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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter VI -
The Historic Mile

THE distance from the top of the hill, which is the Castle, to the flat ground at the bottom, where is Holyrood, is about a mile—" the historic mile" it has been called. When you leave the Esplanade you go down the Castle Hill to the Assembly Hall, and enter the Lawnmarket which stretches to St Giles. Still going downwards is the High Street till you come to St Mary Street. There was the Netherbow, and there Old Edinburgh ended. You keep on and the Canon-gate leads you to Holyrood. But since to-day it all forms one continuous street I shall take it as a whole. In its upper reaches the way is broad and spacious, tall, commanding houses rise on either hand; there is a prospect of hills at the foot beyond Holyrood, and from points on both sides, as you stroll along, you have other views of hills. You are on a ridge, and on the right and left the whole way are a great number of closes, winding, tortuous, mysterious, and the street itself winds so that you grasp at once but a part. It is always full of folk; a busy lot, with their own affairs on hand, but mainly of the poorer class, for it has seen greater and grander days than it can ever see again.

Here is the focus of so much of the annals of Scotland, a theatre of great and dreadful deeds, of herdic and soul-filling memories. The old-time Scots were a factor in the lives of many European peoples, but their country was not a help to France, a trouble to England, and that is all. But it gained in intent what it lost in extent; passion was at its highest, energy at its utmost, but mainly turned against themselves, and from the collision came the strangest, wildest deeds and things. Hence the romantic note that sounds through the whole history of Edinburgh. The High Street, if not so great, is as active as ever. It is in a fluid state, developing, growing, changing, and the old part is rapidly vanishing. Go there with the most recent guide-book in your hand and you find change after change unrecorded. In one or two things the new way differs emphatically from the old.

What, then, was this mile of ground like say in 1745? Near St Giles’ the High Street was encumbered with a great mass of buildings in the centre, called the Luckenbooths, and continuing them was the Tolbooth—the famous Heart of Midlothian—stretching north-west up in the direction of the Castle. To-day you see a heart on the pavement west of the west door of St Giles’ that marks where was the Tolbooth’s main entrance. It vanished less than a century ago, in 1817, to wit. And then away down at a narrow space, where you have St Mary Street on the south and Cranston Street on the north, was the Netherbow Port, the Temple Bar of Edinburgh, two solid round stone towers, with a gate between, almost exactly like the walled gate that you find in some of the little French towns. It was demolished in 1764. An excellent miniature of it is carved on the wall of a near house on the north. Smaller structures helped to cumber. The Butter Tron or Weigh-house stood at the west top of the Lawnmarket, and almost in front of the Tron Church was the Guard-house. Then again, save for the closes and wynds—a wynd being an opening larger than a close—the wall of houses was unbroken. Today a broad road winds up from the west of the Castle to the top of the Lawnmarket. A little way down you can get north by Bank Street or south by George IV. Bridge; further on there is the North Bridge and the South Bridge, the one crossing at a great height what was once the Nor Loch, but is now a railway line and a station, the other thrown over the valley of the Cowgate. Moreover, wynds have been made into fairly broad streets Cockburn Street, Jeffrey Street, Blackfriars Street, St Mary’s Street, the two former leading north and the two latter south. Long ago you could leave the High Street by the West Bow—to-day changed beyond all recognition, though the end of it still joins the Grass-market and retains the old name. Well, unless you went afoot, one scarce sees how you could again get commodiously out of the city until you got down to Leith Wynd, where is Cranston Street to-day. Beyond the Canongate there was the Watergate, which was really the orthodox exit from the place eastward. The scenic effect of the old street is destroyed by those breaks. But it is much worse with the closes. A close is a passage through or between the houses; it is arched for a little way, and you soon come to a door on each hand, which leads to a turnpike stair, wherefrom the various floors of the house run off. This is the common stair. The houses were on the flat system; there were shops in the laigh cellars or basements and in the ground floors, and above the people lived in ascending degrees of height and descending degrees of gentility. Some of the houses are exceedingly tall—veritable sky-scrapers. From the higher stories you had and have wonderful views over hill and sea. The huge tenement was known as a "land"; insula the Romans had it. Proceeding down the close you got through the covered way and into the open air, and you descended by a narrow path wedged in between the lofty perpendicular walls. At last, on the north side, you reached the Nor' Loch, and on the south the Cowgate. Now the close was attractive ; the mass of stone impressed, the long winding way allured, but most are truncated almost beyond hope of recognition. The back altitude of the houses differs from their front, because they are built on the slope of the hill, so you may enter on the High Street level and descend apparently into the bowels of the earth, and then emerge on the level again, but now it is the level of the valley, not that of the hill. In the closes there is the piquancy of contrast. You know that the great ones of the land—nobles of ancient lineage, learned judges, grave divines, all sorts of better-class people—lived here on the first or second floor; there was nowhere else to live, in fact. Only two or three very great and also very wealthy people had mansions of their own, though when they did have them the mansions were very considerable, with fine gardens and grounds. Now the very lowest of the low and poorest of the poor have here their abode. The fine birds fled long ago.

