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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
The Levelling of the High Street, Edinburgh


The idea of levelling the High Street was entertained so far back as 1785; and the "contest" which ensued is a matter of some notoriety in the civic history of the Scottish capital. The projected improvement was one of considerable importance, as it contemplated the reduction of a very inconvenient and somewhat dangerous rise in the centre of the street, which greatly incommoded the communication by the north and south approaches. Under the patronage of Sir James Hunter Blair, then Lord Provost, the undertaking was acceded to by a majority of the Town Council, and an advertisement issued in consequence, stating that a contractor was wanted " to level the High Street, and to dig and carry away from it about 6000 cubic yards of earth." This advertisement was generally understood to mean simply the reduction of the "crown o' the causey" to a level with the sides; but, when the operation commenced, it was discovered that the plan was much more extensive, and that, in following it out, some parts of the street would require to be lowered more than five feet. The proprietors of houses and shops became alarmed. Meetings were called, and a serious and formidable opposition to the measure was organised. A bill of suspension and interdict (somewhat analogous to an injunction in England) was presented; and subsequently, on the 8th October, an interlocutor was pronounced, appointing a condescendence (or specification of facts) to be given in, showing iu what manner the adjacent houses, vaults, &c, would be affected by the proposed alterations. Reports were then lodged by Messrs. Brown and Kay, on the part of the Town Council; and by Messrs. Young and Salisbury, on that of the proprietors. The bill of suspension was passed.

This municipal squabble was of course too good a subject for the genius of Kay to overlook; accordingly we are presented with a group of the persons most zealous and interested in this bone of contention.

Mr. Orlando Hart, who carried on business as a shoemaker in the High Street, opposite the Old City Guard-House, and was considered one of the most fortunate of the city politicians. For a series of twenty or twenty-five years he was almost constantly a member of the Town Council, or a Deacon, or a Trades Councillor—having been first elected Deacon of the Cordiners in 1766, and thereafter Convener of the Trades in 1771. He possessed a happy knack of suiting himself to circumstances, and was peculiarly sagacious in keeping steady by the leading men in the magistracy; the consequence of which was, in addition to extensive patronage in the way of his calling, the enjoyment of the pretty lucrative situation of Keeper of the Town's Water Works, &c. He was of course favourable to the Lord Provost's plan of levelling the street.

The popularity of Mr. Hart among the jolly sons of St. Crispin appears to have been of very early growth. In 1757, he was the victorious candidate for the honour of monarchy, in the spectacle of King Crispin, in opposition to Deacon Malcolm, whose party, determining not to be thrown into the shade, crowned him king also; so that, what was perhaps unprecedented in the annals of Christendom, two rival kings and their subjects actually walked in the same procession, without producing a single " broken bane or bluidy head."

Mr. Hart, though never famed among his friends for the depth of his understanding, appears, nevertheless, to have had a pretty good opinion of himself. On one occasion Mr. (afterwards Provost) Creech happened to put the question to Daft Davie Erskine—"Who is the wisest man in the city'? " He received for reply, "Mr. Hart." The next time Mr. Creech met the Deacon, he told him the story; upon which the latter modestly replied, "Davie is no sic a fool as ye tak' him for."

The Deacon and Provost Dalrymple resembled each other extremely in personal appearance; so much so, that a gentleman, meeting the Provost one day, challenged him for not sending home his boots. The Provost, comprehending the mistake, which doubtless had occurred on other occasions, good-humouredly replied, "I will attend to it to-morrow."

Mr. Hart built the centre house on the north side of Charlotte Square, which, we have been informed, cost about ,£10,000. He died on the 9th September, 1791; and was followed to the grave, in seven days afterwards, by his widow. His son, Macduff Hart, whom he had assumed as a partner, under the firm of Orlando Hart and Son, continued to carry on the business, and was elected Deacon of the craft in 1782. He was particularly celebrated for his vocal powers.

