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Chapter 21 – The High Street., pp.191-198.

A Place for Brawling – First Paved and Lighted – The Meal and Flesh Markets – State of the Streets – Municipal Regulations 16th Century – Tulzies – The Lairds of Airth and Wemyss – The Tweedies of Drummelzier – A Montrose Quarrel – The Slaughter of Lord Torthorwald – A Brawl in 1705 – Attacking a Sedan Chair – Habits in the Seventeenth Century – Abduction of Women and Girls – Sumptuary Laws against Women.


BEFORE narrating the wondrous history of the many quaint and ancient closes and wynds which diverged of old, and some of which still diverge, from the stately High Street, we shall treat of that venerable thoroughfare itself – its gradual progress, changes, and some of the stirring scenes that have been witnessed from its windows.

Till so late as the era of building the Royal Exchange Edinburgh had been without increase or much alteration since King James VI. rode forth for England in 1603. “The extended wall erected in the memorable year 1513 still formed the boundary of the city, with the exception of the enclosure of the Highriggs. The ancient gates remained kept under the care of jealous warders, and nightly closed at an early hour; even as when the dreaded inroads of the Southron summoned the Burgher Watch to guard their walls. At the foot of the High Street, the lofty tower and spire of the Nether Bow Port terminated the vista, surmounting the old Temple Bar of Edinburgh, interposed between the city and the ancient burgh of Canongate.”

On this upward-sloping thoroughfare first rose the rude huts of the Caledonians, by the side of the wooded way that led to the Dun upon the rock – when Pagan rites were celebrated at sunrise on the bare scalp of Arthur’s Seat – and destined to become in future years “the King’s High Street,” as it was exclusively named in writs and charters, in so far as it extended from the Nether Bow to the edifice named Creech’s Land, at the east end of the Luckenbooths. “Here,” says a writer, “was the battle-ground of Scotland for centuries, whereon private and party feuds, the jealousies of nobles and burghers, and not a few of the contests between the Crown and the people, were settled at the sword.”

As a place for brawling it was proverbial; and thus it was that Colonel Munro, in “His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment called Mackeyes,” levied in 1626, for service in Denmark and Sweden, tells us, at the storming of Boitzenburg, there was “a Scottish gentleman under the enemy, who, coming to scale the walls, said aloud, ‘Have with you, gentlemen! Thinke not now you are on the street of Edinburgh bravading.’ One of his own countrymen thrusting him through the body with a pike, he ended there.”

In the general consternation which succeeded the defeat of the army at Flodden a plague raged within the city with great violence, and carried off great numbers. Hence the Town Council, to prevent its progress, ordered all shops and booths to be closed for the space of fifteen days, and neither doors nor windows to be opened within that time, but on some unavoidable occasion, and nothing to be dealt in but necessaries for the immediate support of life. All vagrants were forbidden to walk in the streets without having each a light; and several houses that had been occupied by infected persons were demolished.

In 1532 the High Street was first paved or causewayed, and many of the old tenements renovated. The former was done under the superintendence of a Frenchman named Marlin, whose name was bestowed on an alley to the south. The Town Council ordered lights to be hung out by night by the citizens to light the streets, and Edinburgh became a principal place of resort from all parts of the kingdom.

Till the reign of James V., the meal-market, and also the flesh-market, were kept in booths in the open High Street, which was also encumbered by stacks of peat, heather, and other fuel, before every door; while, till the middle of the end of the seventeenth century, according to Gordon’s map, a flesh-market was kept in the Canongate, immediately below the Nether Bow.

