Gosford’s Close – The Town House of the Abbot of Cambuskenneth – Tennant’s House – Mansion of the Hays – Liberton’s Wynd – Johnnie Dowie’s Tavern – Burns and His Songs – The Place of Execution – Birthplace of “The Man of Feeling” – The Mirror Club – Forrester’s Wynd – The Heather Stacks in the Houses – Peter Williamson – Beith’s Wynd – Habits of the Lawnmarket Woollen Traders – “Lawnmarket Gazettes” – Melbourne Place – The County Hall – The Signet and Advocates’ Libraries.
BELOW the scene of this tragedy opened Gosford’s Close (in the direct line of the King’s Bridge), wherein for ages stood a highly-decorated edifice, belonging to the Augustinian abbey of Cambuskenneth, near Stirling. It would seem to have been of considerable size, and from the mass of sculptured fragments, all beautiful Gothic carvings, found in the later houses of the close, must have been a considerable feature in the city. “The building was in all likelihood,” we are told, “the town mansion of the abbot, with a beautiful chapel attached to it, and may serve to remind us how little idea we can form of the beauty of the Scottish capital before the Reformation, adorned as it was with so many churches and conventual buildings, the very sites of which are now unknown. Over the doorway of an ancient stone land in Gosford’s Close, which stood immediately east of the Old Bank Close, there existed a curious sculptured lintel containing a representation of the crucifixion, and which may with every probability be regarded as another relic of the abbot’s house that once occupied its site.”
This lintel is still preserved, and the house which it adorned belonged to Mungo Tennant, a wealthy citizen, whose seal is appended to a reversion of the half of the lands of Leny, in 1540. It also bears his arms, with the then common legend – Soli . Deo . Honor . et . Gloria.
In the lower storey of this house was a strongly-arched cellar, in the floor of which was a concealed trap-door, admitting to another lower down, hewn out of the living rock. Tradition averred it was a chamber for torture, but it has more shrewdly been supposed to have been connected with the smugglers, to whom the North Loch afforded by boat such facilities for evading the duties at the city gates, and running in wines and brandies. This vault is believed to be still remaining untouched beneath the central roadway of the new bridge. On the first floor of this mansion the fifth Earl of Loudon, a gallant general officer, and his daughter, Lady Flora (latterly countess in her own right) afterwards Marchioness of Hastings, resided when in town. Here, too, was the mansion of Hume Rigg of Morton, who died in it in 1788. It is thus described in a note to Kay’s works:- “The dining and drawing-rooms were spacious; indeed, more so than those of any private modern house we have seen. The lobbies were all variegated marble, and a splendid mahogany staircase led to the upper storey. There was a large green behind, with a statue in the middle, and a summer-house at the bottom; but so confined was the entry to this elegant mansion that it was impossible to get even a sedan chair near to the door.” On the 20th January, 1773, at four A.M., there was a tempest, says a print of the time, “and a stack of chimneys on an old house at the foot of Gosford’s Close, possessed by Hugh Mossman, writer, was blown down, and breaking through the roof in that part of the house where he and his spouse lay, they both perished in the ruins… In the storey below, Miss Mally Rigg, sister to Rigg of Morton, also perished.”
So lately as 1773 the Ladies Catharine and Anne Hay, daughters of John Marquis of Tweeddale, and in that year their brother George, the fifth Marquis, resided there too, in the third floor of the front “land” or tenement. “Indeed,” says Wilson, “the whole neighbourhood was the favourite resort of the most fashionable and distinguished among the resident citizens, and a perfect nest of advocates and lords of session.” In the year 1794 the hall and museum of the Society of Antiquaries were at the bottom of this ancient thoroughfare.
