Pictures are of “St Giles’s Church.” (top left), “Castle, National Gallery & Scott’s Monument” (top right), and “Holyrood & Arthur’s Seat.” (bottom left).
Every old city has its origin generally placed among the fables and obscurity that envelop the infant state of society, and thus, like that of many other towns and cities, the origin of Edinburgh, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Scotland, recedes so far back into pre-historic times as almost to elude the most patient investigation and labours of research; but in these pages we propose to trace its annals, and to describe the varied and stirring events of which it has been the scene, from those days when all around its site was a wilderness of wood and water, when first the hardy warriors of the Gadeni raised some rude rampart on the precipitous cliffs of the Castle rock, and saw perhaps the gleam of the Roman arms, when, amid the snows of the winter of A.D. 80, Julius Agricola halted on the heights above Dalkeith, down to what we may well call the Edinburgh of the Victorian age, a vast city stretching nearly from the wild and pastoral hills of Braid to the sandy shores of the Firth of Forth.
Edinburgh, now within a few hours’ journey from London, was long the capital of a land that was almost a terra incognita, not only to England, but to the greater part of Europe, and remained so till nearly the era of the Scott novels. Spreading over many swelling hills and deep ravines, that in some instances are spanned by enormous bridges of stone, it exhibits a striking peculiarity and boldness in its features that render it totally unlike any other city in the world, unless we admit its supposed resemblance to Athens.
Its lofty and commanding site ascends gradually from the shore of the great estuary, till it terminates in the stupendous rock of the Castle, 500 feet above the level of the sea, and is surrounded on the southward, east, and west, by an amphitheatre of beautiful hills, covered either with purple heath or the richest copse-wood; while almost from amid its very streets there starts up the lion-shaped mountain named Arthur’s Seat, the bare and rocky cone of which has an altitude of 822 feet.
In Edinburgh every step is historical; the memories of a remote and romantic past confront us at every turn and corner, and on every side arise the shades of the dead. Most marked, indeed, is the difference between the old and the new city – the former being so strikingly picturesque in its broken masses and the disorder of its architecture, and the latter so symmetrical and almost severe in the Grecian and Tuscan beauty of its streets and squares; and this perhaps, combined with its natural situation quite as much as its literary character, may have won for it the fanciful name of “the Modern Athens.”
On one hand we have, almost unchanged in general aspect, yet changing in detail at the ruthless demands of improvement, the Edinburgh of the Middle Ages – “the Queen of the North upon her hilly throne” – the city of the Davids and of five gallant Jameses – her massive mansions of stone, weather-beaten, old, dark, and time-worn, teeming with historical recollection of many generations of men; many painful and many pitiful memories, some of woe, but more of war and wanton cruelty; of fierce combats and feudal battles; of rancorous quarrels and foreign invasions; and of loyal and noble hearts that were wasted and often broken in their passionate faith to religion and a regal race that is now no more.
On the other hand, and all unlike the warrior city of the middle ages, beyond the deep ravine overlooked by Princes Street – that most beautiful of European terraces – and by that noble pinnacled cross which seems the very shrine of Scott, we have the modern Edinburgh of the days of peace and prosperity, with all its spacious squares and far-stretching streets, adorned by the statues of those great men who but lately trod them. And so the Past and the Present stand face to face, by the valley where of the old the waters of the North Loch lay.
In these pages, accordingly, we intend to summon back, like the dissolving views in the magic mirror of Cornelius Agrippa, the Edinburgh of the past, with all the stirring, brilliant, and terrible events of which it has been the arena.
The ghosts of kings and queens, of knights and nobles, shall walk its old streets again, and the brave, or sad, or startling, story of every time-worn tenement will be told; nor shall those buildings that have passed away be forgotten. Again the beacon fires shall seem to blaze on the grassy summits of Soltra and Dunpender, announcing that southern hosts have crossed the Tweed, and summoning the sturdy burgesses, from every echoing close and wynd, in all the array of war, to man their gates and walls, as all were bound, under pain of death, to do when the Deacon Convener of the Trades unfurled “the Blue Blanket” of famous memory.
In the ancient High Street we shall meet King David riding forth with hound and horn to hunt in his forest of Drumsheugh, as he did on that Rood-day in harvest when he had the alleged wondrous escape which led to the founding of Holyrood; or we may see him seated at the Castle gate, dispensing justice to his people – especially to the poor – in that simple fashion which won for him the proud title of the Scottish Justinian.
