Site icon Random Scottish History

Chapter 10 – The Lawnmarket., pp.94-102.

The Lawnmarket – Risps – The Weigh-house – Major Somerville and Captain Crawford – Anderson’s Pills – Mylne’s Court – James’s Court – Sir John Lauder – Sir Islay Campbell – David Hume – “Corsica” Boswell – Dr. Johnson – Dr. Blair – “Gladstone’s Land” – A Fire in 1772.


THE Lawnmarket is the general designation of that part of town which is a continuation of the High Street, but lies between the head of the old West Bow and St. Giles’s Church, and is about 510 feet in length. Some venerable citizens still living can recall the time when this spacious and stately thoroughfare used to be so covered by the stalls and canvas booths of the “lawn-merchants,” with their webs and rolls of cloth of every description, that it gave the central locality an appearance of something between a busy country fair and an Indian camp. Like many other customs of the olden time this has passed away, and the name alone remains to indicate the former usages of the place, although the importance of the street was such that its occupants had a community of their own called the Lawnmarket Club, which was famous in its day for the earliest possession of English and foreign intelligence.

Among other fashions and customs departed, it may be allowable here to notice an adjunct of the first-floor dwellings of old Edinburgh. The means of bringing a servant to the door was neither a knocker nor bell, but an apparatus peculiar to Scotland alone, and still used in some parts of Fife, called a risp, which consists of a slender bar of serrated or twisted iron screwed to the door in an upright position, about two inches from it, and furnished with a large ring, by which the bar could be rasped, or risped, in such a way as secured attention. In many instances the doors were also furnished with two eyelet-holes, through which the visitor could be fully viséd before admission was accorded. In many other instances the entrances to the turnpike stairs had loopholes for arrows or musketry, and the archways to the closes and wynds had single and sometimes double gates, the great hooks of which still remain in some places, and on which these were last hung in 1745, prior to the occupation of the city by the Highlanders.

The Lawnmarket was bounded on the west by the Butter Tron, or Weigh-house, and on the east by the Tolbooth, which adjoined St. Giles’s, thus forming in earlier times the greatest open space, save the Grassmarket, within the walls. The Weigh-house, built on ground which was granted to the citizens by David II., in 1352, was a clumsy and hideous edifice, rebuilt in 1660, on the site of the previous building, which Gordon of Rothiemay, in his map of 1647, shows to have been rather an ornate edifice, two storeys in height, with a double outside stair on the south side, and a steeple and vane at the east end, above an archway, where enormous quantities of butter and cheese were continually being disposed of.

In 1640 the Lawnmarket was the scene of a remarkable single combat, of which we have a very clearly-detailed account in “The Memoirs of the Somervilles.” In that year, when Major Somerville of Drum commanded the garrison of Covenanting troops in Edinburgh Castle, a Captain Crawford, who, though not one of his officers, deemed himself privileged to enter the fortress at all times, walked up to the gates one morning, and on finding them closed, somewhat peremptorily demanded admission. The sentinel within told him that he must “before entering, acquaint Major Somerville with his name and rank.” To this Crawford replied, furiously, “Your major is neither a soldier nor a gentleman, and if he were without this gate, and at a distance from his guards, I would tell him that he was a pitiful cullion to boot!”

The irritated captain was retiring down the Castle Hill, when he was overtaken, rapier in hand, by Major Somerville, to whom the sentinel had found means to convey the obnoxious message with mischievous precision.

“Sir,” said the major, “you must permit me to accompany you a little way, and then you shall know more of my mind.” “I will wait on you where you please,” replied Crawford, grimly; and they walked together in silence to the south side of the Greyfriars churchyard, at all times a lonely place.