Next it was Liberton’s Wynd, the avenue of which is still partially open, and which was removed to make way for the new bridge and other buildings. Like many others still extant, or demolished, this alley, called a wynd as being broader than a close, had the fronts of its stone mansions so added to and encumbered by quaint projecting out-shot Doric gables of timber, that they nearly met overhead, excluding the narrow strip of sky, and, save at noon, all trace of sunshine. Yet herein stood Johnnie Dowie’s tavern, one of the most famous in the annals of Convivialia, and a view of which, by Geikie, is preserved by Hone in his “Year Book.” Johnnie Dowie was the sleekest and kindest of landlords; nothing could equal the benignity of his smile when he brought “ben” a bottle of his famous old Edinburgh ale to a well-known and friendly customer. The formality with which he drew the cork, the air with which he filled the long, slender glasses, and the regularity with which he drank the healths of all present in the first, with his douce civility at withdrawing, were as long remembered by his many customers as his “Nor’ Loch * trouts ** and Welsh rabbits,” after he had gone to his last home, in 1817, leaving a fortune to his son, who was a major in the army. With a laudable attachment to the old costume he always wore a cocked hat, buckles at the knees and shoes, as well as a cross-handled cane, over which he stooped in his gait. Here, in the space so small and dark, that even cabmen would avoid it now, there came, in the habit of the times, Robert Fergusson the poet, David Herd the earliest collector of Scottish songs, “antiquarian Paton,” and others forgotten now, but who were men of local note in their own day as lords of session and leading advocates. Here David Martin, a well-known portrait painter, instituted a Club, which was quaintly named after their host, the “Dowie College,” and there his far more celebrated pupil Sir Henry Raeburn often accompanied him in his earlier years; and, more than all, it was the favourite resort of Robert Burns, where he spent many a jovial hour with Willie Nicol and Allan Masterton. “Three blyther lads” never gladdened the old place; and so associated did it become with Burns, that, according to a writer in the “Year Book,” “his name was assumed as its distinguishing and alluring cognomen. Until it was finally closed, it was visited nightly by many a party of jolly fellows… Few strangers omitted to call in to gaze upon the ‘coffin’ of the bard – this was a small, dark room, which would barely accommodate, even by squeezing, half a dozen, but in which Burns used to sit. Here he composed one or two of his best songs, and here were preserved to the last the identical seats and table which had accommodated him.” In his edition of Scottish songs published in 1829, five years before the demolition of the tavern, Chambers notes that in the ale-house was sung that sweetest of all Burns’s love songs:-
“O, poortith cauld, and restless love,
Ye wreck my peace between ye;
Yet poortith a’ I could forgie,
An ’twere na for my Jeanie.
“Oh, why should fate sic pleasure have,
Life’s dearest bonds untwining?
Or why sae sweet a flower as love
Depend on fortune’s shining?”
The moment the clock of St. Giles’s struck not another cork would Johnnie Dowie draw. His unvarying reply to a fresh order was, “Gentlemen, it is past twelve, and time to go home.” In the same corner where Burns sat Cristopher North has alluded to his own pleasant meetings with Tom Campbell. A string of eleven verses in honour of his tavern were circulated among his customers by Dowie, who openly ascribed them to Burns. Two of these will suffice, as what was at least a good imitation of the poet’s style:-
“O Dowie’s ale! thou art the thing
That gars us crack and gars us sing,
Cast by our cares, our wants a’ fling
Frae us wi’ anger;
Thou e’en mak’st passion tak the wing,
Or thou wilt hang her.
“How blest is he wha has a groat,
To spare upon the cheering pot;
He may look blythe as ony Scot
That e’er was born;
Gie’s a’ the like, but wi’ a coat,
And guide frae scorn.”
“Now these men are all gone,” wrote one, who, alas! has followed them; “their very habits are becoming matters of history, while, as for their evening haunt, the place which knew it once knows it no more, the new access to the Lawnmarket, by George IV. Bridge, passing over the area where it stood.”
Liberton’s Wynd is mentioned so far back as in a charter by James III., in 1477, and in a more subsequent time it was the last permanent place of execution, after the demolition of the old Tolbooth. Here at its head have scores of unhappy wretches looked their last upon the morning sun – the pre-eminent Irish murderers, Burke and Hare, among them. The socket of the gallows-tree was removed, like many other objects of greater interest, in 1834.
Before quitting this ancient alley we must not omit to note that therein, in the house of his father Dr. Josiah Mackenzie (who died in 1800) was born in August, 1745, Henry Mackenzie, author of the “Man of Feeling,” one of the most illustrious names connected with polite literature in Scotland. He was one of the most active members of the Mirror Club, which met sometimes at Cleriheugh’s in Writer’s Court; sometimes in Somer’s, opposite the Guard-house in the High Street; sometimes in Stewart’s oyster-house, in the old Fleshmarket Close; but oftener, perhaps, in Lucky Dunbar’s, a house situated in an alley that led between Liberton’s Wynd and that of Forrester’s Wynd. This Club commenced its publication of the Mirror in January, 1729, and terminated it in May, 1780. It was a folio sheet, published weekly at three-halfpence. The Lounger, to which Lord Craig contributed largely, was commenced, by the staff of the Mirror, on the 6th of February, 1785, and continued weekly till the 6th of January, 1787. Among the members of this literary Club were Mr. Alexander Abercrombie, afterwards Lord Abercrombie; Lord Bannatyne; Mr. George Home, Clerk of Session; Gordon of Newhall; and a Mr. George Ogilvie; among their correspondents were Lord Hailes, Mr. Baron Hume, Dr. Beattie, and many other eminent literary men of the time; but of the 101 papers of the Lounger, fifty-seven are the production of Henry Mackenzie, including his general review of Burns’s poems, already referred to.
