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Chapter 9 – The Castle Hill (concluded)., pp.87-94.

Dr. Guthrie’s Original Ragged School – Old Houses in the Street of the Castle Hill – Duke of Gordon’s House, Blair’s Close – Webster’s Close – Dr. Alex. Webster – Boswell’s Court – Hyndford House – Assembly Hall – Houses of the Marquis of Argyle, Sir Andrew Kennedy, the Earl of Cassillis, the Laird of Cockpen – Lord Semple’s House – Lord Semple – Palace of Mary of Guise – Its Fate.


ON the north side of this thoroughfare – which, within 150 years ago, was one of the most aristocratic quarters of the old city – two great breaches have been made: one when the Free Church College was built in 1846, and the other, a little later, when Short’s Observatory was built in Ramsay Lane, together with the Original Ragged School, which owes its existence to the philanthropic efforts of the late Dr. Guthrie, who, with Drs. Chalmers, Cunningham, and Candlish, took so leading a part in the non-intrusion controversy, which ended in the disruption in 1843 and the institution of the Free Church of Scotland. In 1847 Guthrie’s fervent and heart-stirring appeals on behalf of the homeless and destitute children, the little street Arabs of the Scottish capital, led to the establishment of the Edinburgh Original Ragged Industrial School, which has been productive of incalculable benefit to the children of the poorer classes of the city, by affording them the blessing of a good common and Christian education, by training them in habits of industry, enabling them to earn an honest livelihood, and fitting them for the duties of life.

All children are excluded who attend regular day-schools, whose parents have a regular income, or who receive support or education from the parochial board; and the Association consists of all subscribers of 10s. and upwards per annum, or donors of £5 and upwards; and the general plan upon which this ragged school and its branch establishment at Leith Walk, are conducted is as follows, viz.:- “To give children an adequate allowance of food for their daily support; to instruct them in reading, writing, and arithmetic; to train them in habits of industry, by instructing and employing them in such sorts of work as are suited to their years; to teach them the truths of the Gospel, making the Holy Scriptures the groundwork of instruction. On Sabbath the children shall receive food as on other days, and such religious instruction as shall be arranged by the acting committee,” which consists of not less than twelve members.

To this most excellent institution no children are admissible who are above fourteen or under five years of age, and they must either be natives of Edinburgh or resident there at least twelve months prior to application for admission, though, in special cases, it may be limited to six. None are admitted or retained who labour under infectious disease, or whose mental or bodily constitution renders them incapable of profiting by the institution. All must attend church on Sunday, and no formula of doctrine is taught to which their parents may object; and children are excused from attendance at school or worship on Sunday whose parents object to their attendance, but who undertake that the children are otherwise religiously instructed in the tenets of the communion to which they belong, provided they are in a condition to be entrusted with the care of their children.

Such were the broad, generous, and liberal views of Dr. Guthrie, and most ably have they been carried out.

According to the Report for 1879 – which may be taken as fairly typical of the work done in this eminently useful institution – there was an average attendance in the Ramsay Lane Schools of 216 boys and 89 girls. The Industrial Department comprises carpentry, box-making, shoemaking, and tailoring, and the net profits made by the boys in these branches amounted to £182 14s. 5 ½d. Besides this the boys do all the washing, help the cook, make their beds, and wash the rooms they occupy twice a week. The washing done by boys was estimated at £130, and the girls, equally industrious, did work to the value (including the washing) of £109 7s.

Full of years and honour, Dr. Thomas Guthrie died 24th February, 1873.

Memories of these old houses that have passed away, yet remain, while on the opposite side of the street some are unchanged in external aspect since the days of the Stuarts.

