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Chapter 24 – The High Street (continued)., pp.212-218.

The Neighbourhood of Knox’s House – Balmerino Mansion – Singular Accident – The Knox Memorial Church – Society Close – John Knox’s House – The “Preaching Window” – His Wives – Attempted Assassination – Last Sermon – Death and Burial – James of Jerusalem – House of Archbishop Sharp – The Birthplace of William Falconer – Old Excise Office – The Nether Bow Port – The Earlier Gate – The Regent Morton’s Surprise Party – The Last Gate – Its Demolition.


ONE of the chief “lions” of the High Street, if not of the old city itself, is the ancient manse of John Knox, which terminates it on the east, and is perhaps the oldest stone building of a private nature existing there, for it was inhabited long before his time by George Durie, Abbot of Dunfermline, who was also arch-dean of St. Andrews. He was promoted to the abbacy by James V. in 1539, and was canonised two years afterwards at Rome, according to Wilson; but no such name appears in Butler’s “Lives of the Fathers.”

Until within the last few years the whole of this portion of the High Street was remarkable for its ancient houses, all bearing unchanged the stamp of Mary’s time – about 1562; some that had open booths below had been converted into closed shops, but the fore-stairs, from which the people had reviled her as she came in from Carberry, and from whence their descendants witnessed Montrose dragged to his doom, remained unaltered.

Adjoining the house of Knox (which we shall describe presently) once stood a timber-fronted fabric, having a corbelled oriel, and flats projecting over each other in succession, and a roof furnished with picturesque dormer windows. Its lintel bore the date 1601, and it was said to have been the mansion of the early Lords Balmerino. On a Sunday morning in 1840 this entire edifice suddenly parted in two – the front half was precipitated into the street with a terrible crash, while the back part remained in its original position, thus giving a perfect longitudinal section through the edifice to the people without, presenting suddenly a scene as singular as some of those displayed by the diable boiteux to the gaze of the student Don Cleofas, when all the roofs of Madrid disappeared before him.

Some of the inmates were seen in bed, others were partaking of their humble morning meal, and high up in the airy attic storey was seen an old crone on the creepie stool, smoking at her ingle side. The whole in habitants of the place were filled with consternation, but all escaped without injury. The ruins were removed, and on their site was built, in 1850, a very handsome Gothic church in connection with the Free Church body, and named after the Reformer. Its foundation-stone was laid on the 18th of May, being a day memorable in the annals of the great Non-intrusion movement in Scotland.

The wooden-fronted edifice on the other side of Knox’s house was, about the middle of the eighteenth century, occupied as a tavern, the place of many scenes of riotous mirth and high jinks, like those described by Scott in “Guy Mannering,” and to which the ill-fated Sir Alexander Boswell refers in his curious poem on “Edinburgh and the Ancient Royalty,” published in 1810:-

“Next to a neighbouring tavern all retired,
And draughts of wine their various thoughts inspired.
O’er draughts of wine the beau would moan his love;
O’er draughts of wine the cit his bargain drove;
O’er draughts of wine the writer penned the will,
And legal wisdom counselled o’er a gill.”

Behind where Knox’s ancient manse and modern church stand, on the western side of Society Close, No. 21, High Street, is an ancient stone land, on which is inscribed –


There was a date, now unknown. This was the property of Alison Bassandyne, daughter of Thomas the printer, and spouse of John Ker, and by her and others disposed of to John Binning in March, 1624; but the alley was long called Bassandyne’s Close, till it took the name of Panmure, from the residence therein of John Maule of Inverkeilory, Baron of the Exchequer Court in 1748, and grandson of James of Balumby, fourth Earl of Panmure, who fought with much heroic valour at the battle of Dunblane, and was attainted in 1715.

The spacious stone mansion which he occupied at the foot of the close, and the north windows of which overlooked the steep slope towards the Trinity Church, and the then bare, bleak mass of the Calton Hill beyond, was afterwards acquired as an office and hall by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge and the Plantation of Schools in the Highlands “for the rooting out of the errors of popery and converting of foreign nations,”* a mighty undertaking, for which a charter was given it by Queen Anne in 1709. Thus the alley came to be called by its last name, Society Close.