“Now,” said Somerville, unsheathing his sword, “I am without the Castle gates and at a distance from my guards. Draw and make good your threat!” Instead of defending himself like a man of honour, Crawford took off his hat, and begged pardon, on which Somerville jerked his long bowl-hilted rapier into its sheath, and said, with scorn, “You have neither the discretion of a gentleman, nor the courage of a soldier; begone for a coward and fool, fit only for Bedlam!” And he returned to the Castle, accompanied by his officers, who had followed them to see the result of the quarrel. It is said that Crawford had been offended at not being invited to a banquet given in the Castle by Somerville to old General Ruthven, on the day after the latter surrendered. As great liberties were taken with him after this in consequence of his doubtful reputation for courage, he resolved, by satisfaction demanded in a public and desperate manner, to retrieve his lost honour, or die in seeking it. Thus, one forenoon, about eleven o’clock, when the Major was on his way to visit General Sir Alexander Leslie, and proceeding down the spacious Lawnmarket, which at that hour was always thronged with idlers, he was suddenly confronted by Captain Crawford, who, unsheathing both sword and dagger, exclaimed, “If you be a pretty man – draw!” With a thick walking cane recently presented to him by General Ruthven, the Major parried his onset and then drew his sword, which was a half-rapier slung in a shoulder-belt, and attacked the Captain so briskly, that he was forced to fall back, pace by pace, fighting desperately, from the middle of the Lawnmarket to the goldsmiths’ booths, where Somerville struck him down the causeway by the iron pommel of his sword, and disarmed him. Several of Somerville’s soldiers now came upon the scene, and by these he would have been slain, had not the victor protected him; but for this assault upon a superior officer he was thrown into prison, where he lay for a year, heavily manacled, and in a wretched condition, till Somerville’s wife, who resided at the Drum House, near Gilmerton, and to whom he had written an imploring letter, procured his liberation.

Here in the Lawnmarket, in the lofty tenement dated 1690, on the second floor, is the “shop” where that venerable drug, called the “Grana Angelica,” but better known among the country people as “Anderson’s Pills,” are sold. They took their origin from a physician of the time of Charles I., who gave them his name, and of whom a long account was given in the University Magazine, and locally their fame lasted for nearly 250 years. From his daughter Lilias Anderson, the patent, granted by James VII., came “to Thomas Weir, chirurgeon, in Edinburgh,” who left the secret of preparing the pills to his daughter, Mrs. Irving, who died in 1837, at the age of ninety-nine. Portraits of Anderson and his daughter, in Vandyke costumes, the former with a book in his hand, and the latter with a pill the size of a walnut between her fingers, are still preserved in the house. It was in 1635 that the Doctor first made known the virtues of his pills, which is really a good form of aloetic medicine.

In Mylne’s Court, on the north side of the Lawnmarket, we find the first attempt to substitute an open square of some space for the narrow closes which so long contained the town residences of the Scottish noblesse. Under a Roman Doric entablature, bearing the date 1690, is the main entrance to this court, the principal house of which, forming its northern side, has a very handsome doorway, peaked in the centre, like an ogee arch, with ornate mouldings that mark the handiwork of the builder, Robert Mylne, who erected the more modern portions of Holyrood Palace – the seventh royal master-mason, whose uncle’s tomb, on the east side of the Greyfriars churchyard, bears that he –

“Sixth master-mason to a royal race,
Of seven successive kings, sleeps in this place.”

The edifice that forms the west side of Mylne’s Court belongs to an earlier period, and had once been the side of the close. The most northerly portion, which presents a very irregular but most picturesque façade, with dormer windows above the line of the roof, was long the town mansion of the Lairds of Comiston. Over the entrance is a very common Edinburgh legend, Blissit . Be . God . In . Al . His . Giftis; and the date, 1580. Bartholomew Somerville, a merchant and burgess, was one of the earliest inhabitants of this edifice, and his name appears conspicuously among those to whose liberality Edinburgh was indebted for the establishment of her University on a lasting basis. Here also resided Sir John Harper of Cambusnethan.

In 1710, Lord Fountainhall reports a case connected with this court, in which Bailie Michael Allan, a proprietor there, endeavoured to prevent the entrance of “heavy carriages,” which damaged his cellar under the pend thereto.

The last person of rank resident here was Lady Isabella Douglas, who had a house on the west side of it in 1761.

Robert, the son of Mylne, the builder, who was born in 1734, settled in London as an architect, and his plan for constructing a bridge at Blackfriars was preferred to those of twenty other candidates,1 and on its completion he was appointed surveyor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, with a salary of £300 per annum.

Eastward of Mylne’s Court is James’s Court, a more modern erection of the same kind, associated, in various ways, with some of the most eminent men in the Scottish capital; for here resided David Hume, after his removal from Jack’s Land in the Canongate, in 1762; in the same house afterwards dwelt Boswell, and here he welcomed Paoli, the Corsican chief, in 1771, and the still more illustrious Dr. Johnson, when, in 1773, he was on his way to the Western Isles.