In the same street we shall see the mail-clad Douglases and Hamiltons carrying out their mortal feud with horse and spear, axe and sword; and anon meet him “who never feared the face of man,” John Knox, grown old and tottering, white-bearded and wan, leaning on the arm of sweet young Margaret Stewart of Ochiltree, as he proceeds to preach
for the last time in St. Giles’s; and we shall also see the sorrowing group that gathered around his grave in the old churchyard that lay nearby, and where still that grave is marked by bronzes let into the pavement.
Again the trumpets that breathed was and defiance shall ring at the Market Cross, and we may hear the mysterious voice that at midnight called aloud the death-roll of those who were doomed to fall on Flodden field, and the wail of woe that went through the startled city when tidings of the fatal battle came.
We shall see the countless windows of those towering mansions again filled with wondering, exulting, or sorrowing faces, as the wily Earl of Morton lays his head under the axe of the “Maiden,” and the splendid Montrose, as he is dragged to a felon’s doom, with the George sparkling on his breast and the Latin history of his battles tied in mockery to his neck; again, we shall see Jenny Geddes hurl her fauldstool at the dean’s head as he gives out the obnoxious liturgy; and, anon, the resolute and sombre Covenanters, grasping their swords in defence of “an oppressed Kirk and a broken Covenant.”
In the Cowgate – whilom a pleasant country lane between green hedgerows, with its southern slope covered by yellow corn or grass, among which the cattle browsed knee deep till the thrifty monks of Melrose began to speculate in household property, in the days when James I. was King – in the Cowgate we shall again see the fated Cardinal Beaton occupying his turreted mansion at the corner of the Blackfriars Wynd; and, anon, Mary Stuart, nearly a mother, yet in all her girlish loveliness, afoot under a silken canopy, escorted by her archer guard and torchbearers, proceeding to the ball at Holyrood on that fatal night in February, when a flood of red flame was seen to rise near the Dominican garden, and a roar as of thunder shook the city wall, when the dissolute Darnley was done to death in the lonely Kirk-of-field.
Again we shall see her, when she is led in from Carberry Hill, a helpless captive in the midst of her rebel nobles, and thrust – pale, dishevelled, in tears, and covered with dust – into the gloomy stone chambers of the famous Black Turnpike, while the fierce and coarse revilings of the inflamed multitude made her woman’s heart seem to die within her.
Turning into the High School Wynd, under the shadow of its quaint, abutting, and timber-fronted mansions, we shall meet the Princess – for such she was – Elizabeth St. Clair of Roslin, surrounded by the state which Hay records; for he tells us that she “was served (in the days of James II.) by seventy-five gentlewomen, whereof fifty-three were daughters of noblemen, clothed in velvet and silks, with their chains of gold and other ornaments, and was attended by 200 riding gentlemen in all journeys; and if it happened to be dark when she went to Edinburgh, where her lodgings were at the foot of the Blackfriars Wynd, eighty lighted torches were carried before her.”
Here, in later years, was often seen one who was to write of all these things as no man ever wrote before or since – a little lame boy, fair-haired and blue-eyed, named Walter Scott, limping to school with satchel on back, and playing, it might be, “the truant,” with Skene, Graham Dalzell, or others, who in future days were to add to the literary glory of their country and the intellectual supremacy of their native city.
In Liberton’s Wynd we shall visit Dowie’s Tavern, one of the most popular in its day, the resort of the Lords of Session on leaving Court, and, more than all, the resort of Robert Burns, who may have indited there some of his famous letters to “Clarinda,” at her abode in Alison Square – Burns, “the burly ploughman from Ayrshire, with swarthy features and wonderful black eyes,” who stood reverently bareheaded by the then unmarked grave of Fergusson in the grass-grown Canongate churchyard.
Again shall be seen the city girt by its lofty walls and those embattled gates, which were seldom without a row of human heads on iron spikes – the grisly relics of those who were too often the victims of dire misrule – with the black kites, then the chief scavengers in the streets, hovering about them.
In the steep and quaint West Bow – now nearly all removed – dwelt the Wizard, Weir of Kirkton, who perished at the stake in 1670, together with his sister and the wonderful walking-stick, which was surmounted by a carved head, and performed his errands. His lofty mansion, long the alleged abode of spectres, and a source of terror to the neighbourhood, was demolished only in the spring of 1878.
