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Chapter 22 – The High Street (continued)., pp.198-203.

The City in 1598 – Fynes Morison on the Manners of the Inhabitants – The “Lord” Provost of Edinburgh – Police of the City – Taylor the Water Poet – Banquets at the Cross – The hard Case of the Earl of Traquair – A Visit of Hares – The Quack and his Acrobats – A Procession of Covenanters appointed in 1703 – First Number of the ‘Courant’ – The ‘Caledonian Mercury’ – Carting away of the strata of Street Filth – Condition of old Houses.

BEFORE proceeding with the general history of the city, it may not be uninteresting to the reader if we quote the following description of the manners of the inhabitants in 1598, but to be taken under great reservation:-

“Myself,” says Morison, in his Itinerary, “was at a knight’s house, who had many servants to attend him, that brought in his meat with their heads covered with blew caps (i.e., bonnets), the table being more than half furnished with great platters of porridge, each having (in them) a little piece of sodden meat; and when the table was served, the servants sat down with us; but the upper mess, instead of porridge, had a pullet, with some prunes in the broth. And I observed no art of cookery, or furniture of household stuff, but rather a rude neglect of both, though myself and my companion, sent from the Governor of Berwick, about Bordering affairs, were entertained in their best manner. The Scots living then in factions, used to keep many followers, and so consumed their revenue of victuals, living in some want of money. They vulgarly eat hearth cakes of oats, but in cities have also wheaten bread, which for the most part is bought by courtiers, gentlemen, and the best sort of citizens. They drink pure wines, not with sugar, as we English, yet at feasts they put comfits in the wine, after the French manner; but they had not our vitner’s fraud to mix their wines.

“I did not see nor hear that they have any public inns, with signs hanging out; but the better sort of citizens brew ale (which will distemper a stranger’s body), and then some citizens will entertain passengers upon acquaintance or entreaty (i.e., introduction). Their bedsteads were then like cupboards in the wall (i.e., box beds), to be opened and shut at pleasure, so we climbed up to our beds. They used but one sheet, open at the sides and top, but close at the feet. When passengers go to bed, their custom is to present them a sleeping cup of wine at parting. The country people and merchants used to drink largely, the gentlemen somewhat more sparingly; yet the very courtiers, by night-meetings and entertaining any strangers, used to drink healths, not without excess; and to speak the truth without offence, the excess of drinking was far greater among the Scots than the English.

“Myself being at the Court was invited by some gentlemen to supper, and being forewarned to fear this excess, would not promise to sup with them but upon condition that my inviter would be my protection from large drinking… The husbandmen in Scotland, the servants, and almost all the country, did wear coarse cloth made at home, of grey or sky colour, and flat blew caps, very broad. The merchants in cities were attired in English or French cloth, of pale colour, or mingled black and blew. The gentlemen did wear English cloth or silk, or light stuffs, little or nothing adorned with silk lace, much less with silver or gold; and all followed the French fashion, especially at Court.

“Gentlewomen married did wear close upper bodies, after the German manner, with large whalebone sleeves, after the French manner; short cloaks like the Germans, French hoods, and large falling bands about their necks. The unmarried of all sorts (?) did go bareheaded, and wear short cloaks, with close linen sleeves on their arms, like the virgins of Germany. The inferior sort of citizen’s wives and the women of the country did wear cloaks made of coarse stuff, of two or three colours, in checker work, vulgarly called plodon (i.e., tartan plaiding).

“To conclude, they would not at this time be attired after the English fashion in any sort; but the men, especially at Court, followed the French fashion; and the women, both in Court and city, as well in cloaks as naked heads and close sleeves on the arms, and all other garments, follow the fashion of the women in Germany.”

On the 20th of June, 1610, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh exhibited to his Council two gowns, one black, the other red, trimmed with sable, the gift of King James, as patterns of the robes to be worn by him and the bailies of the city; and in 1667 Charles II. Gave Sir Alexander Ramsay, Provost in that year, a letter, stating that the chief magistrate of Edinburgh should have the same precedence in Scotland as the Mayor of London has in England, and that no other provost should have the title of “Lord Provost” – a privilege which has, however, since been modified.