“These, however,” says Arnot, “are not to be considered as arguing any comparative insignificancy in the city of Edinburgh. They proceeded from the rudeness of the times. The writers of those days spoke of Edinburgh in terms that show the respectable opinion they entertained of it. ‘In this city,’ says a writer of the sixteenth century – Braun Agrippinensis – ‘there are two spacious streets, of which the principal one, leading from the Palace to the Castle, is paved with square stones. The city itself is not built of bricks, but of square freestones, and so stately is its appearance, that single houses may be compared to palaces. From the abbey to the castle there is a continued street, which on both sides contains a range of excellent houses, and the better sort are built of hewn stone.’ There are,” adds Arnot, “specimens of the buildings of the fifteenth century still (1779) remaining, particularly a house on the south side of the High Street, immediately above Peeble’s Wynd, having a handsome front of hewn stone, and niches in the walls for the images of saints, which may justify our author’s description. The house was built about 1430 (temp. James I.) No private building in the city of modern date can compare with it.”

The year 1554 saw the streets better lighted, and some attempts made to clean them.

The continual wars with England compelled the citizens to crowd their dwellings as near the Castle as possible; thus, instead of the city increasing in limits, it rose skyward, as we have already mentioned; storey was piled on storey till the streets resembled closely packed towers or steeples, each house, or “land,” sheltering from twenty to thirty families within its walls. This was particularly the case with the High Street. The mansions in the diverging streets, narrow, steep, gloomy, and ill-ventilated, became perilous abodes in times of fire or pestilence.

Those who dwelt in the upper storeys avoided the toil of descending the steep wheel-stairs that led to the street, and the entire débris of the household was flung from the windows, regardless of who or what might be below, especially after nightfall; hence the cries of “Haud your hand!” “Get out o’ the gait!” Or “Gardez l’eau!” A shout copied from the French, were incessant. Another source of filth and annoyance was the circumstance that every inhabitant had his own dunghill in the street, opposite his own door; while the thoroughfares were further encumbered and encroached upon by outside stone stairs, many of which still remain. Under these were kept swine, which were allowed to roam the streets (as in old Paris), and act the part of scavengers, and be alternately the pets and the terror of the children.

By Acts of Council, 15th October, 1553-5, the mounds of household garbage were ordained to be removed, the swine to be prevented from being a pest in the streets, in which bowets or lanterns, were ordered to be hung up, by such persons and in such places as the magistrates should appoint, there to continue burning for the space of four hours – i.e., from five till nine o’clock in the evening.

In consequence of the great assiduity of the Provost (Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie), the Town Council added to his annual allowance £100 Scots for his clothing and spicery, with two hogsheads of wine for his greater state; and soon after another Act was passed, ordaining that the (male) servants of the inhabitants should attend him with lighted torches from the vespers or evening prayers to his own house.

But despite the Acts quoted the streets were not thoroughly cleared or cleaned for more than sixty years after. When King James VI., having celebrated his marriage with Anne of Denmark, on the 22nd October, 1589, was about to return home, he wrote one of his characteristic epistles to the Provost, Alexander Clark of Balbirnie:- “Here we are drinking and driving in the auld way,” and adding, “for God’s sake see a’ the things are richt at our hame-coming.” James did not wish to be exposed in the eyes of his foreign attendants, and he alludes especially to the removal of the numerous middens, the repair of the roads and streets, and also the expected hospital of the city, as we find that soon after the inhabitants were assessed to support the queen and her retinue till Holyrood Palace was prepared to receive her. They were also compelled to defray their proportion of the expense of his return.

Five years before this, in 1584, to prevent the incessant broils and riots that took place in High Street and elsewhere at night, it was enacted that by ten o-clock forty strokes should be given on the great bell, after which any person found abroad was to be imprisoned during the magistrate’s pleasure, and fined forty shillings Scots; while for the better regulation of the nightly watch the city was divided into thirty quarters, over each of which the magistrates appointed two commanders, one a merchant, the other a craftsman, as also an officer to summon the citizens occasionally to take into consideration the affairs connected with these several divisions. (Council Register.)

And now to glance briefly at the tulzies, or combats, for so were they named of old, of which the High Street has been the scene.

Apart from the famous brawl named “Cleanse the Causeway,” already described, and that in which the Laird of Stainhouse fell with the French in 1560, a considerable amount of blood has been shed in this old thoroughfare.

After the battle of Melrose, in 1526, there ensued a deadly feud between the border clans of Scott and Kerr, which culminated in the slaughter of Sir Walter Scott of Branxholm and Buccleuch, by the Kerrs, in October, 1551, in the High Street.

