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Chapter 8 – The Castle Hill., pp.79-87.

The Esplanade or Castle Hill – Castle Banks – The Celtic Crosses – The Secret Passage and Well-house Tower – The Church on the Castle Hill – The Reservoir – The House of Allan Ramsay – Executions for Treason, Sorcery, &c. – The Master of Forbes – Lady Jane Douglas – Castle Hill Promenade – Question as to the Proprietary of the Esplanade and Castle Hill.


“THE Castle Hill,” says Dr. Chambers, “is partly an esplanade, serving as a parade ground for the garrison, and partly a street, the upper portion of that vertebral line which, under the names of Lawnmarket, High Street, and Canongate, extends to Holyrood Palace;” but it is with the Esplanade and banks we have chiefly to deal at present.

Those who now see the Esplanade, a peaceful open space, 510 feet in length by 300 in breadth, with the squads of Highland soldiers at drill, or the green bank that slopes away to the north, covered with beautiful timber, swarming in summer with little ones in care of their nurses, can scarcely realise that thereon stood the ancient Spur, before which so many men have perished sword in hand, and that it was the arena of so many revolting executions by the axe and stake, for treason, heresy, and sorcery.

It lay in a rough state till 1753, when the earth taken from the foundations of the Royal Exchange was spread over it, and the broad flight of forty steps which gave access to the drawbridge was buried. The present ravelin before the half-moon was built in 1723; but alterations in the level must have taken place prior to that, to judge from “Archaeologia Scotica,” which contains an “Elegie on the great and famous Blew Stone which lay on the Castle Hill, and was interred there.” On this relic, probably a boulder, a string of verses form the doggerel elegy:-

“Our old Blew Stone, that’s dead and gone,
His marrow may not be;
Large, twenty feet in length he was,
His bulk none e’er did ken;
Dour and dief, and run with grief,
When he preserved men.
Behind his back a batterie was,
Contrived with packs of woo,
Let’s now think on, since he is gone,
We’re in the Castle’s view.”

The woolpacks evidently refer to the siege of 1689.

The Esplanade was improved in 1816 by a parapet and railing on the north, and a few years after by a low wall on the south, strengthened by alternate towers and turrets. A bronze statue of the Duke of York and Albany, K.G., holding his marshal’s bâton, was erected on the north side in 1839, and a little lower down are two Celtic memorial crosses of remarkable beauty. The larger and more ornate of them was erected in 1862, by the officers and soldiers of the 78th Ross-shire Highlanders, to the memory of their comrades who fell during the revolt in India in 1857-8; and the smaller cross was raised, “In memory of Colonel Kenneth Douglas Mackenzie, C.B., who served for forty-two years in the 92nd Highlanders – who saw much of service in the field, and deserved well of his country in war and in peace… Died on duty at Dartmoor, 24th August, 1873.”

On the green bank behind the duke’s statue is a very curious monumental stone, which, however, can scarcely be deemed a local antiquity – though of vast age. It was brought from the coast of Sweden by Sir Alexander Seton, of Preston, many years ago. On it is engraved a serpent encircling a cross, and on the body of the former is an inscription in runes, signifying –


Two relics of great antiquity remain on this side of the Castle bank – a fragment of the secret passage, and the ruins of the Well-house tower, which, in 1450, and for long after, guarded the pathway that led under the rock to the church of St. Cuthbert. Within the upper and lower portion of this tower, a stair, hewn in the living rock, was found a few years ago, buried under a mass of rubbish, among which was a human skull, shattered by concussion on a step. Many human bones lay near it, with various coins, chiefly of Edward I. and Edward III.; others were Scottish and foreign. Many fragments of exploded bombs were found among the upper layer of rubbish, and in a breach of the tower was found imbedded a 48-pound shot. At certain seasons, woodcock, snipe, and water-ducks are seen hovering near the ruins, attracted by the dampness of the soil, where for ages the artificial loch lay. A few feet eastward of the tower there was found in the bank, in 1820, a large coffin of thick fir containing three skeletons, a male and two females, supposed to be those of a man named Sinclair and his two sisters, who were all drowned in the loch in 1628 for a horrible crime.

Eastward of this tower of the 15th century are the remains of a long, low archway, walled with rubble, but arched with well-hewn stones, popularly known as “the lion’s den,” and which has evidently formed a portion of that secret escape or covered way from the Castle (which no Scottish fortress was ever without), the tradition concerning which is of general and very ancient belief; and this idea has been still further strengthened by the remains of a similar subterranean passage being found below Brown’s Close, on the Castle Hill. At the highest part of the latter stood the ancient barrier gate of 1450, separating the fortress from the city. This gate was temporarily replaced on the occasion of the visit of George IV. In 1822, and by an iron chevaux de frise – to isolate the 82nd Regiment and garrison generally – during the prevalence of Asiatic cholera, ten years subsequently.