The attention of King James, who never forgot the interests of his native city, was drawn in 1618 to two abuses in its police. Notwithstanding the warning given by the fire of 1584, it was still customary for “baxters and browsters” (i.e., bakers and brewers) to keep great stacks of heather, whins, and peats, in the very heart of the High Street and other thoroughfares, to the great hazard of all adjacent buildings, and many who were disposed to erect houses within the walls were deterred from doing so by the risks to be run; while, moreover, candle-makers and butchers were allowed to pursue their avocations within the city, to the disgust and annoyance of “civil and honest neighbours, and of the nobility and country people,” who came in about their private affairs, and thus a royal proclamation was issued against these abuses. The idea of a cleaning department of police never occurred to the good folks of those days; hence, in the following year, the plan adopted was that each inhabitant should keep clean that part of each street before his own bounds.

In 1618 Edinburgh was visited by Taylor the Water Poet, and his description of it is as truthful as it is amusing:- “So, leaving the castle, as it is both defensive against any opposition and magnifick for lodging and receipt, I descended lower to the city, wherein I observed the fairest and goodliest street mine eyes ever beheld, for I did never see or hear of a street of that length (which is half a mile English from the castle to a fair port, which they call the Nether Bow); and from that port the street which they call the Kenny-gate (Canongate) is one quarter of a mile more, down to the king’s palace, called Holyrood House; the buildings on each side of the way being all of squared stone, five, six, and seven storeys high, and many bye-lanes and closes on each side of the way, wherein are gentlemen’s houses, much fairer than the buildings in the High Street, for in the High Street the merchants and tradesmen do dwell, but the gentlemen’s mansions and goodliest houses are obscurely founded in the aforesaid lanes. The walls are eight or ten feet thick, exceeding strong, not built for a day, a week, a month, or a year, but from antiquity to posterity – for many ages. There I found entertainment beyond my expectation or merit; and there is fish, flesh, bread, and fruit in such variety, that I think I may offenceless call it superfluity or satiety.”

The “Penniless Pilgrim” came to Scotland in a more generous and appreciative mind than his countryman did, 150 years subsequently, and all he saw filled him with wonder, especially the mountains, to which he says: “Shooter’s Hill, Gad’s Hill, Highgate Hill, and Hempstead Hill, are but molehills.”

Varied indeed have been the scenes witnessed in the High Street of Edinburgh. Among these we may mention a royal banquet and whimsical procession, formed by order of James VI., in 1587. Finding himself unable to subdue the seditious spirit of the ecclesiastics, whom he both feared and detested, he turned his attention to those personal quarrels and deadly feuds which had existed for ages among the nobles and landed gentry, in the hope to end them.

After much thought and preliminary negotiation, he invited the chiefs of all the contending parties to a royal entertainment in Holyrood, where he obtained a promise to bury and forget their feudal dissensions for ever. Thereafter, in the face of all the assembled citizens, he prevailed upon them to walk two by two, hand in hand, to the Market Cross, where a banquet of wines and sweetmeats was prepared for them, and where they all drank to each other in token of mutual friendship and future forgiveness. The populace testified their approbation by loud and repeated shouts of joy. “This reconciliatione of the nobilitie and diversse of the gentry,” says Balfour in his Annales, “was the gratest worke and happiest game the king had played in all his raigne heithertills;” but if his good offices did not eradicate the seeds of transmitted hate, they, at least for a time, smothered them.

The same annalist records the next banquet at the Cross in 1630. On the birth of a prince, afterwards Charles II., on the 29th of May, the Lord Lyon king-at-arms was dispatched by Charles from London, where he chanced to be, with orders to carry the news to Scotland. He reached Edinburgh on the 1st of June, and the loyal joy of the people burst forth with great effusiveness. The batteries of the Castle thundered forth a royal salute; bells rang and bonfires blazed, and a table was spread in the High Street that extended half its entire length, from the Cross to the Tron, whereat the nobility, Privy Council, and Judges, sat down to dinner, the heralds in their tabards and the royal trumpeters being in attendance.

