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Chapter 20 – The Royal Exchange – The Trongate Church – The Great Fire of November, 1824., pp.183-191.

The Royal Exchange – Laying the Foundation Stone – Description of the Exchange – The Mysterious Statue – The Council Chamber – Conventions of Royal Burghs: Constitution thereof, and Powers – Writers’ Court – The “Star and Garter” Tavern – Sir Walter Scott’s Account of the Scene at Cleriheugh’s – Lawyers’ High Jinks – The Tron Church – History of the Old Church – The Great Fire of 1824 – Incidents of the Conflagration – The Ruins Undermined – Blown up by Captain Head of the Engineers.


IN 1753 we discover the first symptoms of vitality in Edinburgh after the Union, when the pitiful sum of £1,500 was subscribed by the convention of royal burghs, for the purpose of “beautifying the city,” and the projected Royal Exchange was fairly taken in hand.

If wealth had not increased much, the population had, and by the middle of the eighteenth century the citizens had begun to find the inconvenience they laboured under by being confined within the old Flodden wall, and that the city was still destitute of such public buildings as were necessary for the accommodation of those societies which were formed, or forming, in all other capitals, to direct the business of the nation, and provide for the general welfare; and so men of taste, rank, and opulence, began to bestir themselves in Edinburgh at last.

Many ancient alleys and closes, whose names are well-nigh forgotten now, were demolished on the north side of the High Street, to procure a site for the new Royal Exchange. Some of these had already become ruinous, and must have been of vast antiquity. Many beautifully-sculptured stones belonging to houses there were built into the curious tower, erected by Mr. Walter Ross at the Dean, and are now in a similar tower at Portobello. Others were scattered about the garden grounds at the foot of the Castle rock, and still show the important character of some of the edifices demolished. Among them there was a lintel, discovered when clearing out the bed of the North Loch, with the initials I.S. (and the date 1658), supposed to be those of James tenth Lord Somerville, who, after serving long in the Venetian army, died at a great age in 1677.

On the 13th of September, 1753, the first stone of the new Exchange was laid by George Drummond, the Grand Master of the Scottish Masons, whose memory as a patriotic magistrate is still remembered with respect in Edinburgh. A triumphal arch, a gallery for the magistrates, and covered stands for the spectators, enclosed the arena. “The procession was very grand and regular,” says the Gentleman’s Magazine for that year; “each lodge of masons, of which there were thirteen, walked in procession by themselves, all uncovered, amounting to 672, most of whom were operative masons.” The military paid proper honours to the company on this occasion, and escorted the procession in a suitable manner. The Grand Master and the present substitute were preceded by the Lord Provost, magistrates, and council, in their robes, with the city sword, mace, &c., carried before them, accompanied by the directors of the scheme.

All day the foundation-stone lay open, that the people might see it, with the Latin inscription on the plate, which runs thus in English:-

Of the Society of Freemasons in Scotland Grand Master,
Thrice Provost of the City of Edinburgh,
Three hundred Brother Masons attending,
In presence of many persons of distinction,
The magistrates and Citizens of Edinburgh,
And of every rank of people an innumerable multitude,
And all Applauding;
For convenience of the inhabitants of Edinburgh,
And the public ornament,
Laid this stone,
William Alexander being Provost,
On the 13th September, 1753, of the Era of Masonry 1753,
And of the reign of George II., King of Great Britain,
the 27th year.”

In the stone were deposited two medals, one bearing the profile and name of the Grand Master, the other having the masonic arms, with the collar of St. Andrew, and the legend, “In the Lord is all our trust.”

Though the stone was thus laid in 1753, the work was not fairly begun till the following year, nor was it finished till 1761, at the expense of £31,500, including the price of the area on which it is built; but it never answered the purpose for which it was intended – its paved quadrangle and handsome Palladian arcades were never used by the mercantile class, who persisted in meeting, as of old, at the Cross, or where it stood.