There stood on the north side of the Castle Hill an ancient church, some vestiges of which were visible in Maitland’s time, in 1753, and which he supposed to have been dedicated to St. Andrew the patron of Scotland, and which he had seen referred to in a deed of gift of twenty merks yearly, Scottish money, to the Trinity altar therein, by Alexander Curor, vicar of Livingstone, 20th December, 1488. In June, 1754, when some workmen were levelling this portion of the Castle Hill, they discovered a subterranean chamber, fourteen feet square, wherein lay a crowned image of the Virgin, hewn of very white stone, two brass altar candlesticks, some trinkets, and a few ancient Scottish and French coins. By several remains of burnt matter and two large cannon balls being also found there, this edifice was supposed to have been demolished during some of the sieges undergone by the Castle since the invention of artillery. And in December, 1849, when the Castle Hill was being excavated for the new reservoir, several finely-carved stones were found in what was understood to be the foundation of this chapel or of Christ’s Church, which was commenced there in 1637, and had actually proceeded so far that Gordon of Rothiemay shows it in his map with a high-pointed spire, but it was abandoned, and its materials used in the erection of the present church at the Tron. Under all this were found those pre-historic human remains referred to in our first chapter. This was the site of the ancient water-house. It was not until 1621 that the citizens discovered the necessity for a regular supply of water beyond that which the public wells with their water-carriers afforded. It cannot be supposed that the stagnant fluid of the north and south lochs could be fit for general use, yet, in 1583 and 1598, it was proposed to supply the city from the latter. Eleven years after the date above mentioned, Peter Brusche, a German engineer, contracted to supply the city with water from the lands of Comiston, in a leaden pipe of three inches’ bore, for a gratuity of £50. By the year 1704 the increase of population rendered an additional supply from Liberton and the Pentland Hills necessary. As years passed on the old water-house proved quite inadequate to the wants of the city. It was removed in 1849, and in its place now stands the great reservoir, by which old and new Edinburgh are alike supplied with water unexampled in purity, and drawn chiefly from an artificial lake in the Pentlands, nearly seven miles distant. On the outside it is only one storey in height, with a tower of 40 feet high; but within it has an area 110 feet long, 90 broad, and 30 deep, containing two millions of gallons of water, which can be distributed through the entire city at the rate of 5,000 gallons per minute.

Apart from the city, embosomed among trees – and though lower down than this reservoir, yet perched high in air – upon the northern bank of the Esplanade, stands the little octagonal villa of Allan Ramsay, from the windows of which the poet would enjoy an extensive view of all the fields, farms, and tiny hamlets that lay beyond the loch below, with the vast panorama beyond – the Firth of Forth, with the hills of Fife and Stirling. “The sober and industrious life of this exception to the race of poets having resulted in a small competency, he built this oddly-shaped house in his latter days designing to enjoy in it the Horatian quiet he had so often eulogised in his verse. The story goes,” says Chambers in his “Traditions,” “that, showing it soon after to the clever Patrick Lord Elibank, with much fussy interest in its externals and accommodation, he remarked that the wags were already at work on the subject – they likened it to a goose-pie (owing to the roundness of the shape). ‘Indeed, Allan,’ said his lordship, ‘now I see you in it I think the wags are not far wrong.'”

Ramsay, the author of the most perfect pastoral poem in the whole scope of British literature, and a song writer of great merit, was secretly a Jacobite, though a regular attendant in St. Giles’s Church. Opposed to the morose manners of his time, he delighted in music and the theatre, and it was his own advanced taste and spirit that led him, in 1725, to open a circulating library for the diffusion of fiction among the citizens of the time. Three years subsequently, in the narrow-minded spirit of “the dark age” of Edinburgh, the magistrates were moved to action, by the fear this new kind of reading might have on the minds of youth, and actually tried, but without effect, to put his library down. Among the leaders of these self-constituted guardians of morality was Erskine Lord Grange, whose life was a scandal to the age. In 1736 Allan Ramsay’s passion for the drama prompted him to erect a theatre in Carrubber’s Close; but in the ensuing year the act for licensing the stage was passed, and the magistrates ordered the house to be shut up. By this speculation he lost a good deal of money, but it is remarked by his biographers that this was perhaps the only unfortunate project in which he ever engaged. His constant cheerfulness and great conversational powers made him a favourite with all classes; and being fond of children he encouraged his three daughters to bring troops of young girls about his house, and in their sports he mingled with a vivacity singular in one of his years, and for them he was wont to make dolls and cradles with his own hands. In that house on the Castle bank he spent the last twelve years of a blameless life. He did not give up his shop – long the resort of all the wits of Edinburgh, the Hamiltons of Bangour, and Gilbertfield, Gay, and others – till 1755. He died in 1757, in his seventy-second year, and was buried in the Greyfriars Churchyard, where a tomb marks his grave. “An elderly female told a friend of mine,” says Chambers, “that she remembered, as a girl, living as an apprentice with a milliner in the Grassmarket, being sent to Ramsay Garden, to assist in making dead-clothes for the poet. She could recall, however, no particulars of the same, but the roses blooming in the death-chamber.”