Such were the immediate surroundings of that old manse, in which John Knox received the messengers of his queen, the fierce nobles of her turbulent Court, and the Lords of the Congregation. It is to the credit of the Free Church of Scotland, which has long since acquired it as a piece of property, that the progress of decay has been arrested, and some traces of its old magnificence restored. A wonderfully picturesque building of three storeys above the ground floor, it abuts on the narrowed street, and is of substantial ashlar, terminating in curious gables and masses of chimneys. A long admonitory inscription, extending over nearly the whole front, carved on a stone belt, bears these words in bold Roman letters:-


Perched upon the corner above the entrance door is a small and hideous effigy of the Reformer preaching in a pulpit, and pointing with his right hand above his head towards a rude sculpture of the sun bursting out from amid clouds, with the name of the Deity inscribed in three languages on its disc, thus:-


On the decoration of the effigy the pious care of successive generations of tenants has been expended with a zeal not always appreciated by people of taste. The house contains a hall, the stuccoed ceiling of which pertains to the time of Charles II., when perhaps the building was repaired.

McCrie, in his Life of Knox, tells us, that the latter, on commencing his duties in Edinburgh in 1559, when the struggles of the Reformation were well nigh over, was lodged in the house of David Forrest, a citizen, after which he removed permanently to the house previously occupied by the exiled abbot of Dunfermline. The magistrates gave him a salary of £200 Scots yearly, and in 1561 ordered the Dean of Guild to make him a warm study in the house built of “dailles” – i.e., to be wainscoted or panelled.

This is supposed to be the small projection, lighted by one long window, looking westward up the entire length of the High Street; and adjoining it on the first floor is a window in an angle of the house, from which he is said to have held forth to the people in the street below, and which is still termed “the preaching window.”

In this house he doubtless composed the “Confession of Faith” and the “First Book of Discipline,” in which, at least, he had a principal hand, and which were duly ratified by Parliament; and it was during the first year of his abode in this house that he lost his first wife, Marjory Bowes (daughter of an English border family), whom he had married when an exile, a woman of amiable disposition and pious deportment, but whose portrait at Streatlam Castle, Northumberland, is remarkable chiefly for its intense ugliness. She was with him in all his wanderings at home and abroad, and regarding her John Calvin thus expresses himself in a letter to the widower:- “Uxorem nactus eras cui non reperiuntur passim similes” – “you had a wife the like of whom is not anywhere to be found.” By her he had two sons.

Four years after her death, to this mansion, when in his fifty-ninth year, he brought his second wife, Margaret Stewart, the youngest daughter of Andrew, “the good” Lord Ochiltree, who, after his death, married Sir Andrew Kerr of Faudonside.

By his enemies it was now openly alleged that he must have gained the young girl’s affections by the black art and the aid of the devil, whom he raised for that purpose in the yard behind his house. In that curious work entitled “The Disputation concerning the Controversit Headdis of Religion,” Nicol Burne, the author, relates that Knox, on the occasion of his marriage, went to the Lord Ochiltree with many attendants, “on ane trim gelding, nocht lyk ane prophet or ane auld decrepit priest as he was, bot lyk as had been ane of the Blude Royal, with his bands of taffettie feschnit with golden ringis and precious stones; and, as is plainlie reportit in the countrey, be sorcerie and witchcraft did sua allure that puir gentilwoman, that scho could not leve without him.” Another of Knox’s traducers asserts, that not long after his marriage, “she (his wife) lying in bed and perceiving a blak, uglie ill-favoured man (the devil, of course) busily talking with him in the same chamber, was so sodainly amazed that she took sickness and dyed;” an absurd fabrication, as in the year after his death a pension was granted to her and her three daughters, and she is known to have been alive till about the end of the sixteenth century.

In that old house, the abode of plebeians now, have sat and debated again and again such men as the Regent Murray, the cruel and crafty Morton, the Lords Boyd, Ruthven, Ochiltree, and the half-savage Lindsay –

“He whose iron eye
Oft saw fair Mary weep in vain;”

Johnstone of Elphinstone, Fairlie, Campbell of Kinyeoncleugh, Douglas of Drumlanrig, and all who were the intimates of Knox; and its old walls have witnessed much and heard much that history may never unravel.