“Bards long shall tell
How Lord Walter fell!
When startled burghers fled afar,
The furies of the Border war,
When the streets of High Dunedin
Saw lances gleam and falchions redden,
And heard the slogan’s deadly yell –
Then the chief of Branxholm fell!”

Nor was the feud between these two families stanched till forty-five years later, when the chiefs of both paraded the High Street with their followers amicably, but it was expected their first meeting would decide their quarrel.

On the 24th of November, 1567, about two in the afternoon, the Laird of Airth and Sir John Wemyss of that ilk, “met upon the Hie Gait of Edinburgh,” according to Birrel, “and they and their followers fought a bloody skirmish, when many were hurt on both sides by shot of pistol.”

On this the Privy Council issued, but in vain, an edict against the wearing of culverins, dags, pistolets, or other “firewerks.”

The latter seem to have been adopted or in use earlier in Scotland than in the sister kingdom. At the raid of the Redswire, the English archers were routed by the volleys of the Scottish hackbuttiers; and here we find, as the author of “Domestic Annals” notes, “that sword and buckler were at this time (1567) the ordinary gear of gallant men in England – a comparatively harmless furnishing; but we see that small fire-arms were used in Scotland.”

On the 7th December, three years after this, the Hoppringles and Elliots chanced to encounter in the same place – hostile parties knew each other well then by their badges, livery, and banners – and a terrible slaughter would have ensued had not the armed citizens, according to the “Diurnal of Occurrents,” reddi.e., separated – them by main force.

A feud, which for many years disturbed the upper valley of the Tweed, resulted in a tulzie in the streets which is not without some picturesque details. It was occasioned by the slaughter of Veitch of Dawick’s son, in June, 1590, by or through James Tweedie of Drummelzier, to revenge which, James Veitch younger of Synton, and Andrew Veitch, brother of the Laird of Tourhope, slew John Tweedie, tutor of Drummelzier and burgess of Edinburgh, as he walked in the public streets. Too much blood had been shed now for the matter to end there.

The Veitches were arrested, but the Laird of Dawick came to the rescue with 10,000 merks bail, and their liberation was ordered by the king; but they were barely free before they effected the slaughter of James Geddes of Glenhegden, head or chief of his family, with whom they, too, were at feud; and the recital of this crime, as given in the “Privy Council Record,” affords a curious insight into the modus operandi of a daylight brawl in the streets at that time. We modernise it thus:-

James Geddes, being in Edinburgh for the space of some eight days, openly and publicly met, almost daily in the High Street, the Laird of Drummelzier. The latter fearing an attack, albeit that Geddes was always alone, planted spies and retainers about the house in which he lived and other places to which he was in the habit of repairing. It chanced that on the 29th of December, 1592, James Geddes being in the Cowgate, getting his horse shod at the booth of David Lindsay, and being altogether careless of his safety, Drummelzier was informed of his whereabouts, and dividing all his own friends and servants into two armed parties, set forth on slaughter intent.

He directed his brothers John and Robert Tweedie, Porteous of Hawkshaw, Crichton of Quarter, and others, to Conn’s Close, which was directly opposite to the smith’s booth; while he, accompanied by John and Adam Tweedie, sons of the Gudeman of Dura, passed to the Kirk (of Field) Wynd, a little to the westward of the booth, to cut off the victim if he hewed a way to escape; but as he was seen standing at the booth door with his back to them, they shot him down with their pistols in cold blood, and left him lying dead on the spot.

For this the Tweedies were imprisoned in the Castle; but they contrived to compromise the matter with the king, making many fair promises; yet when he was resident at St. James’s, in 1611, he heard that the feud and the fighting in Upper Tweeddale were as bitter as ever.