James’s Court occupies the site of some now forgotten closes, in one of which dwelt Sir John Lauder, afterwards Lord Fountainhall, author of the famous “Decisions” and other works. At the trial of the Earl of Argyle, in 1681, for an alleged illegal construction of the Test, Lauder acted as counsel for that unfortunate nobleman, together with Sir George Lockhart and six other advocates. These having all signed an opinion that his explanation of the Test contained nothing treasonable, were summoned before the Privy Council, and after being examined on oath, were dismissed with a warning and censure by the Duke of Albany. Though it is so long ago as September, 1722, since Lord Fountainhall died, a tradition of his residence has come down to the present time. “The mother of the late Mr. Gilbert Innes of Stow,” says Chambers, “was a daughter of his lordship’s son, Sir Andrew Lauder, and she used to describe to her children the visits she used to pay her venerable grandfather’s house, situated, as she said, where James’s Court now stands. She and her sister always went with their maid on the Saturday afternoons, and were shown into a room where the aged judge was sitting – a room covered with gilt leather, and containing many huge presses and cabinets, one of which was ornamented with a death’s head at the top. After amusing themselves for an hour or two with his lordship they used each to get a shilling from him, and retire… It is curious to think that the mother of a gentleman living in 1839 (for only then did Mrs. Innes of Stow leave this earthly scene) should have been familiar with a lawyer who entered at the bar soon after the Restoration (1668), and acted as counsel for the unfortunate Earl of Argyle in 1681 – a being of an age as different in every respect from the present as the wilds of North America are different from the long-practised lands of Lothian or Devonshire.”

In James’s Court was the residence of Sir Islay Campbell, Lord President, whose mother was Helen Wallace, a daughter of the house of Ellerslie. Admitted to the bar in 1757, he was one of the counsel for the defender in the famous Douglas case, and, on the decision of the House of Lords being given, he posted to Edinburgh ere the mail could arrive, and was the first to announce to the crowds assembled at the Cross the great intelligence. “Douglas for ever!” He cried, waving his hat in the air.

A shout from the people responded, and, untracing the horses from his carriage, they drew it in triumph to his house in James’s Court, probably the same in which his father, who was long one of the principal clerks of Session, resided.

This court is a well-known pile of building which rises to a vast height at the head of the Earthen Mound, and was erected between 1725 and 1727 by James Brownhill, a speculative builder, and for years after it was deemed a fashionable quarter, the denizens of which were all persons of good position, though each occupied but a flat or floor; they clubbed in all public measures, kept a secretary to record their names and proceedings, and had balls and parties among themselves; but among the many local notables who dwelt here the names of only three, Hume, Boswell, and Dr. Blair, are familiar to us now. Burton, the biographer of the historian of England, thus describes this great fabric, the western portion of which was destroyed by fire in 1858, and has erected on its site, in the old Scottish style, an equally lofty structure for the Savings Bank and Free Church offices; consequently the houses rendered so interesting by the names of Hume, Blair, Johnson, and Boswell, are among the things that were. “Entering one of the doors opposite to the main entrance, the stranger in sometimes led by a friend, wishing to afford him an agreeable surprise, down flight after flight of the steps of a stone staircase, and when he imagines he is descending so far into the bowels of the earth, he emerges on the edge of a cheerful, crowded thoroughfare, connecting together the old and new town, the latter of which lies spread before him in a contrast to the gloom from which he has emerged. When he looks up to the building containing the upright street through which he has descended, he sees that vast pile of tall houses standing at the head of the Mound, which creates astonishment in every visitor of Edinburgh. This vast fabric is built on the declivity of a hill, and thus one entering on the level of the Lawnmarket, is at the height of several storeys from the ground on the side next the New Town. I have ascertained that by ascending the western of the two stairs facing the entry of James’s Court to the height of three storeys we arrive at the door of David Hume’s house, which, of the two doors on that landing place, is the one towards the left.”