In Liberton’s Wynd, we find from the Edinburgh Advertiser of 1783, that the Misses Preston, daughters of the late minister of Markinch, had a boarding school for young ladies, whose parents “may depend that the greatest attention will be paid to their morals, behaviour, and every branch of education.”
In this quarter Turk’s Close, Carthrae’s, Forrester’s, and Beith’s Wynds, all stood on the slope between Liberton’s Wynd and St. Giles’s Church; but every stone of these had been swept away many years before the great breach made by the new bridge was projected. Forrester’s Wynd occurs so often in local annals that it must have been a place of some consideration.
“The Diurnal of Occurrents” records, that in 1566, John Sinclair, Bishop of Brechin, Dean of Restalrig, and Lord President of the College of Justice, died in Forrester’s Wynd, in the house of James Mossman, probably the same man who was a goldsmith in Edinburgh at that time, and whose father, also James Mossman, enclosed with the present four arches the crown of Scotland, by order of James V., when Henry VIII. closed the crown of England. In consequence of the houses being set on fire by the Castle guns under Kirkaldy, in 1572, it was ordered that all the thatched houses between Beith’s Wynd and St. Giles’s should be unroofed, and that all stacks of heather should be carried away from the streets and burned, and “that ilk man in Edinburgh have his lumes (vents) full of watter in the nycht, under pain of deid!” (“Diurnal.”) This gives us a graphic idea of the city in the sixteenth century, and of the High Street in particular, “with the majority of the buildings on either side covered with thatch, encumbered by piles of heather and other fuel accumulated before each door for the use of the inhabitants, and from amid these, we may add the stately ecclesiastical edifices, and the substantial mansions of the nobility, towering with all the more imposing effect, in contrast to their homely neighbourhood.”
Concerning these heather stacks we have the following episode in “Moyse’s Memoirs:” – “On the 2nd December, 1584, a Baxter’s boy called Robert Henderson (no doubt by the instigation of Satan) desperately put some powder and a candle to his father’s heather-stack, standing in a close opposite the Tron, and burnt the same with his father’s house, to the imminent hazard of burning the whole town, for which, being apprehended most marvellously, after his escaping out of town, he was next day burnt quick at the cross of Edinburgh as an example.”
There was still extant in 1850 a small fragment of Forrester’s Wynd, a beaded doorway in a ruined wall, with the legend above it –
“O.F. OUR INHERITANCE, 1623.”
“In all the old houses in Edinburgh,” says Arnot, “it is remarkable that the superstition of the time had guarded each with certain cabalistic characters or talismans engraved upon its front. These were generally composed of some texts of Scripture, of the name of God, or perhaps an emblematical representation of the crucifixion.”
Forrester’s Wynd probably took its name from Sir Adam Forrester of Corstorphine, who was twice chief magistrate of the city in the 14th century.
After the “Jenny Geddes” riot in St. Giles’s, Guthrie, in his “Memoirs,” tells us of a mob, consisting of some hundreds of women, whose place of rendezvous in 1637 was Forrester’s Wynd, and who attacked Sydeserf, Bishop of Galloway, when on his way to the Privy Council, accompanied by Francis Stewart, son of the Earl of Bothwell, “with such violence, that probably he had been torn in pieces, if it had not been that the said Francis, with the help of two pretty men that attended him, rescued him out of their barbarous hands, and hurled him in at the door, holding back the pursuers until those that were within shut the door. Thereafter, the Provost and Bailies being assembled in their council, those women beleaguered them, and threatened to burn the house about their ears, unless they did presently nominate two commissioners for the town,” &c. Their cries were: “God defend all those who will defend God’s cause! God confound the service-book and all maintainers thereof!”
From advertisements, it would appear that a character who made some noise in his time, Peter Williamson, “from the other world,” as he called himself, had a printer’s shop at the head of this wynd in 1772. The victim of a system of kidnapping encouraged by the magistrates of Aberdeen, he had been carried off in his boyhood to America, and after almost unheard-of perils and adventures, related in his autobiography, published in 1758, he returned to Scotland, and obtained some small damages from the then magistrates of his native city, and settled in Edinburgh as a printer and publisher. In 1776 he started The Scots Spy, published every Friday, of which copies are now extremely rare. He had the merit of establishing the first penny post in Edinburgh, and also published a “Directory,” from his new shop in the Luckenbooths, in 1784. He would appear for these services to have received a small pension from Government when it assumed his institution of the penny post. He died in January, 1799.