Mr. William Jamieson, mason and architect, whose father, Mr. Patrick Jamieson, built the Royal Exchange, which was begun in 1753. The parties in the agreement for erecting this building were—the Eight Honourable William Alexander, Lord Provost; David Inglis, John Carmichael, Andrew Simpson, and John Walker, Bailies; David Inglis, Dean of Guild; Adam Fairholm, Treasurer, &c, on the part of the City—and Patrick Jamieson, mason; Alexander Peter, George Stevenson, and John Moubray, wrights; John Fergus, architect—all burgesses, freemen, members of Mary's Chapel of Edinburgh —undertakers. In the contract, the sum to be laid out in purchasing houses and grounds whereon to erect the Exchange is stated at ,£11,749 6s. 8d., and the cost of erection at .£19,707 16s. 4d.—amounting, in all, to .£31,457 3s. sterling. The first stone was laid in 1753, by George Drummond, Esq., at that time Grand Master of the Freemasons. A triumphal arch, and theatres for the Magistrates, and galleries for the spectators, were erected on the occasion. The work, however, was not fully entered upon till the year following, and was finished in 1761. He was elected one of the Deacons of Mary's Chapel in 1767; and, like his friend Mr. Orlando Hart, was very successful in avoiding those political quicksands which, in the good old days of corporate omnipotence, were so dangerous to individual prosperity. As a reward for his steadily having "shoulder kept to shoulder," he possessed for many years the sinecure office of Engraver to the Mint in Scotland, with a salary of .£50 a-year—in which appointment he succeeded Convener Simpson. This sinecure is now abolished; and no wonder, when the duties of the office could be sufficiently performed by a stone-mason.

The most memorable public performance of Mr. Jamieson was the renovation of the Tron Kirk, which he accomplished much to the satisfaction of the public. The steeple was built principally of wood, and existed until the great fire in November, 1824, when some of the embers from the burning houses having lodged in it, and the wind blowing hard, the steeple was set on fire and destroyed, along with the bell, which had been hung in 1673, and cost 1490 merks. The steeple was rebuilt in 1828, and the bell re-cast and placed in its old situation, where it now again performs its usual functions.

Mr. Jamieson was also contractor for making the public drains of the city, at an estimate of no less than £100,000—the rubbish from the excavations of which was to be carted to Portobello, without being subject to the dues leviable at the toll of Jock's Lodge, the bar being partly under the management of the Town Council. The toll-keeper, however, having taken it into his head that he ought to be paid the regular dues, on one occasion closed the gate against the carts of the contractor. The circumstance being made known to Mr. Jamieson, "Weel, weel," said he to the carters, "just coup the carts at the toll-bar;" which was accordingly done, to the grievous annoyance of the toll-keeper, who never afterwards refused the right of egress and ingress.

The greatest part of Portobello was the Deacon's property at one period, and feued out by him. He himself latterly resided there, although, when Kay's Print was done, his house was in Turk's Close.

Mr. Jamieson married, about the year 1759, Miss Christian Nicholson, sister of the late Sir William Nicholson of Jarvieswood, by whom he had six sons and six daughters. The eldest daughter married James Cargyll, Esq., W.S., and died only a few years ago; the next was married to a Mr. Stoddart, who had realised a fortune abroad; the third to James Marshall, Esq., present Secretary to the Provincial Bank of Ireland in London ; and the youngest, who also survives, to the late Reverend Dr. Robertson of South Leith. The rest mostly died when young. The only son who reached manhood was the late William Jamieson, W.S., who died in 1826. This gentleman attained a temporary celebrity by his attacks on the Judges of the Court of Session ; for which, however, he smarted pretty severely—perhaps more so than the case required. His widow and family still reside at Portobello.

Mr. Archibald M'Dowall, clothier, North Bridge, for many years a leading member of the Town Council. He is represented as holding in his hand a plan of the improvement proposed by the Magistrates.