On the pediment of a dormer window of the house that now forms the south-west angle of the street, directly facing the Castle, and overlooking the steep flight of steps that descend to Johnston Terrace, we find a date 1630, with the initials A. M. – M. N., and in the wall below there still remains a cannon ball, fired from the half-moon during the blockade in 1745. Through this building there is a narrow alley named Blair’s Close – so narrow indeed, that amid the brightest sunshine there is never in it more than twilight – giving access to an open court, at the first angle of which is a handsome Gothic doorway, surmounted by an ogee arch, within which, is a large coronet, supported by two deerhounds, well known features in the Gordon arms. Local tradition universally affirms this mansion to have been the residence of the duke of that title, which was bestowed on the house of Huntly in 1684; but the edifice in question evidently belongs to an anterior age; and the old tradition was proved to be correct, when in a disposition (now in possession of the City Improvement Commission) by Sir Robert Baird to his son William, dated 1694, he describes it as “all and hail, that my lodging in the Castle Hill of Edinburgh, formerly possessed by the Duchess of Gordon.”

The latter was Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk and wife of Duke George, who so gallantly defended the Castle against the troops of William of Orange; during the lifetime of the duke she retired to a Belgian convent, but afterwards returned to the old mansion in Edinburgh, where she frequently resided till her death, which took place at the abbey in 1732, sixteen years after that of the duke at Leith. The internal fittings of the mansion are in many respects unchanged since its occupation by the duchess. It is wood–panelled throughout, and one large room which overlooks the Esplanade is decorated with elaborate carvings, and with a large painting over the mantelpiece the production of Norrie, a famous house-decorator of the eighteenth century, whose genius for landscapes entitles him to a place among Scottish painters. An explosion of gunpowder which took place in the basement of the house in 1811, attended with serious loss of life, destroyed utterly the ancient Gothic fireplace, which was very beautiful in its design.

This house is mentioned in the “Diurnal of Occurrents” as being, in 1570, the residence of Patrick Edgar; and after it passed from the Gordons it was possessed by the family of Newbyth, who resided in it for several generations, and therein, on the 6th December, 1757, was born the gallant Sir David Baird, Bart., the hero of Seringapatam and conqueror of Tippoo Saib; and therein he was educated and brought up. Returning years after, he visited the place of his birth, which had long since passed into other hands. Chambers relates that the individual then occupying the house received the veteran hero with great respect, and, after showing him through it, ushered him into the little garden behind, where some boys were engaged in mischievously throwing cabbage stalks at the chimneys of the Grassmarket. On one going plump down a vent they set up a shout of joy. Sir David laughed, and entreated the father of the lads “not to be too angry; he and his brother,” he added with some emotion, “when living here at the same age, had indulged in precisely the same amusement, the chimneys then, as now, being so provokingly open to attacks, that there was no resisting the temptation.” From the Bairds of Newbyth the house passed to the Browns of Greenbank, and from them, Brown’s Close, where the modern entrance to it is situated, derives its name.

On the same side of the street Webster’s Close served to indicate the site of the house of Dr. Alexander Webster, appointed in 1737 to the Tolbooth church. In his day one of the most popular men in the city, he was celebrated for his wit and social qualities, and amusing stories are still told of his fondness for claret. With the assistance of Dr. Wallace he matured his favourite scheme of a perpetual fund for the relief of widows and children of the clergy of the Scottish Church; and when, in 1745, Edinburgh was in possession of the Jacobite clans, he displayed a striking proof of his fearless character by employing all his eloquence and influence to retain the people in their loyalty to the house of Hanover. He had some pretension to the character of a poet, and an amatory piece of his has been said to rival the effusions of Catullus. It was written in allusion to his marriage with Mary Erskine. There is one wonderfully impassioned verse, in which, after describing a process of the imagination, by which he comes to think his innamorata [lover] a creature of more than mortal purity, he says that at length he clasps her to his bosom and discovers that she is but a woman after all!

“When I see thee, I love thee, but hearing adore,
I wonder and think you a woman no more,
Till mad with admiring, I cannot contain,
And, kissing those lips, find you woman again!”

He died in January, 1784.

Eastward of this point stands a very handsome old tenement of great size and breadth, presenting a front of polished ashlar to the street, surmounted by dormer windows. Over the main entrance to Boswell’s Court (so named from a doctor who resided there about the close of the last century) there is a shield, and one of those pious legends so peculiar to most old houses in Scottish burghs. O . LORD . IN . THE . IS . AL . MI . TRAIST. And this edifice uncorroborated tradition asserts to have been the mansion of the Earls of Bothwell.