The house of the poet passed to his son, Allan, an eminent portrait painter, a man of high culture, and a favourite in those circles wherein Johnson and Boswell moved. He inherited considerable literary taste from his father, and was the founder of the “Select Society” of Edinburgh, in 1754, of which all the learned men there were members. By the interest of Lord Bute he was introduced to George III., when Prince of Wales, whose portrait he painted. He enlarged the house his father built, and also raised the additional large edifices to the eastward, now known as Ramsay Gardens. The biographers of the painter always assert that he made a romantic marriage. In his youth, when teaching drawing to the daughters of Sir Alexander Lindesay, of Evelick, one of them fell in love with him, and as the consent of the parents was impossible then, they were secretly united in wedlock. He died at Dover in 1784, after which the property went to his son, General John Ramsay (latterly of the Chausseurs Britanniques), who, at his death in 1845, left the property to Murray of Henderland, and so ended the line of the author of “The Gentle Shepherd.”

Having thus described the locality of the Esplanade, we shall now relate a few of the terrible episodes – apart from war and tumult – of which it has been the scene.

In the reign of James V. the Master of Forbes was executed here for treason. He and his father had been warded in the Castle on that charge in 1536. By George Earl of Huntly, who bore a bitter animosity to the house of Forbes, the former had been accused of a design to take the life of the king, by shooting him with a hand-gun in Aberdeen, and also of being the chief instigator of the mutiny among the Scottish forces at Jedburgh, when on the march for England. Protesting his innocence, the Master boldly offered to maintain it in single combat against the earl, who gave a bond for 30,000 merks to make good his charge before the 31st of July, 1537. But it was not until the 11th of the same month in the following year that the Master was brought to trial, before Argyle, the Lord Justice General, and Huntly failed not to make good his vaunt. Though the charges were barely proved, and the witnesses were far from exceptionable, the luckless Master of Forbes was sentenced by the Commissioners of Justiciary and fifteen other men of high rank to be hanged, drawn, beheaded, and dismembered as a traitor, on the Castle Hill, which was accordingly done, and his quarters were placed above the city gates. The judges are supposed to have been bribed by Huntly, and many of the jury, though of noble birth, were his hereditary enemies. His father, after a long confinement, and undergoing a tedious investigation, was released from the Castle.

But a more terrible execution was soon to follow – that of Lady Jane Douglas, the young and beautiful widow of John Lord Glammis, who, with her second husband, Archibald Campbell of Skipness, her son the little Lord Glammis, and John Lyon an aged priest, were all committed prisoners to the Castle, on an absurd charge of seeking to compass the death of the king by poison and sorcery. “Jane Douglas,” says a writer in “Miscellanea Scotica,” “was the most renowned beauty in Britain at that time. She was of ordinary stature, but her mien was majestic; her eyes full, her face oval, her complexion delicate and extremely fair; heaven designed that her mind should want none of those perfections a mortal creature can be capable of; her modesty was admirable, her courage above what could be expected from her sex, her judgment solid, and her carriage winning and affable to her inferiors.” One of the most ardent of her suitors, on the death of Glammis, was a man named William Lyon, who, on her preferring Campbell of Skipness, vowed by a terrible oath to dedicate his life to revenge. He thus accused Lady Jane and the three others named, and though their friends were inclined to scoff at the idea of treason, the artful addition of “sorcery” was suited to the growing superstition of the age, and steeled against them the hearts of many.

Examined on the rack, before the newly-constituted Court of Justiciary, extremity of agony compelled them to assent to whatever was asked, and they were thus condemned by their own lips. Lady Jane was sentenced to perish at the stake on the Castle Hill. Her son, her husband, and the old friar were all replaced in David’s Tower, where the first remained a prisoner till 1542.

Mercy was implored in vain, and on the 17th of July – three days after the execution of the Master of Forbes – the beautiful and unfortunate Lady Jane was led from the Castle gates and chained to a stake. “Barrels tarred, and faggots oiled, were piled around her, and she was burned to ashes within view of her son and husband, who beheld the terrible scene from the tower that overlooked it.”

