to which water had to be conveyed in insufficient quantities, for the stairs were a terrible climb, by the caddies; the difficulty of getting rid of refuse by other than the simple expedient of splashing it down into the public street, after the brief warning of "gardy loo," supposed to be a corruption of the French "garre a I’eau," though Mrs Winifred Jenkins, in the Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, renders it not inaptly as "may the Lord have mercy on your souls." These are gross and palpable facts which I need not amplify; it is more amazing, perhaps more instructive, to catch from chance phrases the ideas on this matter of eighteenth century Edinburgh. Dr Hugh Blair, he of the Rhetoric and the Sermons, known in name and neglected in fact by all of us, was remarkable for what was deemed a foppish attention to his person. His contemporaries noted with amazement the remarkable and continual cleanliness and propriety of his dress. The fact is thought worthy of commemoration in the sketch of him in Kay’s Edinburgh Portraits. The wife of that eminent Moderate, Dr Alexander Carlyle of Inveresk ("Jupiter" Carlyle), was afflicted with rheumatism in her teeth. She brushed them too often, he opined!

In 1764 a furnished house on the High Riggs is advertised for occupation "with genteel furniture, perfectly clean." The Edinburgh ideal in this respect was a lady who lived, circa 1770, at the Cruick or Bend o’ the Bow, and whose memory is preserved by a quaint old jingle:—

"Dame Jean Bethune at the Cruick o’ the Bow,
Caumed her steps as white’s a doe;
She had a nose as lang’s a flail,
Sair gien to steer her neighbours’ kail."

It was the greatest compliment an Edinburgh husband of humble rank could pay to his wife regarding the condition of the house: "That caumstaining would please Dame Jean Bethune." Alas, there was another apothegm, "the clartier the cosier," which not unfairly, one fears, represented the practice of old-time Edinburgh.

The most memorable associations of the Grassmarket are gloomy ones. In opposition to the practice of modem times, the death penalty was inflicted with the greatest publicity obtainable, and the law made what use it could of the body of the malefactor. The head especially was too precious an object to let go; it was affixed to some public gate until it dropped to pieces, or perhaps a change of political sentiment—for your martyr and your traitor were oft interchangeable terms—led to its honourable burial. The Tolbooth, the Netherbow and the West Port were provided with spikes, which were rarely without this garnishment. There was a certain gradation: if you were a very great person—a Montrose or an Argyll— your head went to the Tolbooth, "by merit raised to that bad eminence"; if you were a little less remarkable, the Netherbow was good enough for you; whilst were you but a common ruffian the West Port was the appropriate spot. Not that this order was exactly observed. In 1487 Robert Grahame, one of the assassins of James I., was here spiked. In 1515 there was commotion in the city, and an object lesson seemed to anxious civic rulers the one thing needful. Therefore the head of Peter Moffatt, described as "ane great swearer and thief," was set up. Fully a century and a half goes by, and heads are again in demand. Those of three Covenanters had for some time adorned the spikes, when of a sudden two are missing, removed for proper burial, it was surmised, by those who deemed them the salt of the earth. The unseemly blank was not allowed to continue. "The Criminal Lords," so Fountainhall assures us, "to supply that want, ordained two of their criminals’ heads to be struck off and to be affixed in their place." From about 1660 till 1784 all ordinary executions, that is, those by hanging, took place at the north-east corner of the Grassmarket, at the spot where it is joined by the West Bow. An ancient rhyme, preserved in a note to Guy Mannering, pithily records the criminal’s last progress from the Tolbooth, hard by St Giles’, to the place of execution:

"Up the Lawnmarket, and down the West Bow,
Up the big ladder, and down the short tow."