On the 19th of January, 1594, a sharp tulzie, or combat, ensued in the High Street between the Earl of Montrose, Sir James Sandilands, and others. To explain the cause of this we must refer to Calderwood, who tells us that on the 13th of February, in the preceding year, John Graham of Halyards, a Lord of Session (a kinsman of Montrose), was passing down Leith Wynd, attended by three or four score of armed men for his protection, when Sir James Sandilands, accompanied by his friend Ludovic Duke of Lennox, with an armed company, met him. As they had recently been in dispute before the Court about some temple lands, Graham thought he was about to be attacked, and prepared to make resistance. The duke told him to proceed on his journey, and that no one would molest him; but the advice was barely given when some stray shots were fired by the party of the judge, who was at once attacked, and fell wounded. He was borne bleeding into an adjacent house, whither a French boy, page to Sir Alexander Stewart, a friend of Sandilands, followed, and plunged a dagger into him, thus ending a lawsuit according to the taste of the age.

Hence it was that when, in the following year, John Earl of Montrose – a noble then about fifty years old, who had been chancellor of the jury that condemned the Regent Morton, and moreover was Lord High Chancellor of the kingdom – met Sir James Sandilands in the High Street, he deemed it his duty to avenge the death of the Laird of Halyards. On the first arrival of the earl in Edinburgh Sir James had been strongly recommended by his friends to quit it, as his enemies were too strong for him; but instead of doing so he desired the aid and assistance of all his kinsmen and friends, who joined him forthwith, and the two parties meeting on the 19th of January, near the Salt Tron, a general attack with swords and hackbuts begun. One account states that John, Master of Montrose (and father of the great Marquis), first began the fray; another that it was begun by Sir James Sandilands, who was cut down and severely wounded by more than one musket-shot, and would have been slain outright but for the valour of a friend named Captain Lockhart. The Lord Chancellor was in great peril, for the combat was waged furiously about him, and, according to the “Historie of King James the Sext,” he was driven back to fighting “to the College of Justice (i.e., the Tolbooth). The magistrates of the town with fencible weapons separatit the parties for that time; and the greatest skaith Sir James gat on his party, for he himself was left for dead, and a cousin-german of his, callit Crawford of Kerse, was slain, and many hurt.” On the side of the earl only one was killed, but many were wounded.

On the 17th of June, 1605, there was fought in the High Street a combat between the Lairds of Edzell and Pittarrow, with many followers on both sides. It lasted, says Balfour in his Annales, from nine at night till two next morning, with loss and many injuries. The Privy Council committed the leaders to prison.

The next tulzie of which we read arose from the following circumstance:-

Captain James Stewart (at one time Earl of Arran) having been slain in 1596 by Sir James Douglas of Parkhead, a natural con of the Regent Morton, who cut off his head at a place called Catslack, and carried it on a spear, “leaving his body to be devoured by dogs and swine;” this act was not allowed to pass unrevenged by the house of Ochiltree, to which the captain – who had been commander of the Royal Guard – belonged. But as at that time a man of rank in Scotland could not be treated as a malefactor for slaughter committed in pursuance of a feud, the offence was expiated by an assythement. The king strove vainly to effect a reconciliation; but for years the Lords Ochiltree and Douglas (the latter of whom was created Lord Torthorwald in 1590 by James VI.) were at open variance.

It chanced that on the 14th of July, 1608, that Lord Torthorwald was walking in the High Street a little below the Cross, between six and seven in the morning, alone and unattended, when he suddenly met William Stewart, a nephew of the man he had slain. Unable to restrain the sudden rage that filled him, Stewart drew his sword, and ere Torthorwald could defend himself, ran him through the body, and slew him on the spot.

Stewart fled from the city, and of him we hear no more; but the Privy Council met twice to consider what should be done now, for all the Douglases were taking arms to attack the Stewarts of Ochiltree. Hence the Council issued imperative orders that the Earl of Morton, James Commendator of Melrose, Sir George and Sir Archibald Douglas his uncles, William Douglas younger of Drumlanrig, Archibald Douglas of Tofts, Sir James Dundas of Arniston, and others, who were breathing vengeance, should keep within the doors of their dwellings, orders to the same effect being issued to Lord Ochiltree and all his friends.