A tall narrow tenement immediately to the west of the Assembly Hall forms the last ancient building on the south side of the street. It was built in 1740, by Mowbray of Castlewan, on the site of a venerable mansion belonging to the Countess Dowager of Hyndford (Elizabeth daughter of John Earl of Lauderdale), and from him it passed, about 1747, into the possession of William Earl of Dumfries, who served in the Scots Greys and Scots Guards, who was an aide de camp at the battle of Dettingen, and who succeeded his mother, Penelope, countess in her own right, and afterwards, by the death of his brother, as Earl of Stair. He was succeeded in it by his widow, who, within exactly a year and day of his death, married the Hon. Alexander Gordon (son of the Earl of Aberdeen), who, on his appointment to the bench in 1784, assumed the title of Lord Rockville.

He was the last man of rank who inhabited this stately old mansion; but the narrow alley which gives access to the court behind bore the name of Rockville Close. Within it, and towards the west there towered a tall substantial edifice once the residence of the Countess of Hyndford, and sold by her, in 1740, to Henry Bothwell of Glencorse, last Lord Holyroodhouse, who died at his mansion in the Canongate in 1755.

The corner of the street is now terminated by the magnificent hall built in 1842-4, at the cost of £16,000 for the accommodation of the General Assembly, which sits here annually in May, presided over by a Commissioner, who is always a Scottish nobleman, and resides in Holyrood Palace, where he holds royal state, and gives levées in the gallery of the kings of Scotland. The octagonal spire which surmounts the massive Gothic tower at the main entrance rises to an altitude of 240 feet, and forms a point in all views of the city.

Many quaint closes and picturesque old houses were swept away to give place to this edifice, and to the hideous western approach, which weakened the strength and destroyed the amenity of the Castle in that quarter. Among these, in Ross’s Court, stood the house of the great Marquis of Argyle, which, in the days of Creech, was rented by a hosier at £12 per annum. In another, named Kennedy’s Close – latterly a mean and squalid alley – there resided, until almost recent times, a son of Sir Andrew Kennedy of Clowburn, Bart., whose title is now extinct; and the front tenement was alleged to have been the town residence of those proud and fiery Earls of Cassillis, the “kings of Carrick,” whose family name was Kennedy, and whose swords were seldom in the scabbard. Here, too, stood a curious old timber-fronted “land,” said to have been a nonjurant Episcopal chapel, in which was a beautifully sculptured Gothic niche with a cusped canopy, and which Wilson supposes to have been one of the private oratories that Arnot states to have been existing in his time, and in which the baptismal fonts were then remaining.

On the north side of the street, most quaint was the group of buildings partly demolished to make way for Short’s Observatory. One was dated 1621; another was very lofty, with two crowstepped gables and four elaborate string mouldings on a smooth ashlar front. The first of these, which stood at the corner of Ramsay Lane, and had some very ornate windows, was universally alleged to be the town residence of that personage so famous in Scottish song, the Laird of Cockpen, whose family name was Ramsay (being a branch of the noble family of Dalhousie) and from whom some affirm the lane to have been called, long before the days of the poet. By an advertisement in the Edinburgh Courant for January, 1761, we find that Lady Cockpen was then resident in a house “in the Bell Close,” the north side of the Castle Hill, the rental of which was £14 10s.

The last noble occupants of the old mansion were two aged ladies, daughters of the Lord Gray of Kinfauns. The house adjoining bore the date as mentioned, 1621; and the one below it was a fine specimen of the wooden-fronted tenements, with the oak timbers of the projecting gable beautifully carved. During the early part of the 18th century this was the town mansion of David of Gordon as governor of the Castle in 1689, and belied his race by his cowardice at Killiecrankie. “No doubt,” wrote an old cavalier at a later period, “if Her Majesty Queen Anne had been rightly informed of his care of the Castle, where there were not ten barrels of powder when the Pretender was on the coast of Scotland, and of his courteous behaviour to ladies – particularly how he horsewhipped the Lady Mortonhall – she would have made him a general for life.”1

Close by this edifice there stands, in Semple’s Close, a fine example of its time, the old family mansion of the Lords Semple of Castlesemple. Large and substantially built, it is furnished with a projecting octagonal turnpike stair, over the door to which is the boldly-cut legend –

ANNO DOM. 1638.