Save that its front and western arcades have been converted into shops, it remains unchanged since it was thus described by Arnot, and the back view of it, which faces the New Town, catches the eye at once, by its vast bulk and stupendous height, 100 feet, all of polished ashlar, now blackened with the smoke of years:- “The Exchange is a large and elegant building, with a court in the centre. The principal part forms the north side of the square, and extends from east to west, 111 feet over wall, by 51 feet broad. Pillars and arches, supporting a platform, run along the south front, which faces the square, and forms a piazza. In the centre, four Corinthian pillars, whose bases rest upon the platform, support a pediment, on which the arms of the city of Edinburgh are carved. The first floor of the main front is laid out in shops. The upper floors are occupied by the Board of Customs, who have upwards of twenty apartments, for this they pay to the city a rent of £360 a year.”

Arnot wrote in 1779.

The chief access to the edifice is by a very stately stair, of which the well is twenty feet square and sixty deep. Off this open the City Chambers, where the municipal affairs are transacted by the magistrates and council.

The Council Chamber contains a fine bronze statue of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, in Roman costume, and having a curious and mysterious history. It is said – for nothing is known with certainty about it – to have been cast in France, and was shipped from Dunkirk to Leith, where, during the process of unloading, it fell into the harbour, and remained long submerged. It is next heard of as being concealed in a cellar in the city, and in the Scots Magazine it is referred to thus in 1810:-

“On Tuesday, the 16th October, a very singular discovery was made in one of our churches. Some years ago a chest, without any address, but of enormous weight, was removed from the Old Weigh House at Leith, and lodged in the outer aisle of the old church (a portion of St. Giles’s). This box had lain for upwards of thirty years at Leith, and several years in Edinburgh, without a claimant, and, what is still more extraordinary, without any one ever having had the curiosity to examine it. On Tuesday, however, some gentlemen connected with the town caused the mysterious box to be opened, and, to their surprise and gratification, they found it contained a beautiful statue of his majesty (?), about the size of life, cast in bronze… Although it is at present unknown from whence this admirable piece of workmanship came, by whom it was made, or to whom it belongs, this cannot remain long a secret. We trust, however, that it will remain as an ornament in some public place in this city.”

More concerning it was never known, and ultimately it was placed in its present position, without its being publicly acknowledged to be a representation of the unfortunate prince.

In this Council chamber there meets yearly that little Scottish Parliament, the ancient Convention of Royal Burghs.

Their foundation in Scotland is as old, if not older, than the days of David I., who, in his charter to the monks of Holyrood, describes Edinburgh as a burgh holding of the king, paying him certain revenues, and having the privilege of free markets. The judgments of the magistrates of burghs were liable to the review of the Lord Great Chamberlain of Scotland (the first of whom was Herbert, in 1128) and his Court of the Four Burghs. He kept the accounts of the royal revenue and expenses, and held his circuits or chamberlain-ayres, for the better regulation of all towns. But even his decrees were liable to revision by the Court of the Four Burghs, composed of certain burgesses of Edinburgh, Stirling, Roxburgh, and Berwick, who met annually, at Haddington, to decide, as a court of last resort, the appeals from the chamberlain-ayres, and determine upon all matters affecting the welfare of the royal burghs. Upon the suppression of the office of chamberlain (the last of whom was Charles Duke of Lennox, in 1685), the power of controlling magistrates’ accounts was vested in the Exchequer, and the reviewal of their sentences in the courts of law; while the power which the chamberlain had of regulating matters in his Court of the Four Burghs respecting the common welfare was transferred to the general Convention of Royal Burghs.

This Court was constituted in the reign of James III., and appointed to be held yearly at Inverkeithing. By a statute of James VI., the Convention was appointed to meet four times in each year, wherever the members chose; and to avoid confusion, only one was to appear for each burgh, except the capital, which was to have two. By a subsequent statute, a majority of the burghs, or the capital with any other six, were empowered to call a Convention as often as they deemed it necessary, and all the other burghs were obliged to attend it under a penalty.