Mr. M'Dowall was a cadet of the ancient family of M'Dowall of Logan. His father, James M'Dowall of Canonmills, was nearly related to the late Andrew M'Dowall, Lord Bankton. In the entail of the estate of Bankton, in East-Lothian, and certain other property, executed in 1756, he is a nomination substitute, and is therein stated to be his lordship's cousin. The present Mrs. Gilmour of Craigmillar is the great-grandchild of this James M'Dowall, and was consequently grand-niece of Mr. Archibald M'Dowall. Being the descendant of his eldest brother, she succeeded to the property of Canonmills, on the death of her father, while in minority. It may not be out of place to mention, that Mr. Patrick M'Dowall, the father of James M'Dowall of Canonmills, was the first private banker who discounted bills in Edinburgh. He carried on business before the erection of the Bank of Scotland, under the Act of Parliament in 1695, and for a considerable time afterwards.

Mr. M'Dowall was born in 1743, and married in early life a near relation of the late Dr. John Macfarlan, minister of the Canongate Church (who married his sister), and father of John Macfarlan of Kirkton, Esq., advocate, and also of the present Dr. Patrick Macfarlan of Greenock. He commenced the first cloth manufactory in Scotland, similar to those carried on so extensively at Leeds, and brought a number of workmen from England for that purpose. In order to encourage Mr. M'Dowall's manufactory, the Earl of Buchan proposed that such gentlemen of the Antiquarian Society as intended to be present at the first anniversary meeting of the Society, on the 30th November 1781, should be dressed entirely in "home-made" articles. Accordingly, they all appeared with clothes of M'Dowall's manufacture, worsted hose, &c. Lord Buchan, being the last who made his appearance, on looking round, immediately exclaimed, " Gentlemen, there is not one of you dressed according to agreement, myself excepted; your buckles and buttons are entirely English, whereas mine are made from jasper taken from Arthur's seat." And very beautiful they were. The bed of jasper is now exhausted. This establishment was at Paul's Work, at the South Back of Canongate, now called M'Dowall Street, from which he afterwards removed to Bruustain Mill, near Portobello. Being, however, unable to compete with the English manufactories, the speculation proved unsuccessful.

Mr, M'Dowall entered the Town Council in 1775, and in politics took the same side as his friend Sir James Hunter Blair. He was several times in the magistracy; and, before his retirement, was offered the Provost's chair, which he prudently declined, in consequence of the depressed state of his manufactory. He was a very public-spirited man, and devoted much of his time to the improvement of the city.

Mr. M'Dowall died December, 1816, leaving six sons. The eldest, after being unsuccessful as a merchant, settled in Van Dieman's Land, where he obtained a grant of land, which he has denominated, after that of his ancestor, the estate of Logan. For two of his sons Mr. M'Dowall obtained appointments in the East India Company's Service. One of them (Colonel Robert) was nearly thirty years in India, during which time he distinguished himself at the siege of Seriugapatam, and on various other occasions—particularly in the surprise and complete dispersion of above 3000 Pindaries—for which he received the thanks of the Grovernor-Greneral in Council, and of the Court of Directors. He afterwards was at the capture of Tavoy and Mergui, of which he was appointed Governor; but was unfortunately killed, in command of two brigades of native infantry, at the conclusion of the Burmese war. The other son who went to India (Mr. William), after being about twenty years in the Madras Medical Establishment, has returned, and now resides at Bellevue Crescent. Two other sons of Mr. M'Dowall entered the mercantile profession ; and his youngest son (Mr. Charles) is a Writer to the Signet.

In the back ground the Lord Provost (Sir James Hunter Blair), is represented as busily emploj^ed in digging and shovelling out the earth ; while Mr Hay, Deacon of the Surgeons, and a most violent anti-leveller, is as eagerly engaged in shovelling it back again. Mi-Hay was a leader of the opposition in the Council.

This civic squabble gave birth to various local effusions; and among others, to a satirical poem in Latin doggerel, entitled, "Streetum Edinense, carmen Macaronicum"—in which Mr Hay is made to sustain a prominent part. This mock-heroic poem was the joint-production of the late Mr. Smellie, printer, and of Mr Little of Liberton. It will be found in "Kerr's Memoirs of Smellie." After alluding to the zeal displayed in the matter by Sir James Hunter Blair, and just at that moment that assent has been given to the measure by the Councillors present, the Deacon is represented as bursting into the Council Chamber, backed by a posse of anti-levollers, and in a harangue of most uncouth hexameters, declaims against the project, and dares his brethren to carry it into effect.


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