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Saint Cecilia's Hall in the Niddry Wynd
Chapter I The Locality


The stranger in Edinburgh, perchance on some dull grey day when the bitter East pours its misty breath over the already dark wynds and closes of the ancient Scottish capital, may be pardoned, as he trudges down the old High Street, for casting merely a passing glance at the modern, japanned tinplate bearing the apparently totally uninteresting words, 'Niddry Street.’ He would not by any means be so readily pardoned if he still showed indifference when we told him that in a hall still existing at the foot of that street there used to regularly assemble, in the days of long ago, a brilliant company of high-born dames and the leading men of the period, to listen to concerts of classical and national music rendered by an orchestra, professional and amateur, the most eminent that the time could produce. The very walls still stand that vibrated to the strains of the Messiak as a new oratorio, that echoed to the tenor of Tenducci and the falsetto of Corri; in this very hall an old gentleman was overheard to say, on hearing for the first time a sonata of Haydn’s, ‘Poor new-fangled stuff! —I hope we shall never hear it again’; that very cupola looked down upon the flirtations of the beautiful Eglantine Maxwell, saw behind the facile fan of Jane, Duchess of Gordon, and watched the rhythm of the melody flush the damask cheek of the heavenly Miss Burnet with a matchlessly delicate hue.

It seems a ‘far cry’ from the once narrow, tortuous, sunless alley of the Middry Wynd, with its tall, age-stained ‘lands’ shutting out the daylight of the cold northern sky, to the bright, sun-bathed Italian city of Parma, lit by the smiles of an eternal blue; and yet there is one link of direct association, for the architect of St. Cecilia’s Hall built it on the model of the opera-house of Parma. The Teatro Farnese of Parma, long very ruinous, was a wooden structure erected in the years r6i8 and 1619 from the designs of Aleotti d’Argenta. It held 4500 persons. The Edinburgh of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries was by no means that isolated, out-of the-world place which some suppose it: its younger sons had for generations supplied soldiers for a Royal Guard at the court of France; its best-loved, girl widow queen had come straight from Paris to the Port of Leith; that queen’s father had been married in Notre-Dame; that queen’s son brought his bride by sea from Denmark; the battlefields of Sweden and Holland knew the Scottish veterans almost better than did their patrimonial castles; the Guises were as familiar with Edinburgh as with their duchy; the greatest Scottish reformer knew Geneva and Frankfort as well as he knew St. Andrews and the Netherbow; and the most familiar cry in the streets ot Edinburgh was a corruption of a French phrase.    .

The Old Edinburgh of to-day, with sombre grey sandstone and absence of bright colour alike on its houses and its inhabitants, presents a very different appearance artistically from that of mediaeval Edinburgh, which, if indeed its sky was so often as leaden as ours—a thing to be seriously doubted,—was a city of brilliant colouring on roofs, balconies, timber-fronts, pillars, piazzas, and outside stairs; while its frequent royal, ecclesiastic, and civic processions would ever and anon fill its crowded streets with new elements of chromatism.

To all this, add the gaily coloured dress of peers and peasants, burghers and country visitors, and you have a scene fall of all possible colour-combinations, some of which no doubt would have scandalised the modern aesthete; for as the sounds of drawn swords would have clashed in his ears, so would colours in his eyes, on the venerable High Street. A modern might doubtless find that colours ‘killed’ each other in those days as readily as men did.

Niddry Street is the first on the right-hand side as you descend the High Street from where ‘The Bridges’ cross it at the Tron Church, and has been known as a street since about 1788, when the wynd of mediaeval times was entirely swept away during the formation of that great piece of engineerng, the South Bridge.

A large number of vary old, and no doubt very insanitary, but at the same time historical and picturesque, mansions were pulled down to make way for monotonous and commonplace blorks of houses. The wynd had been, in a Pickwickian sense, ‘improved,’ but improved off the face of the earth. Into the vexed question of how far, in a city like Edinburgh, we are warranted in listening to the claims of Hygiene while remaining deaf to those of History, ^Estheticism, and Archaeology, we must not at present enter: suffice it to say that, for the last thirty years, ‘Ichabod’ may be said to have been ‘ writ large ’ upon the sky of the Niddry Wynd. Although we may discover many a more romantic and historical locality in Old Edinburgh, Niddry Wynd has had its full share of both romance and history.

First as to the name itself: there can be little doubt that the ground on which the wynd came to be buiit was the intramural possession of some landed proprietor of the name of Niddry. In charters of David II. a Henry Niddry is mentioned, and in those of Robert III. a John Niddry is found owning land both at Cramond and at Pentland Muir. The Wauchopes of Niddry in Midlothian — the oldest family in the county, having come to Scotland in the eleventh century with Margaret, queen of Malcolm Canmore—have evidently existed long enough to have had a town-house in this wynd so named from the circumstance—a very common source of the names of old Edinburgh closes, e.g. Strichen’s from the Frasers of Strichen, Tweeddale Court from the Hays of Tweed-dale, Libcrton’s from the Littles of Liberton, Warris-ton’s from the lairds of Warriston, and so on. In the reign of James III., Niddry Wynd was where the Salt Market was held.