The Convention, consisting of two deputies from each burgh, now meets annually at Edinburgh in the Council Chamber, and it is somewhat singular that the Lord Provost, although only a member, is the perpetual president, and the city clerks are clerks to the Convention, during the sittings of which the magistrates are supposed to keep open table for the members.

The powers of this Convention chiefly respect the establishment of regulations concerning trade and commerce of Scotland; and with this end it has renewed, from time to time, articles of staple contract with the town of Campvere, in Holland, of old the seat of the conservator of Scottish privileges. As the royal burghs pay a sixth part of the sum imposed as a land-tax upon the counties in Scotland, the Convention is empowered to consider the state of trade, and the revenues of individual burghs, and to assess their respective portions. The Convention has also been in use to examine the administrative conduct of magistrates in the matter of burgh revenue (though this comes more properly under the Court of Exchequer), and to give sanction upon particular occasions to the Common Council of burghs to alienate a part of the burgh estate. The Convention likewise considers and arranges the political setts or constitutions of the different burghs, and regulates matters concerning elections that may be brought before it.

Before the use of the Council Chamber was assigned to the Convention it was wont to meet in an aisle of St. Giles’s church.

Writers’ Court – so named from the circumstance of the Signet Library being once there – adjoins the Royal Exchange, and a gloomy little cul de sac it is, into which the sun scarcely penetrates. But it once contained a tavern of great consideration in its time, “The Star and Garter,” kept by a man named Cleriheugh, who is referred to in “Guy Mannering,” for history and romance often march side by side in Edinburgh, and Scott’s picture of the strange old tavern is a faithful one. The reader of the novel may remember how, on a certain Saturday night, when in search of Mr. Pleydell, Dandie Dinmont, guiding Colonel Mannering, turned into a dark alley, then up a dark stair, and then into an open door.

While Dandie “was whistling shrilly for the waiter, as if he had been one of his collie dogs, Mannering looked around him, and could hardly conceive how a gentleman of a liberal profession and good society should choose such a scene for social indulgence. Besides the miserable entrance, the house itself seemed paltry and half ruinous. The passage in which they stood had a window to the close, which admitted a little light in the daytimes, but more especially towards evening. Corresponding to this window was a borrowed light on the other side of the passage, looking into the kitchen, which had no direct communication with the free air, but received in the daytime, at second-hand, such straggling and obscure light as found its way from the lane through the window opposite. At present, the interior of the kitchen was visible by its own huge fires – a sort of pandemonium, where men and women, half-dressed, were busied in baking, boiling, roasting oysters, and preparing devils on the gridiron; the mistress of the place, with her shoes slipshod, and her hair straggling like that of Megæra from under a round-eared cap, toiling, scolding, receiving orders and giving them and obeying them all at once, seemed the presiding enchantress of that gloomy and fiery region.”

Yet it was in this tavern, perhaps more than any other, that the lawyers of the olden time held their high jinks and many convivialities. Cleriheugh’s was also a favourite resort of the magistrates and town councillors when a deep libation was deemed an indispensable element in the adjustment of all civic affairs; thus, in the last century, city wags used to tell of a certain treasurer of Edinburgh, who, on being applied to for new rope to the Tron Kirk bell, summoned the Council to consider the appeal. An adjournment to Cleriheugh’s was of course necessary; but as one dinner was insufficient for the settlement of this weighty matter, it was not until three had been discussed that the bill was settled, and the old rope spliced!

Before proceeding with the general history of the High Street we will briefly notice that of the Tron Church, and of the great fire in which it was on the eve of perishing.

The old Greyfriars, with the other city churches, being found insufficient for the increasing population, the Town Council purchased two sites, on which they intended to erect religious fabrics. One was on the Castle Hill, where the reservoir now stands; the other was where the present Tron Church is now built. This was in the year 1637, when the total number of householders, as shown by the Council records, could not have been much over 5,000, as a list made four years before shows the numbers to have been 5,071, and the annual amount of rents payable by them only £192,118 5s., Scots money.