In that ancient street, long deemed the grand entrance to Edinburgh, we shall see once more the long lines of gilded sedans, attended by linkmen and armed servants, escorting belles ad beaux, powdered and patched, proceeding in state to the old Assembly Room; and also the monarchs who have entered the city by that remarkable route, ascending it in succession, surrounded by all their bravery: James VI. and his bride, Anne of Denmark; stately Charles I., along with his guard clad in their velvet doublets with gilded partisans; Oliver Cromwell, with his grim Ironsides; Charles II., before Dunbar was fought and lost; and, lastly, James VII. of Scotland, when Duke of Albany and High Commissioner to the Parliament.
Down that steep street went a horde of unfortunates in early times to the place of doom; thus, it had acquired a peculiar character, till the hand of improvement changed it; and in later years down it came a victim of another kind, the frantic and shrieking Porteous, borne by that infuriated mob, which spread over all the spacious Grassmarket like a human surge, and strung him up to the dyer’s pole.
In the old city there is not a street wherein blood has not been shed again and again, in war and local tumult, for it is the Edinburgh of those days when the sword was never in its scabbard; when to settle a quarrel à la mode d’Edimbourg was a European proverb; when the death-bed advice of Bruce was carried out, and truces were made, but seldom peace, with England; and when it has been said that many a Scottish mother had never a son left to lay her head in the grave, for in foreign war or domestic feud all had gone before her to the land of the leal. But there was much of the Spartan spirit in the Scottish matron of those and later times – a feeling that is embodied in the well-known Jacobite song, in which one of these mothers is made to say:-
“I once had sons, I now hae nane,
I bore them, toiling sairlie;
But I would bear them a’ again,
To lose them a’ for Charlie!”
We are told that when David Home of Wedderburn, father of the historian of the Douglases, died, in 1574, of consumption, in his fiftieth year, he was the first of his race who had died a natural death – all the rest having lost their lives in defence of their country.”
If we turn to Holyrood, what visions and memories must arise of Knox, standing grim and stern before his queen, in his black Geneva cloak, with his hands planted on the horn handle of his long walking-cane, daringly rebuking her love of music and dancing – unbending, unyielding, and unmelted, by either her exalted rank, her beauty, or her tears; and of that terrible night in the Tower of James V., when sickly Ruthven, looking pale as a spectre under the open visor of his helmet, drew back with gauntleted hand the ancient arras as the assassins stole up the secret stair., – and then Rizzio, clinging wildly to the queen’s skirt, and dying beneath her eyes of many a mortal wound, with Darnley’s dagger planted in his body; of Charles Edward, in the prime of his youth and comeliness, already seeing the crown of the Stuarts upon his exiled father’s head, surrounded by exultant Jacobite ladies, with white cockades on their bosoms, and dancing in the long gallery of the kings to the sound of the same pipes that blew the onset at Falkirk and Culloden!
A very few years later, and Boswell, and Dr. Johnson in his brown suit with steel buttons, might have been seen coming arm-in-arm from the White Horse Hostel in Boyd’s Close – the burly lexicographer, as his obsequious follower tells us, grumbling and stumbling in the dark, as they proceeded on their way to the abode of the latter in James’s Court; but his visit to Scotland compelled the pedant, who trembled at the Cock Lane ghost and yet laughed at the idea of an earthquake in Lisbon, to have, as Macaulay says, “a salutary suspicion of his own deficiencies, which seems on that occasion to have crossed his mind for the first time.”
In yonder house, in Dunbar’s Close, the Ironsides of Cromwell had their guard-house; and on the adjacent bartizan, that commanded a view of all the fields and farms to the north, in the autumn evenings of 1650, the Protector often sat with Mathew Thomlinson, Monk, and Ireton, each smoking their yards of clay and drinking Scottish ale, or claret, and expounding, it might be, texts of Scripture, while their batteries at the Lang-gate and Heriot’s Hospital threw shot and shell at the Castle, the feebly defended by the treacherous Dundas, from whom the Protector’s gold won what, he himself admitted, steel and shot might never have done, the fortress never before being so strong as it was then, with all its stores and garrison And in that wynd, to which, in perishing, he gave his name, we shall see the sturdy craftsman Halkerston fighting to the death, with his two-handed sword, against the English invaders. Turn which way we may in Edinburgh, that stirring past attends us, and every old stone is a record of the days, the years, and the people, who have passed away.