In that same street, a generation after, was seen, in his old age begging his bread from door to door, John Earl of Traquair, who, in 1635, had been Lord High Treasurer of Scotland and High Commissioner to the Parliament and General Assembly, one of the few Scottish nobles who protested against the surrender of King Charles to the English, but who was utterly ruined by Cromwell. A note to Scotstarvitt’s “Scottish Statesmen,” records that “he died in anno 1659, in extreme poverty, on the Lord’s day, and suddenly when taking a pipe of tobacco; and at his funeral had no mortcloth, but a black apron; nor towels, but dog’s leishes belonging to some gentlemen that were present; and the grave being two foot shorter than his body, the assistants behoved to stay till the same was enlarged, and be buried.”

“I saw him begging in the streets of Edinburgh,” says another witness, James Fraser, minister of Kirkhill; “he was in an antique garb, wore a broad old hat, short cloak and panier breeches, and I contributed in my quarters in the Canongate towards his relief. The Master of Lovat, Culbockie (Fraser), Glenmoriston (Grant), and myself were there, and he received the piece of money from my hand as humbly and as thankfully as the poorest supplicant. It is said, that at a time he had not (money) to pay for cobbling his boots, and died in a poor cobbler’s house.”

And this luckless earl, so rancorously treated, was the lineal descendant of James Stuart the Black Knight of Lorne, and of John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster.

Nicoll records in his curious diary that in the October of 1654 a vast number of hares came into the city, penetrating even to its populous and central parts, such as the Parliament Close and the High Street; and in the latter, a few years subsequently, 1662, we read in the Chronicle of Fife of a famous quack doctor setting up his public stage in the midst of that thoroughfare for the third time.

John Pontheus was a German, styling himself professor of music, and his modus operandi affords a curious illustration of the then state of medical science in Great Britain, and of what our forefathers deemed the requisites to a good physician. On the stage mentioned Pontheus had one person to play the fool, another to dance upon a tight rope, in order to gather and amuse an audience. Then he began to vend his drugs at eightpence per packet. Nicoll admits that they were both good and real, and describes the antics of the assistants.

Upon a great rope, fixed from side to side of the street, a man descended upon his breast with his arms “stretched out like the wings of a fowl, to the admiration of many.” Nicoll adds that the country chirurgeons and apothecaries, finding his drugs both cheap and good, came to Edinburgh from all parts of the realm, and bought them for the purpose of retailing them at a profit. The antics and rope-dancing were continued for many days with an agility and nimbleness “admirable to the beholders; one of the dancers having danced seven-score times, without intermission, lifting himself and vaulting six quarter high above his own head and lighting directly upon the tow (rope) as punctually as if he had been dancing on the plain stones.”

Four years after a different scene was witnessed in the High Street, when, in 1666, after the battle of the Pentland Hills – a victory celebrated by the discharge of nearly as many guns from the Castle as there were prisoners – the captives were marched to the Tolbooth. They were eighty in number; and these poor Covenanters were conveyed manacled in triumph by the victor, with trumpets sounding, kettle-drums beating, and banners displayed. And Crookshank records in his history, that Andrew Murray, and aged Presbyterian minister, when he beheld the ferocious Sir Thomas Dalzell of Binns in his rusted headpiece, with his long white vow-beard which had never been profaned by steel since the execution of Charles I., riding at the head of his cavalier squadrons, who, flushed with recent victory, surrounded the prisoners with drawn rapiers and matches lighted; and when he heard the shouts of acclamation from the changeful mob, became so overpowered with grief at what he deemed the downfall for ever of “the covenanted Kirk of God,” that he became ill, and expired.