Political disturbances retarded the progress of both these new churches. The one on the Castle Hill was totally abandoned, after having been partially destroyed by the English during the siege in 1650; and the other – the proper name of which is Christ’s Church at the Tron – was not ready for public worship till 1647, nor was it completely finished till 1663, at the cost of £6,000, so much did war with England and the contentions of the Covenanters and Cavaliers retard everything and impoverish the nation. On front of the tower over the great doorway a large ornamented panel bears the city arms in alto-relievo, and beneath them the inscription – ÆDEM HANC CHRISTO ET ECCLESIÆ SACRARUNT CIVES EDINBURGENSES, ANNO DOM MDCLI. It is finished internally with an open roof of timber-work, not unlike that of the Parliament House.

Much of the material used in the construction of the sister church on the Castle Hill was pulled down and used in the walls of the Tron, which the former was meant closely to resemble, if we may judge from the plan of Gordon of Rothiemay. In 1644 the magistrates bought 1,000 stone weight of copper in Amsterdam to cover the roof; but such were the exigencies of the time that it was sold, and stones and lead were substituted in its place.

In 1639 David Mackall, a merchant of Edinburgh, gave 3,500 merks, or about £194 sterling, to the magistrates in trust, for purchasing land, to be applied to the maintenance of a chaplain in the Tron Church, where he was to preach every Sunday morning at six o’clock, or such other hour as the magistrates should appoint. They may be truly said, continues Arnot, “to have hid this talent in a napkin. They did not appoint a preacher for sixty-four years. As money them bore ten per cent., although the interest of this sum has been paid but once in ten years, yet, if it had been properly managed, the accumulated sum behoved to have exceeded £16,000 sterling.”

The old spire had been partially built of wood covered with lead, according to a design frequently repeated on public buildings then in Scotland. It was copied from the Dutch; but the examples of it are rapidly disappearing. A bell, which cost 1,490 merks Scots, was hung in it in 1673, and continued weekly to summon the parishioners to prayer and sermon till the great fire of 1824, when it was partly melted by heat, and fell with a mighty crash through the blazing ruins of the steeple. Portions of it were made into drinking quaighs and similar memorials.

In 1678 the tower was completed by placing therein the old clock which had formerly been in the Weigh House.

Towards the building of this church the pious Lady Yester gave 1,000 merks. In 1703 the magistrates appointed two persons to preach alternately in the Tron Church, to each of whom they gave a salary of forty guineas, as the Council Register shows; but about 1788 they contented themselves with one preacher, to whom they gave fifty pounds yearly. It is an edifice of uninteresting appearance and nondescript style, being neither Gothic nor Palladian, but a grotesque mixture of both. It received its name from its vicinity to the Tron, or public beam for the weighing of merchandise, which stood near it.

A very elegant stone spire, which was built in 1828, replaces that which perished in the great conflagration of four years before.

The Tron beam appears to have been used as a pillory for the punishment of crime. In Niccol’s “Diary” for 1649, it is stated that “much falset and cheitting was daillie deteckit at this time by the Lords of Sessioune; for the whilk there was daillie nailing of lugs and binding of people to the Trone, and boring of tongues; so that it was a fatal year for false notaries and witnesses, as daillie experience did witness.”

On the night of Monday, the 15th of November, 1824, about ten o’clock, the cry of “Fire!” Was heard in the High Street, and it spread throughout the city from mouth to mouth; vast crowds came from all quarters rushing to the spot, and columns of smoke and flame were seen issuing from the second floor of a house at the head of the old Assembly Close, then occupied as a workshop by Kirkwood, a well-known engraver. The engines came promptly enough; but, from some unknown cause, an hour elapsed before they were in working order, and by that time the terrible element had raged with such fierceness and rapidity that, by eleven o’clock the upper portion of this tenement, including six storeys, forming the eastern division of a uniform pile of buildings, was one mass of roaring flames, which, as the breeze was from the south-west, turned them, as they burst from the gaping windows, in the direction of a house to the eastward, the strong gable of which saved it from the destruction which seemed imminent.