In a cellar not far distant the Treaty of Union was partly signed, in haste and fear and trembling, while the street without rang with the yells and opprobrious cries of the infuriated mob; and after that event, by the general desertion of the nobility, came what has been emphatically called the Dark Age of Edinburgh – that dull and heartless period when grass was seen to grow around the market-cross, when a strange and unnatural stillness – the stillness of village life – seemed to settled over every one and everything, when the author of “Douglas” was put under ban for daring to write that tragedy, and when men made their last will and testament before setting out by the stage for London, and when such advertisements appeared as that which we find in the Edinburgh Courant for 7th March, 1761 – “A young lady who is about to set out for London in a post-chaise will be glad of a companion. Enquire at the publisher of this paper;” – when Edinburgh was so secluded and had such little intercourse with London, that on one occasion the mail brought but a single letter (for the British Linen Company), and the dullness of local life received a fillip only when Admiral de Fourbin was off the coast of Fife, or the presence of Thurot the corsair, or of Paul Jones, brought back some of the old Scottish spirit of the past.
The stately oaks of the Burghmuir, under which Guy of Namur’s Flemish lances fled in ruin and defeat before the Scots of Douglas and Dalhousie, have long since passed away, and handsome modern villas cover all the land to the base of the bordering hills; but the old battle stone, in which our kings planted their standards, and which marked the Campus Martius of the Scottish hosts, still lingers there on the south; and the once lonely Figgatemuir on the east, where the monks of Holyrood grazed their flocks and herds, and where Wallace mustered his warriors prior to the storming of Dunbar, is now a pleasant little watering place, which somewhat vainly boasts itself “the Scottish Brighton.”
The remarkable appearance and construction of old Edinburgh – towering skyward, storey upon storey, with all its black and bulky chimneys, crow-stepped gables, and outside stairs – arise from the circumstance of its having been twice walled, and the necessity for residing within these barriers, for protection in times of foreign or domestic war. Thus, what Victor Hugo says of the Paris of Philip Augustus seems peculiarly applicable to the Edinburgh of James V., and still more to that of James II.
“He imprisoned Paris in a circular chain of great towers, high and solid,” says the author of “Notre Dame;” “for more than a century after this the houses went on pressing upon each other, accumulating and rising higher and higher. They got deeper and deeper; they piled storeys on storeys; they mounted one upon another; they shot up monstrously tall, for they had not room to grow breadthwise; each sought to raise its head above its neighbour to have a little air; every open space became filled up, and disappeared. The houses at length leaped over the wall of Philip Augustus, and scattered themselves joyously over the plain. Then they did what they liked, and cut themselves gardens out of the fields.”
And of the old walled city the well-known lines of Scott are most apposite:-
“Such dusky grandeur clothed the height,
When the huge castle holds its state,
And all the steep slope down,
Whose ridgy back heaves to the sky,
Piled deep and massy, close and high,
Mine own romantic town!”
New Edinburgh appeals to us in a different sense. It tells peculiarly in all its phases of modern splendour, wealth, luxury, and all the arts of peace, while “in no other city,” it has been said, “will you find so general an appreciation of books, arts music, and objects of antiquarian interest. It is peculiarly free from the taint of the ledger and counting-house. It is a Weimar without a Goethe – Boston without its twang.”
This is the Edinburgh through the noble streets of which Scott limped in his old age, white-haired and slow, leaning often on the arm of Lockhart or the grey-plaided Ettrick Shepherd; the Edinburgh where the erect and stalwart form of the athletic “Christopher North,” with his long locks of grizzled yellow – his “tawny mane,” as he called them – floating on the breeze, his keen blue eyes seemingly fixed on vacancy, his left hand planted behind his back, and his white neckcloth oft awry, strode daily from Gloucester Place to the University, or to “Ebony’s,” to meet Jeffrey, Rutherford, Cockburn, Delta, Aytoun, Edward Forbes, and Carlyle; the Edinburgh where Simpson, the good, the wise, and the gentle, made his discovery concerning chloroform, and made his mark, too, as “the grand old Scottish doctor,” whose house in Queen Street was a focus for all the learned and all the literati of Europe and America – the Edinburgh of the Georgian and Victorian age.