In 1678 we find a glimpse of modern civilisation, when it was ordained that a passenger stage between Leith and Edinburgh should have a fixed place for receiving complaints, and for departure, between the heads of Niddry’s and the Blackfriars Wynds, in the High Street. The fare to Leith for two or three persons, in summer, was to be 1s. sterling, or four persons 1s. 4d., the fare to the Palace 9d., and the same returning. Carriages had been proposed for this route as early as 1610, when Henry Anderson, a Pomeranian, contracted to run them at the charge of 2s. a head; but they seem to have been abandoned soon after. Hackney carriages, which had been adopted in London in the time of Charles I., did not become common in Scotland till after the Restoration, and almost the first use we hear of one being put to was when a duel took place, in 1667, between William Douglas of Whittingham and Sir John Home of Eccles, who was killed. With their seconds they proceeded in a hackney coach from the city to a lonely spot on the shore near Leith, where, after a few passes, Home was run through the body by Douglas, who was beheaded therefor.

The year 1678 saw the first attempt to start a stage from the High Street to Glasgow, when on the 6th of August a contract was entered into between the magistrates of that city and a merchant of Edinburgh, by which it was agreed that “the said William Hume shall have in readiness one sufficient strong coach, to run betwixt Edinburgh and Glasgow, to be drawn by six able horses; to leave Edinburgh ilk Monday morning, and return again – God willing – ilk Saturday night; the burgesses of Glasgow always to have a preference in the coach.” As the undertaking was deemed arduous, and not to be accomplished without assistance, the said magistrates agreed to give Hume two hundred merks yearly for five years, whether passengers went or not, in consideration of his having actually received two years’ premium in advance.

Even with this pecuniary aid the speculation proved unprofitable, and was abandoned, so little was the intercourse between place and place in those days. In the end of the 17th century – and for long after – it was necessary for persons desirous of proceeding from Edinburgh to London by land, to club for the use of a conveyance; and about the year 1686, Sir Robert Sibbald, His Majesty’s physician, relates, that “he was forced to come by sea, for he could not ride, by reason that the fluxion had fallen on his arme, and that he could not get companie to come in a coach.” And people, before their departure, always made their wills, took solemn farewell of their friends, and asked to be prayed for in the churches.

The Edinburgh of 1687, the year before the Revolution, actually witnessed the sale of a dancing-girl, a transaction which ended in a debate before the Lords of the Privy Council.

On the 13th of January, in that year, as reported by Lord Fountainhall, Reid, a mountebank prosecuted Scott of Harden and his lady, “for stealing away from him a little girl called The Tumbling Lassie, that danced upon a stage, and produced a contract by which he had bought her from her mother for thirty pounds Scots (about £2 10s. sterling). But we have no slaves in Scotland,” adds his lordship, “and mothers cannot sell their bairns; and physicians attested that the employment of tumbling would kill her, her joints were even now growing stiff, and she declined to return, though she was an apprentice, and could not run away from her master.” Then some of the Privy Council in the canting spirit of the age, “quoted Moses’ Law, that if a servant shelter himself with thee, against his master’s cruelty, thou shalt not deliver him up.” The Lords therefore assoilzied (i.e., acquitted) Harden, who had doubtless been moved only by humanity and compassion.

By the year 1700 the use of private carriages in the streets had increased so much that when the principal citizens went forth to meet the King’s Commissioner, there were forty coaches, with 1,200 gentlemen on horseback, with their mounted lackeys.

In 1702, at 10 o’clock on the evening of the 12th March, Colonel Archibald Row of the Royal Scots Fusileers (now 21st Foot), arrived express in Edinburgh, to announce the death of William of Orange, at Kensington Palace, on the 8th of the same month. It consequently took three days and a half for this express to reach the Scottish capital, a day more than that required by Robert Cary, to bring intelligence of the death of Elizabeth, ninety-nine years before. Monteith in his “Theatre of Mortality,” 1704, gives us the long inscription on the tomb of the Colonel’s wife, in the Greyfriars, beginning:- “Hic positæ Reliquiæ Lectissmæ matronæ, Jeannæ Johnsonæ, conjugis Archibaldi Row, Regiæ Scloppetariorum, Legionis,” &c. She died in 1702.