The most notable family whose mansion stood in the wynd itself was that of Lockhart of Carnwath, the head of which at the time of the Union was George Lockhart (born 1673, died 1731), who figured very prominently in those stirring days, being one of four representatives for the county of Edinburgh ;n the last Scottish Parliament. Their mansion was built in 1591 by a Nicol Edward or Udward, round four sides of a court (later known as Lockhart Court) on the west side of the wjnd about half-way down. It was demolished in 1785 to allow of the construction of the South Bridge, the new southern approach to the city. According to the late Sir Daniel Wilson, this house seems to have been one of the most magnificent residences of the old town, which is sajing a good deal, for at this date almost every wynd had in it one or more houses very richly decorated. The Lockharts of Oarnwdth must be distinguished from the Lockharts of Lee, whose mansion was in Old Bank Close. In what was later the Lockhart mansion, James vi. and Anne of Denmark were entertained, at their own request, in January 1591 by Nicol Edward. King James was often the self-invited guest of his wealthy subjects, and had been indeed entertained in another house in this same wynd in 1584 by Provost Black of Balbi. This latter place was nearer the 1 heid o’ the wynd,’ and it was from here that the King walked in state to hold a Parliament in the Old Tolbooth. From the Lockhart mansion it was that the Earl of Huntly, on February 7, 1593, fled to a deed of blood—the murder of the ‘Bonny Earl of Moray’ at Donibristle, while at a much later date there lived here Bruce of Kinnaird, the famous traveller to the sources of the Nile (1770).

The old Niddry Wynd was likewise the home in the metropolis of another Scottish family, the mention of whose name recalls a tale of violence and mystery— the Erskines of Grange. Their mansion stood on the other side, almost opposite Lockhart Court. The story is a well-known one in Edinburgh annals under the title ‘ Banishment of Lady Grange ’; but the lady in question had in reality no title, being the wife of the Hon. James Erskine, a Lord of Session with the judicial or territorial title of Lord Grange. James V., who instituted the College of Justice, while admitting that he had ‘made the carls Lords,’ once asked, ‘Wha the deil made the carlines Ladies?’ We have thus the matter of titles of the wives of Lords of Session settled by one who was perhaps the chief lady’s-man in a dynasty which cannot be truthfully reproached with lack of gallantry.

Told as briefly as possible, the story is that Lord Grange, after thirty years of wedded life, banished his wife to the remote island of St. Kilda, where he kept her a prisoner for seven years. It seems pretty clearly proved that the lady was carried off with considerable violence from her house in the Niddry Wynd by certain persons in the service of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, a man whose own record in matters matrimonial was highly discreditable.

Lord Grange talked of the affair as a ‘ sequestration,’ under which guise it almost appears as though he had done something heroic; but the fact that a Lord of Session so lately as 1732 could with impunity banish his wife, without even the semblance of a trial, to a lonely ;sland, is not only a curious commentary upon the temper and manners of legal luminaries of that period, but is a striking indication of the hypnotic state of public opinion.

The ecclesiastical antiquities of the wynd are not without interest. At the time Arnot wrote his History (1779) there still stood, a little below Lockhart Court and on the opposite side, an ancient chapel—St. Mary’s—dedicated to God and the Blessed Virgin, and built in 1505 by ‘Elizabeth, Countess of Ross.’ In 1618 the Corporation of Wrights and Masons purchased it, and for long used it as their place of meeting. Later they came to be known as the ‘ United Incorporations of Mary’s Chapel,’ and in Arnot’s time were meeting in the old place. Not long afterwards a new chapel was built, and was the scene of certain religious services in 1770 promoted by the zealous Lady Glenorchy. In 1779 the Rev. John Logan of South Leith, a poet of some repute in his day, gave a course of lectures in the chapel upon the ‘Philosophy of History,’ prior to offering himself as a candidate for the Chair of Civil History in the University of Edinburgh.

Even in the days of the original chapel, the Freemasons had met in it, and there has for long existed ‘a masonic lodge of Mary’s Chapel.’ There met the Musical Society, which was not only the direct predecessor but the parent of the St. Cecilia’s Society, for whom the hall was built at the foot of the wynd. We shall have a good deal to say of this Society when tracing the development of the Concert in Edinburgh.

The Niddry Wynd is always mentioned in connection with Allan Ramsay’s first Edinburgh house and shop at the sign of the Mercury opposite the head of the Niddry Wynd. Prior to 1725 he here conducted his business; and it was here that he published the Gentle Shepherd—a work of which it has been well said,  It has only just escaped being a classic.’

Again the Niddry Wynd figures in the short, sad life of Edinburgh’s youthful poet, Robert Fergusson, better known, unfortunately, as Burns’s model for metre than for anything he himself wrote. This Fergusson was born (5th September 1750) in the ‘Cap and Feather Close ’in a high land ’on the east side of Halkerston’s Wynd, and was sent in 1756 naturally to the nearest school. This happened to be one somewhere in the Niddry Wynd, opened in 1750 by a Mr. Philp—‘Teacher of English.’

The Niddry Wynd comes up in connection with the town house of the noted Edinburgh surgeon, Benjamin Bell—one of the early luminaries who contributed to give the Edinburgh school of Medicine that prestige which to this day it has never lost. Writing in September 1777, he tells how he had ‘got fixed at last in a very good house, weil aired and lighted, with an easy access of one story from Niddry’s Wynd, and an entry from Kinloch’s Close without any stairs.’ This Benjanvn Bell was the great-grandfather of the well-known and no less well-beloved Edinburgh surgeon of the present day, Dr. Joseph Bell, whose remarkable intuitions with regard to his patients suggested to his pupil Conan Doyle the character which he afterwards amplified as ‘Sherlock Holmes.’ St. Cecilia’s Hall extended from the Niddry Wynd on the west through to Dickson’s Close on the east, both the wynd and the close running between the High Street and the Cowgate. Kinloch’s Close, which also descended from the High Street towards the Cowgate, did not extend further than the north elevation of St. Mary’s Chapel, and was thus not a thoroughfare.


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