“There is a remarkable connection of murders recalled by this shocking transaction,” says a historian. “Not only do we ascend to Tothorwald’s slaughter of Stewart in 1596, and Stewart’s deadly prosecution of Morton to the scaffold in 1581; but William Stewart was the son of Sir William Stewart who was slain by the Earl of Bothwell in the Blackfriars Wynd in 1588.”

A carved marble slab in the church of Holyrood, between two pillars on the north side, still marks the grave of the first lord, who took his title from the lonely tower of Torthorwald on the green brae, between Lockerbie and Dumfries. It marks also the grave of his wife, Elizabeth Carlyle of that ilk, and bears the arms of the house of Douglas, quartered with those of Carlyle and Torthorwald, namely, beneath a chief charged with three pellets, a saltire proper, and the crest, a star, with the inscription:-

“Heir lyis ye nobil and poten Lord James Dovglas, Lord of Cairlell and Torthorall, vha maried Daime Eliezabeth Cairlell, air and heretrix yalof; vha vas slaine in Edinburghe ye xiiii. day of Ivly, in ye zeier of God 1608 – vas slain in 48ze. L. I. D. E. C.”1

The guide daily reads this epitaph to hundreds of visitors; but few know the series of tragedies of which that slab is the closing record.

In the year 1705, Archibald Houston, Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh, was slain in the High Street. As factor for the estate of Braid, the property of his nephew, he had incurred the anger of Kennedy of Auchtyfardel, in Lanarkshire, by failing to pay some portion of Bishop’s rents, and Houston had been “put to the horn” for this debt. On the 20th March, 1705, Kennedy and his two sons left their residence in the Castle Hill, to go to the usual promenade of the time, the vicinity of the Cross. They met Houston, and used violent language, to which he was not slow in retorting. The Gilbert Kennedy, Auchtyfardel’s son, smote him on the face, while the idlers flocked around them. Blows with cane were exchanged, on which Gilbert Kennedy drew his sword, and, running Houston through the body, gave him a mortal wound, of which he died. He was outlawed, but in time returned home, and succeeded to his father’s estate. According to Wodrow’s “Analecta,” he became morbidly pious, and having exasperated thereby a servant maid, she gave him some arsenic with his breakfast of bread-and-milk, in 1730, and but for the aid of a physician would have avenged the slaughter of Houston near the Market Cross in 1705.

One of the last brawls in which swords were drawn in the High Street occurred in the same year, when under strong external professions of rigid Sabbath observance and morose sanctity of manner there prevailed much of secret debauchery, that broke forth at times. On the evening of the 2nd of February there had assembled a party in Edinburgh, whom drinking and excitement had so far carried away that nothing less than a dance in the open High Street would satisfy them. Among the party were Ensign Fleming of the Scots Brigade in the Dutch service, whose father, Sir James Fleming, Knight, had been Lord Provost in 1681; Thomas Barnet, a gentleman of the Horse Guards; and John Galbraith, son of a merchant in the city. The ten o’clock bell had been tolled in the Tron spire, to warn all good citizens home; and these gentlemen, with other bacchanals, were in full frolic at a part of the street where there was no light save such as might fall from the windows of the houses, when a sedan chair, attended by two footmen, one of whom bore a lantern, approached.

In the chair was no less a personage than David Earl of Leven, General of the Scottish Ordnance, and member of the Privy Council, proceeding on his upward way to the Castle of which he was governor. It was perilous work to meddle with such a person in those times, but the ensign and his friends were in too reckless a mood to think of consequences; so when Galbraith, in his dance reeled against one of the footmen, and was warned off with an imprecation, Fleming and his friend of the Guards said, “It would be brave sport to overturn the sedan in the mud.” At once they assailed the earl’s servants, and smashed the lantern. His lordship spoke indignantly from his chair; then drawing his sword, Fleming plunged it into one of the footmen; but he and the others were overpowered and captured by the spectators.