The first fixed residence of David Hume was in Riddell’s Land, Lawnmarket, near the head of the West Bow. From thence he removed to Jack’s Land, in the Canongate, where nearly the whole of his “History of England” was written; and it is somewhat singular that Dr. Smollett, the continuator of that work, lived some time after in his sister’s house, exactly opposite. The great historian and philosopher dwelt but a short time in James’s Court, when he went to France as Secretary to the Embassy. During his absence, which lasted some years, his house was rented by Dr. Blair; but amid the gaieties of Paris his mind would seem to have reverted to his Scottish home. “I am sensible that I am misplaced, and I wish twice or thrice a-day for my easy-chair, and my retreat in James’s Court, ” he wrote to his friend Dr. Fergusson; then he added, as Burton tells us, “Never think, dear Fergusson, that as long as you are master of your own fireside and your own time, you can be unhappy, or that any other circumstance can add to your enjoyment.” “Never put a fire in the south room with the red paper,” he wrote to Dr. Blair; “it is so warm of itself, that all last winter, which was a very severe one, I lay with a single blanket, and frequently, upon coming in at midnight starving with cold, I have sat down and read for an hour as if I had a stove in the room.” One of his most intimate friends and correspondents while in France was Mrs. Cockburn of Ormiston, authoress of one of the beautiful songs called “The Flowers of the Forest,” who died at Edinburgh, 1794. Some of her letters to Hume are dated in 1764, from Baird’s Close, on the Castle Hill. About the year 1766, when still in Paris, he began to think of settling there, and gave orders to sell his house in James’s Court, and he was only prevented from doing so by a mere chance. Leaving the letter of instruction to be posted by his Parisian landlord, he set out to pass his Christmas with the Countess de Boufflers at L’Isle Adam; but a snow storm had blocked up the roads. He returned to Paris, and finding that his letter had not yet been posted, he changed his mind, and thought that he had better retain his flat in James’s Court, to which he returned in 1766. He soon after left it as Under-Secretary of State to General Conway, but in 1769, on the resignation of that Minister, he returned again to James’s Court, with what was then deemed opulence – £1,000 per annum – and became the head of that brilliant circle of literary men who then adorned Edinburgh. “I am glad to come within sight of you,” he wrote to Adam Smith, then busy with “The Wealth of Nations” in the quietude of his mother’s house, “and to have a view of Kirkcaldy from my windows; but I wish also to be on speaking terms with you.” In another letter he speaks of “my old house in James’s Court, which is very cheerful and very elegant, but too small to display my great talent for cookery, the science to which I intend to addict the remaining years of my life.”

Elsewhere we shall find David Hume in a more fashionable abode in the new town of Edinburgh, and on his finally quitting James’s Court, his house there was leased by James Boswell, whose character is thus summed up by Lord Macaulay:- “Servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, and eavesdropper, a common butt in the taverns of London; so curious to know everybody who was talked about that, Tory and High Churchman though he was, he manœvered for an introduction to Tom Paine; so vain of the most childish distinctions, that when he had been to Court he drove to the office where his book was printing, without changing his clothes, and summoned all the printer’s devils to admire his new ruffles and sword Such was this man, and such he was content to be.”

He was the eldest son of Alexander Boswell, one of the Judges of the Court of Session, a sound scholar, a respectable and useful country gentleman, an able and upright judge, who, on his elevation to the Bench, in compliance with the Scottish custom, assumed the distinctive title of Lord Auchinleck, from his estate in Ayrshire. His mother, Eupham Erskine, a descendant of the line of Alloa, from the House of Mar, was a woman of exemplary piety. To James’s Court, Boswell, in August, 1773, conducted Dr. Johnson, from the White Horse Hostel, in St. Mary’s Wynd, then one of the principal inns of Edinburgh, where he found him storming at the waiter for having sweetened his lemonade without using the sugar-tongs. “Johnson and I,” says Boswell, “walked arm in arm up the High Street to my house in James’s Court, and as we went, he acknowledged that the breadth of the street and the loftiness of the buildings on each side made a noble appearance.” “My wife had tea ready for him,” he adds, “and we sat chatting till nearly two in the morning.” It would appear that before the time of the visit – which lasted over several days – Boswell had removed into a better and larger mansion, immediately below and on the level of the court, a somewhat extraordinary house in its time, as it consisted of two floors with an internal stair. Mrs. Boswell, who was Margaret Montgomery, a relation of the Earl of Eglinton, a gentlewoman of good breeding and brilliant understanding, was disgusted with the bearing and manners of Johnson, and expressed her opinion of him that he was “a great brute!” And well might she think so, if Macaulay’s description of him be correct. “He could fast, but when he did not fast he tore his dinner like a famished wolf, with the veins swelling in his forehead, and the perspiration running down his cheeks; he scarcely ever took wine; but when he drank it, he drank it greedily and in large tumblers. Everything about him – his coat, his wig, his figure, his face, his scrofula, his St. Vitus’s dance, his rolling walk, his blinking eyes, his insatiable appetite for fish sauce and veal pie with plums, his mysterious practice of treasuring up scraps of orange-peel, his morning slumbers, his midnight disputations, his contortions, his mutterings, his gruntings, his puffings, his vigorous, acute, and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence and his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage,” &c., all served to make it a source of wonder to Mrs. Boswell that her husband could abide, much less worship, such a man. Thus, she once said to him, with extreme warmth, “I have seen many a bear led by a man, but never before saw a man led by a bear!” So romantic and fervid was his admiration of Johnson, that he tells us he added £500 to the fortune of one of his daughters, Veronica, because when a baby she was not frightened by the hideous visage of the lexicographer.