Over a second doorway is the inscription – Sedes, Manet optima Cœlo, with the above date repeated, and the coat of arms of some family now unknown. Hugh eleventh Lord Semple, in 1743 purchased the house from two merchant burgesses of Edinburgh, who severally possessed it, and he converted it into one large mansion. He had seen much military service in Queen Anne’s wars, both in Spain and Flanders. In 1718 he was major of the Cameronians; and in 1743 he commanded the Black Watch, and held the town of Aeth when it was besieged by the French. In 1745 he was colonel of the 25th or Edinburgh Regiment, and commanded the left wing of the Hanoverian army at the battle of Culloden.

Few families have been more associated with Scottish song than the Semples. Prior to the acquisition of this mansion their family residence appears to have been in Leith, and it is referred to in a poem by Francis Semple, of Belltrees, written about 1680. The Lady Semple of that day, a daughter of Sir Archibald Primrose of Dalmeny (ancestor of the Earls of Rosebery), is traditionally said to have been a Roman Catholic. Thus, her house was a favourite resort of the priesthood then visiting Scotland in disguise, and she had a secret passage by which they could escape to the fields in time of peril.

Anne, fourth daughter of Hugh Lord Semple, was married in September, 1754, to Dr. Austin, of Edinburgh, author of the well-known song, “For lack of gold,” in allusion to Jean Drummond, of Megginch, who jilted him for the Duke of Athol.

“For lack of gold she left me, O!
And of all that’s dear bereft me, O!
For Athol’s Duke
She me forsook,
And to endless care has left me, O!”

The Doctor died in 1774, in his house at the north-west corner of Brown Square; but his widow survived him nearly twenty years. Her brother John, twelfth Lord Semple, in 1755 sold the family mansion to Sir James Clerk of Penicuik, well-known in his time as a man of taste, and the patron of Runciman the artist.

An ancient pile of buildings, now swept away, but which were accessible by Blyth’s, Tod’s, and Nairne’s Closes, formed once the residence of Mary of Lorraine and Guise, widow of James V., and Regent of Scotland from 1554 to 1560. It is conjectured that this palace and oratory were erected immediately after the burning of Holyrood and the city by the English in 1544, when the widowed queen would naturally seek a more secure habitation within the walls of the city, and close to the Castle guns, in this edifice it is supposed that Mary, her daughter, after succeeding in detaching the imbecile Darnley from his party, took up her residence for a few days after the murder of Rizzio, as she feared to trust herself within the blood-stained precincts of the palace. Over its main doorway there was cut in old Gothic letters the legend Laus honor Deo, with I. R., the initials of King James V., and at each end were shields having the monograms of the Saviour and the Virgin. The mansion, though it had been sorely changed and misused, still exhibited some large and handsome fireplaces, with beautifully clustered pillars, and seven elaborately sculptured stone recesses, with much fine oak carving in the doors and panels that are still preserved. Over one of the former are the heads of King James V., with his usual slouched bonnet, and of his queen, whose well-known beauty certainly cannot be traced in this instance.