On the following night Campbell, frenzied by grief and despair, attempted to escape, but fell over the rocks, and was found next morning dashed out of all human shape at the foot of the cliff. James V. was struck with remorse on hearing all this terrible story. He released the friar; but, singular to say, William Lyon was merely banished the kingdom; while a man named Mackie, by whom the alleged poison was said to be prepared, was shorn of his ears.1

On the last day of February, 1539, Thomas Forret, Vicar of Dollar, John Keillor and John Beveridge, two black-friars, Duncan Simpson a priest, and a gentleman named Robert Forrester, were all burned together on the Castle Hill on a charge of heresy; and it is melancholy to know that a king so good and so humane as James V. was a spectator of this inhuman persecution for religion, and that he came all the way from Linlithgow Palace to witness it, whither he returned on the 2nd of March. It is probable that he viewed it from the Castle walls.

Again and again has the same place been the scene of those revolting executions for sorcery which disgraced the legal annals of Scotland. There, in 1570, Bessie Dunlop “was worried” at the stake for simply practising as a “wise woman” in curing diseases and recovering stolen goods. Several others perished in 1590-1; among others, Euphemie McCalzean, for consorting with the devil, abjuring her baptism, making waxen pictures to be enchanted, raising a storm to drown Anne of Denmark on her way to Scotland, and so forth.2

In 1600 Isabel Young was “woryt at a stake” for laying sickness on various persons, “and thereafter burnt to ashes on the Castle Hill.”3 Eight years after, James Reid, a noted sorcerer, perished in the same place, charged with practising healing by the black art, “whilk craft,” says one authority, “he learned frae the devil, his master, in Binnie Craigs and Corstorphine, where he met with him and consulted with him divers tymes, whiles in the likeness of a man, whiles in the likeness of a horse.” Moreover, he had tried to destroy the crops of David Liberton by putting a piece of enchanted flesh under his mill door, and to destroy David bodily by making a picture of him in wax and melting it before a fire, an ancient superstition – common to the Western Isles and in some parts of Rajpootana to this day. So great was the horror these crimes excited, that he was taken direct from the court to the stake. During the ten years of the Commonwealth executions on this spot occurred with appalling frequency.4 On the 15th October, 1656, seven culprits were executed at once, two of whom were burned; and on the 9th March, 1659, “there were,” says Nicoll, “fyve wemen, witches, brint on the Castell Hill, all of them confessand their covenanting with Satan, sum of thame renunceand thair baptisme, and all of them oft tymes dancing with the devell.”

During the reign of Charles I., when the earl of Stirling obtained permission to colonise Nova Scotia, and to sell baronetcies to some 200 supposed colonists, with power of pit and gallows over their lands, the difficulty of enfeoffing them in possessions so distant was overcome by a royal mandate, converting the soil of the Castle Hill for the time being into that of Nova Scotia; and between 1625 and 1649 sixty-four of these baronets took seisin before the archway of the Spur.

When the latter was fairly removed the hill became the favourite promenade of the citizens; and in June, 1709, we find it acknowledged by the town council, that the Lord’s Day “is profaned by people standing in the streets, and vaguing (sic) to fields, gardens, and the Castle Hill.” Denounce all these as they might, human nature never could be altogether kept off the Castle Hill; and in old times even the most respectable people promenaded there in multitudes between morning and evening service. In the old song entitled “The Young Laird and Edinburgh Katie,” to which Allan Ramsay added some verses, the former addresses his mistress:-

“Wat ye wha I met yestreen,
Coming doon the street, my jo?
My mistress in her tartan screen,
Fu bonny, braw, and sweet, my jo!
‘My dear,’ quo I, ‘thanks to the night,
That never wished a lover ill,
Since ye’re out o’ your mother’s sight,
Let’s tak’ a walk up to the Hill.’ “

In 1858 there ensued a dispute between the magistrates of Edinburgh and the Crown as to the proprietary of the Castle Hill and Esplanade. The former asserted their right to the whole ground claimed by the board of ordnance, acknowledging no other boundary to the possessions of the former than the ramparts of the Castle. This extensive claim they made in virtue of the rights conferred upon them by the golden charter of James VI. In 1603, wherein they were gifted with “all and whole, the loch called the North Loch, lands, pools, and marisches thereof, the north and south banks and braes situated on the west of the burgh, near the Castle of Edinburgh, on both sides of the Castle from the public highway, and that part of the said burgh situated under the Castle Hill towards the north, to the head of the bank, and so going down to the said North Loch,” &c.

This right of propriety seems clear enough, yet Lord Neaves decided in favour of the Crown, and found that “all the ground adjacent to the Castle of Edinburgh, including the Esplanade and the north and south banks or braes,” belonged, “jure coronæ, to Her Majesty as part and pertinent of the said Castle.”


1  Tytler, “Criminal Trials,” &c. &c.
2  “Diurnal of Occurrents.”
3  Spotswood, “Miscellany.”
4  Pitcairn.
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