The young “rufflers,” on learning the rank of the man they had insulted, were naturally greatly alarmed, and Fleming dreaded the loss of his commission, though in a foreign army. After suffering a month’s imprisonment, they were glad to profess their sorrow publicly, on their knees before the Privy Council (as its record attests), and thus to obtain their liberty.

During the preceding century the abduction of women and girls was no uncommon thing in Edinburgh. On the 8th December, 1608, Margaret Stewart, a widow, complained to the Privy Council that, as she was walking home from her booth to her dwelling-house, about eight in the evening, accompanied by her orphan granddaughter, then fourteen years of age, a young citizen named William Geddes beset her, with six men armed like himself, with swords, gauntlets, steel bonnets, and plate sleeves, and violently took the child from her, despite her tears and manifold supplications.

For this Geddes was outlawed; and soon after the Privy Council was compelled to renew some old enactment concerning night-walkers, in the High Street and other thoroughfares, where they indulged in wild humours and committed heinous crimes. At this time – 1611 – the old system of lighting had ceased to exist; and after twilight the main street and those narrow steep alleys, like stone chasms, diverging from it, were all sunk in Cimerian gloom, into which no man ventured to penetrate without his sword and lantern.

In 1631 the Town Council passed an Act forbidding all women to wear plaids over their heads or faces, under penalty of £5 Scots and forfeiture of the garment. But so little attention was paid to the Act by ladies, some of whom were of rank, that the incensed Council in 1633 passed a new one, strictly enjoining all women, of whatever quality, not to wear a plaid under pain of corporal punishment, and granted liberty to any person to seize and appropriate the plaid as their own property.

As the fair offenders paid not the least attention to these ridiculous Acts, in 1636 the Provost, David Aikenhead, and the Council, passed a thundering enactment, that no females residing in their jurisdiction should either wear plaids or cover their faces with anything whatsoever, velvet masks not being uncommon among Scottish ladies in those days. Thus runs the ukase:-

“Forsaemikell as, notwithstanding of divers and sundrie laudabill actes and statutis, maid be the Provost, Baillies, and Counsall of this Burgh in former tymes, discharing that barbarous and uncivill habitt of women wearing plaids; zit, such has been the impudencie of monie of them, that they have continewit the foresaid barbarous habitte, and has added thereto the wearing of their gownes and petticottes about their heads and faces, so that the same has become the ordinar habitte, of all women within the cittie, to the general imputation of their sex, matrones not to be decerned from… and lowse living women, to their owne dishonour and scandal of the cittie, which the Provost, Baillies, and Counsall have taken into their serious consideration; thairfore, have statute and ordaynit, &c., that none, of whatsomever degrie or qualitie, presume, after this day, under the payne of escheitt of the said plaids, not onlie be such as shall be appoyntit for that effect, but be all persons who shall challenge the same. And thatnae women weir thair gownes or petticottes about thair heads and faces, under the payne of ten pundis to be payit by women of qualitie for the first falt, twenty pundis for the second, and under such furder paynes as sall pleas the Counsall to inflict upon them for the third falt; and under the payne of fourtie shillings to be payit be servandis and others of lower degrie for the first falt, five pundis for the second, and banishment from the cittie for the third falt; and ordaynes this present statute to be intimate throwgh this Burgh be Sound of Drum, that nane pretend ignorance hereof.”

The Act fell pointless, as did another passed in 1648, against the coquettish Scottish mantilla, and till nearly the close of the last [18th] century a tartan plaid, or screen, was the common head-dress of women of the lower order in Edinburgh, as everywhere else in Scotland.


1  The inscription from Torthorwald’s grave with the alt letters to make for easier reading (y [thorn] = th, v = u/w & z [yogh] = y):
“Heir lyis [th]e nobil and poten Lord James Do[u]glas, Lord of Cairlell and Torthorall, [w]ha maried Daime Eliezabeth Cairlell, air and heretrix [th]alof; [w]ha [w]as slaine in Edinburghe [th]e xiiii. day of [Ju]ly, in [th]e [y]eier of God 1608 – [w]as slain in 48 [y]e. L. I. D. E. C.”
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