A portion of this building, accessible by a stair near the head of the close, contained a hall, with other apartments, all remarkable for the great height and beauty of their ceilings, on all of which were coats armorial in fine stucco. In the decorated chimney of the former were the remains of one of those chains to which, in Scotland, the poker and tongs were usually attached, to prevent their being used as weapons in case of any sudden quarrel. One chamber was long known as the queen’s Deid-room, where the individuals of the royal establishment were kept between their death and burial. In 1828 there was found walled up in the oratory an infantine head and hand in wax, being all that remained of a bambino, or figure of the child Jesus, and now preserved by the Society of Antiquaries. The edifice had many windows on the northern side, and from these a fine view must have been commanded of the gardens in the immediate foreground, sloping downward to the loch, the opposite bank, with its farm-houses, the Firth of Forth, and Fifeshire. “It was interesting,” says the author of “Traditions of Edinburgh,” “to wander through the dusky mazes of this ancient building, and reflect that they had been occupied three centuries ago by a sovereign princess, and of the most illustrious lineage Here was a substantial monument of the connection between Scotland and France. She, whose ancestors owned Lorraine as a sovereignty, who had spent her youth in the proud halls of the Guises in Picardy, and had been the spouse of a Longueville, was here content to live – in a close in Edinburgh! In these obscurities, too, was a government conducted, which had to struggle with Knox, Glencairn, James Stewart, Morton, and many other powerful men, backed by a popular sentiment which never fails to triumph. It was the misfortune of Mary (of Guise) to be placed in a position to resist the Reformation. Her own character deserved that she should have stood in a more agreeable relation to what Scotland now venerates, for she was mild and just, and sincerely anxious for the welfare of her adopted country. It is also proper to remember on the present occasion, that in her Court she maintained a decent gravity, nor would she tolerate any licentious practices therein. Her maids of honour were always busied in commendable exercises, she herself being an example to them in virtue, piety, and modesty. When all is considered, and we further know that the building was strong enough to have lasted many more ages, one cannot but regret that the palace of Mary de Guise, reduced as it was to vileness, should not now be in existence. The site having been purchased by individuals connected with the Free Church, the buildings were removed in 1846 to make room for the erection of an academical institution, or college, for that body.”

The demolition of this mansion brought to light a concealed chamber on the first floor, lighted by a narrow loophole opening into Nairne’s Close. The entrance had been by a movable panel, affording access to a narrow flight of steps wound round in the wall of the turnpike stair. The existence of this mysterious chamber was totally unknown to the various inhabitants, and all tradition has been lost of those to whom it may have afforded escape or refuge.

The Duke of Devonshire possesses an undoubted portrait of Mary of Guise. It represents her with a brilliantly fair complexion, with reddish, or auburn hair. This is believed to be the only authentic one in existence. That portrait alleged to be of her in the Trinity House at Leith is a bad copy, by Mytens, of that of her daughter at St. James’s. Some curious items connected with her Court are to be found in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer, among them are the following:-

At her coronation in 1540, “Item, deliverit to ye French telzour, to be ane cote to Serrat, the Queen’s fule,” &c.* Green and yellow seems to have been the Court fool’s livery; but Mary of Guise seems to have had a female buffoon and male and female dwarfs:- “1562. Paid for ane cote, hois, lyning and making, to Jonat Musche, fule, £4 5s. 6d.; 1565, for green plaiding to make ane bed to Jardinar the fule, with white fustione fedders,” &c.; in 166, there is paid for a garment of red and yellow, to be a gown “for Jane Colquhoun, fule;” and in 1567, another entry, for broad English yellow, “to be cote, breeks, also sarkis, to James Geddie, fule.”

The next occupant of the Guise palace, or of that portion thereof which stood in Tod’s Close, was Edward Hope, son of John de Hope, a Frenchman who had come to Scotland in the retinue of Magdalene, first queen of James V., in 1537.

It continued in possession of the Hopes till 1691, when it was acquired by James, first Viscount Stair, for 3,000 guilders, Dutch money, probably in connection with some transaction in Holland, from whence he accompanied William of Orange four years before. In 1702 it was the abode and property of John Wightman of Mauldsie, afterwards Lord Provost of the city. From that period it was the residence of a succession of wealthy burgesses – the closes being then, and till a comparatively recent period, exclusively occupied by peers and dignitaries of rank and wealth. Since then it shared the fate of all the patrician dwellings in old Edinburgh, and became the squalid abode of a host of families in the most humble ranks of life.


1  “Miscellanea Scotica.”
*  “Item, delivered to the French tailor, to be a coat to Serrat, the Queen’s fool.” This has both the old letters ƿ (yogh), in “ƿe” or “ye”, and ʒ (thorn) in “telʒour” or “telzour”.
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