Two tenements to the westward were less fortunate, and as, from the narrowness of the ancient close, it was impossible to work the engines, they soon were involved in one frightful and appalling blaze. Great fears were now entertained for the venerable Courant office; nor was it long before the fire seized on its upper storey, at the very time when some brave fellows got upon the roof of a tenement to the westward, and shouted to the firemen to give them a pipe, by which they could play upon the adjoining roof. But, owing either to their elevated position, or the roar of the gathering conflagration, the shouts of the crowd, and wailing of women and children, their cries were unheard for a time, until it was too late. The whole tenement was lost, together with extensive ranges of buildings in the old Fish Market and Assembly Closes, to which it was the means of communicating the flames.

While these tall and stately edifices were yielding to destruction, the night grew calm and still, and the sparks emitted by the flames shot upwards as if spouted from a volcano, and descended like the thickest drift or snow-storm, affecting the respiration of all. A dusky, lurid red tinged the clouds, and the glare shone on the Castle walls, the rocks of the Calton, the beetling crags, and all the city spires. Scores of lofty chimneys, set on fire by the falling sparks, added to the growing horror of the scene; and for a considerable time the Tron Church was completely enveloped in this perilous shower of embers.

About one in the morning of the 16th the alarm of fire was given from a house directly opposite to the burning masses, and, though groundless, it added to the deepening consternation. Meanwhile the weather changed rapidly; the wind, accompanied by rain, came in fierce and fitful gusts, thus adding to the danger and harrowing interest of the scene, which, from the great size of the houses, had much in it that was wild and weird.

“About five o’clock,” says Dr. James Browne, in his “Historical Sketch of Edinburgh,” “the fire had proceeded so far downwards in the building occupied by the Courant office, that the upper part of the front fell inwards with a dreadful crash, the concussion driving the flames into the middle of the street. By this time it had communicated with the houses on the east side of the Old Fish Market Close, which it burned down in succession; while that occupied by Mr. Abraham Thomson, bookbinder, which had been destroyed a few months previously by fire and re-built, was crushed in at one extremity by the fall of the gable. In the Old Assembly Close it was still more destructive; the whole west side, terminating with the king’s old Stationery Warehouse, and including the Old Assembly Hall, then occupied as a warehouse by Bell and Bradfute, booksellers, being entirely consumed. These back tenements formed one of the most massive, and certainly not the least remarkable, piles of building in the ancient city, and in former times were inhabited by persons of the greatest distinction. At this period they presented a most extraordinary spectacle. A great part of the southern land fell to the ground; but a lofty and insulated pile of side wall, broken in the centre, rested in its fall, so as to form one-half of an immense pointed arch, and remained for several days in this inclined position.

“By nine o’clock the steeple of the Tron Church was discovered to be on fire; the pyramid became a mass of flame, the lead of the roof poured over the masonry in molten streams, and the bell fell with a crash, as we have narrated, but the church was chiefly saved by a powerful engine belonging to the Board of Ordnance. The fire was now stopped; but the horror and dismay of the people increased when, at ten that night, a new one broke forth in the devoted Parliament Square, in the attic floor of a tenement eleven storeys in height, overlooking the Cowgate. As this house was far to windward of the other fire, it was quite impossible that one could have caused the other – a conclusion which forced itself upon the minds of all, together with the startling belief that some desperate incendiaries had resolved to destroy the city; while many went about exclaiming that it was a special punishment sent from Heaven upon the people for their sins.” (Browne, p. 220; Courant of Nov. 18, 1824; &c.)

As the conflagration spread, St. Giles’s and the Parliament Square resounded with dreadful echoes, and the scene became more and more appalling, from the enormous altitude of the buildings; all efforts of the people were directed to saving the Parliament House and the Law Courts, and by five on the morning of Wednesday the scene is said to have been unspeakably grand and terrific.