It was while resident here that Knox’s enemies are said – for there is little proof of the statement – to have put a price upon his head, and that his most faithful friends were under the necessity of keeping watch around it during the night, and of appointing a guard for the protection of his person at times when he went abroad. When under danger of hostility from the queen’s garrison in the Castle, in the spring of 1571, McCrie tells us that “one evening a musket-ball was fired in at his window and lodged in the roof of the apartment in which he was sitting. It happened that he sat at the time in a different part of the room from that which he had been accustomed to occupy, otherwise the ball, from the direction it took, must have struck him.”

It was probably after this that he retreated for a time to St. Andrews, but he returned to his manse in the end of August, 1572, while Kirkaldy was still vigorously defending the fortress for his exiled queen.

His bodily infirmities now increased daily, and on the 11th of November he was attacked with a cough which confined him to bed.

Two days before that he had conducted the services at the induction of his colleague, Mr. James Lawson, in St. Giles’s, and though he was greatly debilitated, he performed the important duties that devolved upon him with something of his wonted fire and energy to those who heard him for the last time. He then came down from the pulpit, and leaning on his staff, and supported by his faithful secretary, Richard Bannatyne (one account says by his wife), he walked slowly down the street to his own house, accompanied by the whole congregation, watching, for the last time, his feeble steps.

During his last illness, which endured about a fortnight, he was visited by many of the principal nobles and reformed preachers, to all of whom he gave much advice; and on Monday, the 24th of November, 1572, he expired in his sixty-seventh year, having been born in 1505, during the reign of James IV.

From this house his body was conveyed to its last resting-place, on the south side of St. Giles’s, accompanied by a mighty multitude of all ranks, where the newly-appointed Regent Morton pronounced over the closing grave his well-known eulogium.

That eastern nook of the old city, known as the Nether Bow has many associations connected with it besides the manse of Knox.

Therein was the abode of Robert Lekprevik, one of the earliest of Scottish printers, to whose business it is supposed Bassandyne succeeded on his removal to St. Andrews in 1570; and there, in 1613, the authorities discovered that a residenter named James Stewart, “commonly called James of Jerusalem, a noted Papist, and re-setter of seminary prints,” was wont to have mass celebrated in his house by Robert Philip, a priest returned from Rome. Both men were arrested and tried on this charge, together with a third, John Logan, portioner, of Restalrig, who had formed one of the small and secret congregation in Stewart’s house in the Nether Bow. “One cannot, in these days of tolerance,” says Dr. Chambers, “read without a strange sense of uncouthness the solemn expressions of horror employed in the dittays of the king’s advocates against the offenders, being precisely the same expressions that were used against heinous offences of a more tangible nature.”

Logan was fined £1,000, and compelled to express public penitence; and Philip and Stewart were condemned to banishment from the realm of Scotland.

In the Nether Bow was the residence of James Sharp, who had been consecrated with great pomp at Westminster, as Archbishop of St. Andrews, on the 15th of November, 1661 – a prelate famous for his unrelenting persecution of the faithful adherents of the Covenant which followed his elevation, and justly increased the general odium of his character, and who perished under the hands of pitiless assassins on Magus Muir, in 1679.

Nicoll, the diarist, tells us, that on the 8th of May, 1662, all the newly consecrated bishops were convened in their gowns at the house of the Archbishop, in the Nether Bow, from whence they proceeded in state to the Parliament House, conducted by two peers, the Earl of Kellie (who had been specially excepted out of Cromwell’s act of indemnity for his loyalty), and David Earl of Wemyss.

In the Edinburgh Courant for October 16th, 1707 (then edited by Daniel Defoe), we have the following advertisement from a quack in this locality:-

“There is just now come to town the excellent Scarburay Water, good for all diseases whatsomever, except consumption; and this being the time of year for drinking the same, especially at the fall of leaf and the bud, the price of each chapin bottle is fivepence, the bottle never required, or three shillings (Scots, 3d. English) without the bottle. Any person who had a mind for the same may come to the Fountain Close within the Nether Bow of Edinburgh, at William Muidies, where the Scarburay woman sells the same.”