Among those invited to meet him at James’s Court was Margaret Duchess of Douglas, a lady noted among those of her own rank for her illiteracy, and whom Johnson describes as “talking broad Scotch with a paralytic voice, as scarcely understood by her own countrymen;” yet it was remarked that in that which we would term now a spirit of “snobbery,” Johnson reserved his attentions during the whole evening exclusively for the duchess. A daughter of Douglas of Mains, she was the widow of Archibald Duke of Douglas, who died in 1761.

While on this visit, Patrick Lord Elibank, a learned and accomplished noble, addressed a letter to him, and they afterwards had various conversations on literary subjects, all of which are duly recorded in the pages of the sycophantic Boswell. Johnson was well and hospitably received by all classes in Edinburgh, where his roughness of manner and bearing were long proverbial. “From all I can learn,” says Captain Topham, who visited the city in the following year, “he repaid all their attention to him with ill-breeding; and when in the company of the ablest men in this country his whole design was to show them how little he thought of them.”

On one occasion he was in a large party, of which David Hume was one. A mutual friend proposed to introduce him to the historian. “No, sir!” Bellowed the intolerant moralist, and turned away. Among Boswell’s friends and visitors at James’s Court were Lords Kames and Hailes, the annalist of Scotland; Drs. Robertson, Blair, and Beattie, and others, the most eminent of his countrymen; but his strong predilection for London induced him to move there with his family, and in the winter of 1786 he was called to the English bar. His old house was not immediately abandoned to the plebeian population, as his successor in it was Lady Wallace, dowager of Sir Thomas Wallace of Craigie, and mother of the unfortunate Captain William Wallace of the 15th Hussars, whose involvement in the affairs of the Duke of York and Mrs. Mary Anne Clarke made some noise in London during the time of the Regency. The house below those occupied by Hume and by Boswell was the property and residence of Andrew Macdowal of Logan, author of the “Institutional Law of Scotland,” afterwards elevated to the bench, in 1755, as Lord Bankton.

In another court named Paterson’s, opening on the Lawnmarket, Margaret Countess Dowager of Glasgow was resident in 1761, and for some years before it. Her husband, the second earl, died in 1740.

One of the handsomest old houses still existing in the Lawnmarket is the tall and narrow tenement of polished ashlar adjoining James’s Court. It is of a marked character, and highly adorned. Of old it belonged to Sir Robert Bannatyne, but in 1631 was acquired by Thomas Gladstone, merchant burgess, and on the western gable are the initials of himself and wife. In 1634, when the city was divided for the formation of sixteen companies, in obedience to an injunction of Charles I., the second division was ordered to terminate at “Thomas Gladstone’s Land,” on the north side of the street.

In 1771 a dangerous fire occurred in the Lawn market, near the head of the old Bank Close. It was first discovered by the flames bursting through the roof of a tall tenement known as Buchanan’s. It baffled the efforts of three fire-engines and a number of workmen, and some soldiers of the 22nd regiment. It lasted a whole night, and created the greatest consternation and some loss of life. “The new church and weigh-house were opened during the fire,” says the Scots Magazine of 1771, “for the reception of the goods and furniture belonging to the sufferers and the inhabitants of the adjacent buildings, which were kept under guard.” Damage to the extent of several thousand pounds was done, and among those who suffered appear the names of General Lockhart of Carnwath; Islay Campbell, advocate; John Bell, W.S.; and Hume of Ninewells; thus giving a sample of those who still abode in the Lawnmarket.


1  “Old and New London,” vol. I., pp. 205-6.
Exit mobile version