Since the English invasion under Hertford in 1544, no such blaze had been seen in the ancient city. “Spicular columns of flame shot up majestically into the atmosphere, which assumed a lurid, dusky, reddish hue; dismay, daring, suspense, fear. Sat upon different countenances, intensely expressive of their various emotions; the bronzed faces of the firemen shone momentarily from under their caps as their heads were raised at each successive stroke of the engines; and the very element by which they attempted to extinguish the conflagration seemed itself a stream of liquid fire. The County Hall at one time appeared like a spectre awakened to behold the fall and ruin of the devoted city.”

Among those who particularly distinguished themselves on this terrible occasion were the Lord President, Charles Hope of Granton; the Lord Justice Clerk, Boyle of Shewalton; the Lord Advocate, Sir William Rae of St. Catherine’s; the Solicitor-General, John Hope; the Dean of Faculty; and Mr. (afterwards Lord) Cockburn, the well-known memorialist of his own times.

The Lord Advocate would seem to have been the most active, and worked for some time at one of the engines playing on the central tenement at the head of the Old Assembly Close, thus exerting himself to save the house in which he first saw the light. All distinction of rank being lost now in one common and generous anxiety, one of Sir William’s fellow-labourers at the engine gave him a hearty slap on the back, exclaiming, at the same time, “Weel dune, my lord!”

On the morning of Wednesday, though showers of sleet and hail fell, the fire continued to rage with fury in Conn’s Close, to which it had been communicated by flying embers; but there the ravages of this unprecedented and calamitous conflagration ended. The extent of the mischief done exceeded all former example. Fronting the High Street there were destroyed four tenements of six storeys each, besides the underground storeys; in Conn’s Close, two timber-fronted “lands,” of great antiquity; in the Old Assembly Close, four houses of seven storeys each; in Borthwick’s Close, six great tenements; in the Old Fish Market Close, four of six storeys each; in short, down as far as the Cowgate nothing was to be seen but frightful heaps of calcined and blackened ruins, with gaping windows and piles of smoking rubbish.

In the Parliament Square four double tenements of from seven to eleven storeys also perished, and the incessant crash of falling walls made the old vicinity re-echo. Among other places of interest destroyed here was the shop of Kay, the caricaturist, always a great attraction to idlers.

During the whole of Thursday the authorities were occupied in the perplexing task of examining the ruined edifices in the Parliament Square. These being of enormous height and dreadfully shattered, threatened, by their fall, destruction to everything in their vicinity. One eleven-storeyed edifice presented such a very striking, terrible, and dangerous appearance, that it was proposed to batter it down with cannon. On the next day the ruins were inspected by Admiral Sir David Milne, and Captain (afterwards Sir Francis) Head of the Royal Engineers, an officer distinguished alike in war and in literature, who gave in a professional report on the subject, and to him the task of demolition was assigned.

In the meantime offers of assistance from Captain Hope of H.M.S. Brisk, then in Leith Roads, were accepted, and his seamen, forty in number, threw a line over the lofty southern gable above Heron’s Court, but brought down only a small portion. Next day Captain Hope returned to the attack, with iron cables, chains, and ropes, while some sappers daringly undermined the eastern wall. These were sprung, and, as had been predicted by Captain Head, the enormous mass fell almost perpendicularly to the ground.


At the Tron Church, on the last night of every year, there gathers a vast crowd, who watch with patience and good-humour the hands of the illuminated clock till they indicate one minute past twelve, and then the New Year is welcomed in with ringing cheers, joy, and hilarity. A general shaking of hands and congratulations ensue, and one and all wish each other “A happy New Year, and mony o’ them.” A busy hum pervades the older parts of the city; bands of music and bagpipes strike up in many a street and wynd; and, furnished with egg-flip, whiskey, &c., thousands hasten off in all directions to “first foot” friends and relations.

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