Here, in the Nether Bow, dwelt a humble wigmaker and barber, named Falconer, whose son William, author of the beautiful and classic poem, “The Shipwreck,” was born in 1730. The Nether Bow was his playground in early years, and there – ere he became an apprentice on board a merchant vessel at Leith – with his deaf and dumb brother and sister, he shared in the sports and frolics of those who have all but himself long since passed into the realm of oblivion. As a poet, Falconer’s fame rests entirely on “The Shipwreck,” which is a didactic as well as descriptive poem, and may well be recommended to the young sailor, not only to inspire his enthusiasm, but improve his seamanship; and there was something prophetic in the poem, as the frigate Aurora, in which he served, perished at sea in 1769.

Eastward of Knox’s manse is an old timber-fronted land, bearing the royal arms of Scotland on its first floor, and entered by a stone turnpike, the door of which has the legend Deus Benedictat, and long pointed out as the excise office of early times. “The situation,” says Wilson, “was peculiarly convenient for guarding the principal gate of the city, and the direct avenue (Leith Wynd) to the neighbouring seaport… Since George II.’s reign the excise office had as many rapid vicissitudes as might mark the career of a profligate spendthrift. In its earlier days, when a floor of the old land in the Nether Bow sufficed for its accommodation, it was regarded as foremost among the detested fruits of the Union. From thence it removed to more commodious chambers in the Cowgate, since demolished to make way for the southern piers of George IV. Bridge. Its next resting place was the large tenement on the south side of Chessel’s Court in the Canongate, the scene of the notorious Deacon Brodie’s last robbery. From thence it was removed to Sir Lawrence Dundas’s splendid mansion in St. Andrew’s Square, now occupied by the Royal Bank. This may be considered its culminating point. It descended thereafter to Bellevue House, in Drummond Place, built by General Scott, the father-in-law of Mr. Canning, which house was demolished in 1846 in completing the tunnel of the Edinburgh and Leith Railway; and now we believe the exciseman no longer possesses a ‘local habitation’ within the Scottish capital.”

The interesting locality of the Nether Bow takes its name from the city gate, known as the Nether Bow Port, in contradistinction to the Upper Bow Port, which stood near the west end of the High Street. This barrier united the city wall from St. Mary’s Wynd on the south to the steep street known as Leith Wynd on the north, at a time when, perhaps, only open fields lay eastward of the gate, stretching from the township to the abbey of Holyrood. The last gate was built in the time of James VI.; what was the character of its predecessor we have no means of ascertaining; but to repair it, in 1538, as the city cash had run low, the magistrates were compelled to mortgage its northern vault for 100 merks Scots; and this was the gate which the English, under Lord Hertford, blew open with cannon stone-shot in 1544, ere advancing against the Castle. “They hauled their cannons up the High Street by force of men to the Butter Tron, and above,” says Calderwood, “and hazarded a shot against the fore entrie of the Castle (i.e., the port of the Spur). But the wheel and axle of one of the English cannons was broken, and some of their men slain by shot of ordnance out of the Castle; so they left that rash enterprise.”

In 1571, during the struggle between Kirkaldy and the Regent Morton, this barrier gate played a prominent part. According to the “Diurnal of Occurrents,” upon the 22nd of August in that year, the Regent and the lords who adhered against the authority of the Queen, finding that they were totally excluded from the city, marched several bands of soldiers from Leith, their head-quarters, and concealed them under cloud of night in the closes and houses adjoining the Nether Bow Port. At five on the following morning, when it was supposed that the night watch would be withdrawn, six soldiers, disguised as millers, approached the gates, leading horses laden with sacks of meal, which were to be thrown down as they entered, so as to preclude the rapid closing of them, and while they attacked and cut down the warders, with those weapons which they wore under their disguise, the men in ambush were to rush out to storm the town, aided by a reserve, whom the sound of their trumpets was to summon from Holyrood. “But the eternal God,” says the quaint old journalist we quote, “knowing the cruell murther that wold have beene done and committit vponn innocent poor personis of the said burgh, wold not thole this interpryse to tak successe; but evin quhen the said meill was almaist at the port, and the said men of war, stationed in clois headis, in readinesse to enter at the back of the samyne;” it chanced that a burgher of the Canongate, named Thomas Barrie, passed out towards his house in the then separate burgh, and perceiving soldiers concealed on every hand, he returned and gave the alarm, on which the gate was at once barricaded, and the design of the Regent and his adherents baffled.