On the 8th of March Anne was proclaimed Queen of Scotland, at the Cross, with all the usual solemnities.

In January, 1703, George Young, merchant in the High Street, was appointed by the Provost, Sir Hugh Cunningham, and the Council, to act as a constable, and along with several other citizens of respectable position, “oversee the manners and order of the burgh, and the inhabitants thereof; and on the evening of the 24th, being Sunday, he went through some parts of the city to see “that the Lord’s day, and the laws made for the observance thereof, were not violated.” In the house of Marjory Thom, a vitner, this new official found, about 10 P.M., several companies in several rooms, and expostulated with her on the subject, after which, according to his own account, he quietly withdrew.

As he proceeded up the close to the High Street, he and his comrades were followed by Mr. Archibald Campbell, son of the Lord Niel Campbell, who warned him that if he reported Marjory’s house to the magistrates, he would repent it. This affair ended in a kind of riot next day, in Young’s shop, opposite the Town Guard House, and Campbell would probably have slain Young, had not the latter contrived to get hold of his sword and keep it till the Guard came, and the matter was brought before the Privy Council, when such was the influence of family and position, that the luckless Mr. Young was fined 400 merks, to be paid to Campbell, and to be imprisoned till the money was forthcoming.

On the 14th of February, 1705, appeared the first number of the Edinburgh Courant, a simple folio broadsheet, published by James Watson, in Craig’s Close. Its place was afterwards taken by MacEwen’s Edinburgh Courant, in 1718, a permanent success to this day. It was a Whig print, and caused the starting of the now defunct Caledonian Mercury, in the Jacobite interest, a little quarto of two leaves.

According to the Courant of April 9th, 1724, the denizens of the High Street, and other greater thoroughfares, were startled by “a bank” of drums, beating up for recruits for the King of Prussia’s gigantic regiment of Grenadiers. Two guineas as bounty were offered, and many tall fellows were enlisted. The same regiment was recruited for in Edinburgh in 1728.

By the year 1730 great changes had been effected by the magistrates in enforcing cleanliness in the streets, and repressing the habit (accompanied by the terrible cry of Gardez l’eau) of throwing slops and rubbish from the windows. Sir James Dick of Prestonfield, the wise provost of 1679, transported away by personal energy a vast stratum of the refuse of ages, through which people had to make literal lanes to their shops and house-doors and therewith enriched his lands by the margin of Duddingston Loch (Act of Parl. James VII., I., cap. 12), till their fertility is proverbial to the present day. But still there was no regular system of cleaning, and though Sir Alexander Brand, a well-known magistrate and manufacturer of Spanish leather gilt hangings, made some vigorous proposals on the subject, they were not adopted, till in 1730 the magistrates endeavoured by the strong arm of the law to repress the obnoxious habit of throwing household litter from the windows, a habit amusingly described by Smollett forty years after in his “Humphrey Clinker.”

On the 6th of September, 1751, the fall of a great stone tenement on the north of the High Street, near the Cross, six storeys in height, with attics, sinking at once from top to bottom, and occasioning some loss of life, caused a general alarm in the city concerning the probable state of many of the more ancient and crumbling houses. A general survey was made, and many were condemned, and ordered to be taken down. But from 1707 Edinburgh stood singularly still till 1763, when the citizens seemed to wake from their apathetic lethargy. After that period the erection of adjuncts to the old city (to be referred to in their own localities) led to the general desertion of it by all people of position and wealth. Among the last who lingered there, and retained his mansion in the High Street, was James Fergusson of Pitfour, M.P., whose body was borne thence in October, 1820, for interment in the Greyfriars Churchyard.

In the March of 1820 the High Street was lighted with gas for the first time. “This has been done,” says a print of the day, “by the introduction of a single cockspur light into each of the old globes, in which the old oil lamps were formerly suspended.”

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