We propose to trace the annals of its glorious University, from the infant establishment, founded by the legacy of Robert Bishop of Orkney, in 1581, and which was grafted on the ancient edifice in the Kirk-of-Field, and the power of which, as years went on, spread fast wherever law, theology, medicine, and art, were known. The youngest and yet the noblest of all Scottish universities, enrolling yearly the greatest number of students, it has been the alma mater of many men, who, in every department of learning and literature, have proved themselves second to none; and from the early days when Rollock taught, to those when it rose into repute as a great school of medicine under the three Munroes, who held with honour the chair of anatomy for 150 years, and when, in other branches of knowledge, its fame grew under Maclaurin, Black, Fergusson, Stewart, Hamilton, Forbes, Syme, and Brewster, we shall trace its history down to the present day, when its privileges and efficiency were so signally augmented by the Scottish University Act of 1858.
Nor shall we omit to trace the origin and development of the stage in Edinburgh, from the time when the masks or plays of Sir David Lindsay of the Mount were performed in the open air in the days of James V., “when weather served,” at the Greenside-well beneath the Calton Hill, and the theatre at the Watergate, when “his Majesty’s servants from London” were patronised by the Duke of Albany and York, then resident in Holyrood, down to the larger establishments in the Canongate, under the litigious Tony Aston, and those of later years, which saw the performances of Kean, Kemble, and Mrs. Siddons, and the production of the Waverley dramas, under the auspices of Terry, who, as Scott said, laughingly, had “terrified” his romances into plays.
Arthur’s Seat and the stupendous craigs, the name of which is so absurdly and grotesquely corrupted into “Salisbury,” alone are unchanged since those pre-historic days, when, towering amid the wilderness, they overlooked the vast forest of oaks that stretched from the pastoral hills of Braid to the sea – the wood of Drumsheugh, wherein roamed the snow-white Caledonian boars, which, as Martial tells us, were used to heighten the torments of unhappy sufferers on the cross; the elk, the stag, and the wolf; and amid which rose the long ridgy slope – the Edin – that formed the site of the future old city, terminating in the abrupt bluff of the Castle rock. There, too, rose the bare round mass of the Calton, the abode of the fox and hare, and where the bustard had its nest amid the gorse; and here and there were sedgy pools and lonely turns, where the heron fished and waded, with the great sheet of the South Loch, where now the Meadows lie; and there, too, was Duddingston, but in size twice the extent we find it now.
Of all these hills have looked on since the Roman altars of Jove smoked at Inveresk and Cramond, of all the grim old fortress on its rock and St. Giles’s Gothic and imperial crown have seen, we shall endeavour to lay the wondrous story before our readers.
The generations of men are like the waves of the sea; we know not whence they come or whither they go; but generation after generation of citizens shall pass before us like Banquo’s spectral line of Dinas-Eiddyn, with their glittering torques, armlets, and floating hair; the hooded Scoto-Saxons of Lothian and the Merse, with ringed byrnes and long battle-axes; the steel-clad knights of the Bruces and the Jameses; merchants and burghers in broadcloth; monks, abbots, and nuns; Templars on their trial at Holyrood for sorcery and blasphemy; Knights-hospitallers and hermits of St. Anthony; the old fighting merchant mariners of Leith, such as the Woods, the Bartons, and Sir Alexander Mathieson, “the king of the sea;” witches and wizards perishing in the flames at the Grassmarket or the Gallowlee; the craftsmen in arms, with their Blue Banner displayed; stout and true Covenanters borne forth in groups to die at the gallows or in the Greyfriars churchyard, where stands the tomb which tells us how 18,000 of them perished as “noble martyrs for Jesus Christ;” cavaliers in all their bravery and pride, and in the days of their suffering and downfall; the brawling gallants of a century later, who wore lace ruffles and rapiers, and “paraded” their opponents on the smallest provocation in the Duke’s Walk behind Holyrood; the grave senators and jovial lawyers of the last century, who held their “high jinks” in dingy taverns near the Parliament House; and many of the quaint old citizens who figure in the valuable repertory of Kay:- all shall pass in review before us, and we shall touch on them one and all, as we think of them, tenderly and kindly, as of those who are long since dead and gone – gone to their solemn account at the foot of the Great White Throne. In picturesque beauty the capital of Scotland is second to none. “What the tour of Europe was necessary to see, I find congregated in this one city,” said Sir David Wilkie. “Here alike are the beauties of Prague and of Salzburg, the romantic sites of Orvieto and Tivoli, and all the magnificence of the Bays of Naples and Genoa. Here, indeed, to the painter’s fancy may be found realised the Roman Capitol and the Grecian Acropolis.”