This gate having become ruinous, the magistrates in 1606, three years after James VI. went to England, built a new one, of which many views are preserved. It was a handsome building, and quite enclosed the lower end of the High Street. The arch, an ellipse, was in the centre, strengthened by round towers and battlements on the eastern or external front, and in the southern tower there was a wicket for foot passengers. On the inside of the arch were the arms of the city. The whole building was crenelated, and consisted of two lofty storeys, having in the centre a handsome square tower, terminated by a pointed spire. It was adorned by a statue of James VI., which was thrown down and destroyed by order of Oliver Cromwell, and had on it a Latin inscription, which runs thus in English:-

“Watch towers and thundr’ng walls vain fences prove
No guards to monarchs like their people’s love.
Jacobus VI. Rex, Anna Regina, 1606.”

This gate has been rendered remarkable in history by the extra-judicial bill that passed the House of Lords for razing it to the ground, in consequence of the Porteous mob. For a wonder, the Scottish members made a stand in the matter, and as the general Bill, when it came to the Commons, was shorn of all its objectionable clauses, the Nether Bow Port escaped.

In June, 1737, when the officials of Edinburgh, who had been taken to London for examination concerning the riot, were returning, to accord them a cordial reception the citizens rode out in great troops to meet them, while for miles eastward the road was lined by pedestrians. The Lord Provost, Alexander Wilson, a modest man, eluded the ovation by taking another route; but the rest came in triumph through the city, forming a procession of imposing length, while bonfires blazed, all the bells clanged and clashed as if a victory had been won over England, and the gates of the Nether Bow Port, which had been unhooked, were re-hung and closed amid the wildest acclamation.

In 1760 the Common Council of London having obtained an Act of Parliament to remove their city gates, the magistrates of Edinburgh followed suit without any Act, and in 1764 demolished the Nether Bow Port, then one of the chief ornaments of the city, and like the unoffending Market Cross, a peculiarly interesting relic of the past. The ancient clock of its spire was afterwards p[laced in that old Orphan’s Hospital, near Shakespeare Square, where it remained till the removal of the latter edifice in 1845, when the North British Railway was in progress, and it is now in the pediment between the towers of the beautiful Tuscan edifice built for the orphans near the Dean cemetery.


*  This is a mere continuation of the 1616, 1633, 1646, and 1696 Education Acts (Scotland). The original 1616 Act states its aim plainly in that “the Irish language which is one of the chief, principal causes of barbarity and incivility…. may be abolished and removed. ” The schools were church-supervised and there was to be one in every parish. It was also compulsory for children to attend between the ages of 5 and 13. The schoolmasters were to sign an oath before they were allowed to teach. This was to ensure they would be instilling British values on the Highland children. This included taking away their language. After 1616 they only had to be able to read English from a page but those in charge realised that they could do that without really understanding what they were saying so the 1696 covered that base by it being mandatory for the children to be able to converse in English, at which point they were sent down to lowland Scottish or English schools to finish their education. There was a strictly kept non-Gaelic rule in these schools and to be caught speaking your native language guaranteed you a severe punishment. In this way the children brought English home to their parents and after coming back from the lowland or English schools they’d bring back the culture they’d become accustomed to. In this way the Gaelic language and culture were threatened purposely with a view to its extinction. The 1709 Act mentioned here was enacted with a view to strip them of their religion too. This last of which was enacted only 6 years before the 1715 Rebellion, I would think due to folk not appreciating their culture and beliefs being trampled on, leading to the Acts posted here.
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