It was here that a long succession of Covenanters went "to glorify God in the Grassmarket," in the phrase of Rothes, though not surely of him alone. The Scots have always had the fame of a determined people, but never were they more determined than in the cause of the Covenant. Instances of courage and heroism are so common as to become in the end monotonous. When a band went to their death, lots were drawn as to who should be the first victim, and the one selected received the token with passionate exclamations of joy. When James Guthrie went to his doom, and the cloth was drawn over his face ere they threw him from the ladder, be caused it again to be lifted, that he might yet once again before the end declare the testimony of his devotion to the Covenant. This is the "famous Guthrie" of the famous Covenanters’ Monument in Greyfriars. There was a strange scene that followed in St Giles’. There, as devout women dressed the headless trunk for the tomb, a pleasant young gentleman "poured out a bottle of rich intment on the body, which filled the whole church with a noble perfume?’ Some of the ladies dipped their napkins in the blood, to the great indignation of one of the opposite side. It is worth recording that the "bluidy Mackenzie" himself, having still his name to make, was counsel for the prisoner, and seemed more concerned for the failure of his efforts than did his client. I can only mention the case, in 1724, of "Half-hangit Maggie Dixon." The epithet reveals the history of her imperfect execution. The story tells of her revival as she was carried away in a cart, and how she lived long after, a well-known character of Old Edinburgh, none the worse for her ghastly experience save a certain crick in the neck, the origin of which was too obvious to need detailed explanation. One more execution here must be noted. This was the scene, in 1736, of the Porteous Mob. Scott has told the story so fully, both in the text and notes to the Heart of Midlothian, and again in his Tales of a Grandfather, that the briefest mention must suffice. Porteous, Captain of the City Guard, presided at the execution of Wilson the smuggler. Wilson had almost become a popular idol. Smuggling to the Edinburgh mob, since it involved cheap brandy and a hit at the hated English Government—in 1736 the Union was a very recent sore—was rather a virtue than a crime, and Wilson, moreover, had shown self-devotion in aiding the escape of a comrade, a heroism of a kind affecting to the mass of people. Finally, Porteous had treated him with unnecessary cruelty, and too apprehensive of a riot had caused his soldiers to fire on the people. He was tried for murder and condemned, but was reprieved by order from London. The mob, however, broke into the Tolbooth, and hung him from a dyer’s pole at the place of execution. Romance and art have embellished the scene. The street "crowded with rioters, crimson with torchlight, spectators filling every window of the tall houses, the Castle standing high above the tumult against the night and the stars," were the decorations of a scene of itself sufficiently impressive.

A little less than a century afterwards a set of murders, hard by this fated spot, arrested the attention not merely of Edinburgh but of Europe. The exact scene was Tanner’s Close, a foul alley on the north side of the West Port, at the corner of the Grassmarket. Here the Irish Thugs—-as they were well called—Burke and Hare, throttled victim after victim. It was a case of cumulative horror; stories of body-snatchers were rife, and the ponderous iron coverings we see in Old Greyfriars to protect the graves enable us to imagine the fear that strove thus to guard the remains of the loved lost ones. Perhaps the thing was exaggerated, but it was keenly felt as a terrible outrage, and when the rumour arose that remorseless science was taking its toll from the living through the foulest of agents, you may imagine the horror and indignation aroused. The victims were stupefied with drink, then choked, and then sold to the doctors, of whom Knox of Surgeons’ Square was the most famous. Their number was computed as between sixteen and thirty, and the period of operation about nine months. The sum received was some £12 to £14 for a subject, a very considerable sum in 1828, now near a century ago. At the trial and conviction of Burke, the crowd, still unsatisfied, roared "Where are the doctors?" When the murderers of James I. were executed, the Papal Legate, afterwards a Piccolomini Pope, said, "he knew not which was more terrible, the crime or its punishment," and here you can scarcely say which was more barbarous—the criminals or their judges. The Lord Justice Clerk Boyle, in sentencing Burke, regretted that gibbeting chains had gone out of fashion, but expressed some satisfaction that he was to be publicly dissected, and a wish that the skeleton might be preserved, "that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes."

The city held high carnival on execution day, and the yells of the mob round this scaffold were never forgotten by those who heard them. The body lay in hideous state, and endless thousands poured to see it; finally it was cut up and put in strong pickle and small barrels for the dissecting-table, part of the skin being tanned. The Scot evidently still deserved his reputation as a good hater. The commoner folk found, and probably still find, an unholy attraction in the grimy romance of the story. The fate of handsome Mary Patterson and daft Jamie Wilson, and the Italian boy, Lodovico, never fails to charm. The little white mice which the latter had exhibited in the Grassmarket long haunted, so it was averred, the grimy corners of Tanner’s Close.


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