The other venerable alley referred to, Beith’s Wynd, when greatly dilapidated by time, was nearly destroyed by two fires, which occurred in 1786 and 1788. The former, on the 12th December, broke out near Henderson’s stairs, and raged with great violence for many hours, but by the assistance of the Town Guard and others it was suppressed, yet not before many families were burnt out. The Parliament House and the Advocates’ Library were both in imminent peril, and the danger appeared so great, that the Court of Session did not sit that day, and preparations were made for the speedy removal of all records. At the head of Beith’s Wynd, in 1745, dwelt Andrew Maclure, a writing-master, one of that corps of civic volunteers who marched to oppose the Highlanders, but which mysteriously melted away ere it left the West Port. It was noted of the gallant Andrew, that having made up his mind to die, he had affixed a sheet of paper to his breast, whereon was written, in large text-hand, “This is the body of Andrew Maclure; let it be decently interred,” a notice that was long a source of joke among the Jacobite wits.
With this wynd, our account of the alleys in connection with the Lawnmarket ends. We have elsewhere referred to the once well-known Club formed by the dwellers in the latter, chiefly woollen traders. They have been described as being “a dram-drinking, news-mongering, facetious set of citizens, who met every morn about seven o’clock, and after proceeding to the post-office to ascertain the news (when the mail arrived), generally adjourned to a public-house and refreshed themselves with a libation of brandy.” Unfounded articles of intelligence that were spread abroad in those days were usually named “Lawnmarket Gazettes,” in allusion to their roguish or waggish originators.
At all periods the Lawnmarket was a residence for men of note, and the frequent residence of English and other foreign ambassadors; and so long as Edinburgh continued to be the seat of the Parliament, its vicinity to the House made it a favourite and convenient resort for the members of the Estates.
On the ground between Robert Gourlay’s house and Beith’s Wynd we now find some of those portions of the new city which have been engrafted on the old. In Melbourne Place, at the north end of George IV. Bridge, are, among other offices, those of the Royal Medical Society, Property Investment Society, and the Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures, built in an undefined style of architecture, new to Edinburgh. Opposite, with its back to the bridge, where a part of the line of Liberton’s Wynd exists, is built the County Hall, presenting fronts to the Lawnmarket and to St. Giles’s. The last of these possesses no common beauty, as it has a very lofty portico of finely-fluted columns, overshadowing a flight of steps leading to the main entrance, which is modelled after the choragic monument of Thrasyllus, while the ground plan and style of ornament is an imitation of the Temple of Erechtheius at Athens. It was erected in 1817, and contains several spacious and lofty court-rooms, with apartments for the Sheriff and other functionaries employed in the business of the county. The hall contains a fine statue of Lord Chief Baron Dundas, by Chantrey.
Adjoining it and stretching eastward is the library of the Writers to the Signet. It is of Grecian architecture, and possesses wo long pillared halls of beautiful proportions, the upper having Corinthian columns, and a dome wherein are painted the Muses. It is 132 feet long by about 40 broad, and was used by George IV. as a drawing-room, on the day of the royal banquet in the Parliament House. Formed by funds drawn solely from contributions by Writers to H.M. Signet, it is under a body of curators. The library contains more than 60,000 volumes, and is remarkably rich in British and Irish history.
Southward of it and lying parallel with it, nearer the Cowgate, is the Advocates’ Library, two long halls, with oriel windows on the north side. This library, one of the five in the United Kingdom entitled to a copy of every work printed in it, was founded by Sir George Mackenzie, Dean of Faculty in 1682, and contains some 2000,000 volumes, forming the most valuable collection of the kind in Scotland. The volumes of Scottish poetry alone exceed 400. Among some thousand MSS. are those of Wodrow, Sir James Balfour, Sir Robert Sibbald, and others. In one of the lower compartments may be seen Greenshield’s statue of Sir Walter Scott, and the original volume of Waverley; two volumes of original letters written by Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.; the Confession of Faith signed by James VI. and the Scottish nobles in 1589-90; a valuable cabinet from the old Scottish mint in the Cowgate; the pennon borne by Sir William Keith at Flodden; and many other objects of the deepest interest. The office of librarian has been held by many distinguished men of letters; among them were Thomas Ruddiman, in 1702; David Hume, his successor, in 1752; Adam Fergusson; and David Irving, LL.D.
A somewhat minor edifice in the vicinity forms the library of the Solicitors before the Supreme Court.