The last development has been to restore one or two of those houses, as Bailie Macmorran’s house in Riddle’s Court, and Lady Stair’s house in the close of that name. But these are only individual cases. Now if you go a close-hunting, sometimes a door peremptorily stops you, either at the street or a little way down; the whole thing, you guess, has got into one man’s hands, and is shut up for private reasons. Again, you will find a complete void where you looked for an historic building; it has just been levelled, or again it is half down; or yet again, and worst of all, here is a brand new house with an aggravating air of spurious antiquity about it. There is nothing like a complete close left in Edinburgh. Still, there are a great many old houses, and all manner of trades are still carried on therein. You discover an extraordinary number of "loan offices," as they call pawnbrokers, old-clothes shops, lodging-houses far from model chimney-sweeps, cobblers. Two interesting historic closes— Covenant Close, on the south side between St Giles’ and the Tron, and Trunk Close, to the west of John Knox’s House—are used merely to hold the implements of the street-scavengers. Undwelt-in dwellings are, frequent; their broken windows, their blocked doorways, their general air of neglect mark them as ripe for the housebreaker. Advocate’s Close and Roxburgh Close, both on the north side of the Lawnmarket, and the White Horse Close in the Canongate, are the most impressive specimens that remain. Though changed you can catch from those what the perfect close was like. You get the true flavour of Old Edinburgh in the space about the Canongate Tolbooth. There is the ancient Tolbooth itself, and the Marquis of Huntly’s house, still beautiful in its downfall; and Moray House, and Queensberry House, each impressive in aspect and story. The pious or moral inscription is still frequent and legible; the housebreaker and the builder are not so evident. Those inscriptions were no mere flourish, they were charms that warded off the Evil One from the human abode.

You will never understand Scots history, you will never understand Old Edinburgh, unless you grasp the fact that the unseen world was a very present reality to those vanished folk. They mainly peopled it with evil spirits, who took the most particular and most malevolent interest in their affairs. Those mottoes were one method by which they guarded themselves. Such is the aspect of things to-day between the Castle and the Palace. You cannot help regretting the loss of so much of historic interest, but most was unavoidable. The Tolbooth, the Luckenbooths, the Netherbow Port, the Butter Tron, the Guard-house stood right in the way; you could not seriously defend their detention. The destruction of the Cross, 1756, was a bad business, though not so bad as the early restoration of St Giles’; but, thanks to Mr Gladstone, the Cross is back again, close to its old site just as it was, though with partly new material, and St Giles’ has been restored again on far better lines. The Edinburgh of ‘45 was preferable as show place, but men have to live and work there. You cannot keep the Scots capital as a museum of curiosities, and so you had improvement schemes, that drove open streets through long arrays of closes, and battered and made breaches in cyclopean ramparts. Also some earlier changes must be debited to several highly destructive fires; the last and not the least in 1820.

These long-headed Scots folk, pushing and competing as eager as the folk of any Yankee township, must destroy and build and progress as the very law of their being. There is still enough to recall the past vividly before us, and with that we must be content.

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