Mary King’s Close – Who was Mary? – Scourged by the Plague of 1645 – Its Mystery – Drummond’s Epigram – Prof. Sinclair’s “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered” – Mr. and Mrs. Coldheart’s Ghostly Visitors – The Close finally abandoned to Goblins – Craig’s Close – Android Hart, Bookseller and Printer – Andro’s Spear – A Menagerie in Craig’s Close – The Isle of Man Arms – The Cape Club – Its Mysteries and Officers – Installation of a Knight – Provincial Cape Clubs – The Poker Club – How it Originated – Members – Office-bearers – Old Stamp Office Court – Fortune’s Tavern – The beautiful Countess of Eglinton – Her Patronage of Letters – Her Family – Interview with Dr. Johnson – Murderous Riot in the Close – Removal of the Stamp Office.
MARY KING’S Close was long a place of terror to the superstitious, as one of the last retreats of the desolating plague of 1645. “Who Mary King was is now unknown, but though the alley is roofless and ruined,” says one, writing of it in 1845, “with weeds, wall-flowers, grass, and even little trees, flourishing luxuriantly among the falling walls, her name may still be seen painted on the street corner.”
For some generations after the plague – in which most of its inhabitants perished – its houses remained closed, and gradually it became a place of mystery and horror, the abode of a thousand spectres and nameless terrors, for superstition peopled it with inhabitants, whom all feared and none cared to succeed. “Those who had been foolhardy enough to peep through the windows after nightfall saw the spectres of the long-departed denizens engaged in their wonted occupations; headless forms danced through the moonlit apartments; on one occasion a godly minister and two pious elders were scared out of their senses by the terrible vision of a raw head and blood-dripping arm, which protruded from the wall in this terrible street, and flourished a sword above their heads; and many other terrors, which are duly chronicled in ‘Satan’s Invisible World;’ ” yet it was down this place that the wild young Master of Gray dragged the fair Mistress Carnegie, whom, sword in hand, he had abducted from her father’s house at the head of twelve men-at-arms, and took her by boat across the loch the rippled at the foot of the slope.
In Drummond of Hawthornden’s poems, published by the Maitland Club, there is an epigram on Mary King’s “pest:”-
“Turn, citizens, to God; repent, repent,
And pray your bedlam frenzies may relent;
Think not rebellion a trifling thing,
This Plague doth fight for Marie and the King.”
An old gentleman, says Wilson, has often described to us his visits to Mary King’s Close, along with his companions, when a schoolboy. The most courageous of them would approach these dread abodes of mystery, and after shouting through the keyhole or broken window-shutter, they would run off with palpitating hearts; the popular superstition being, that if these long-deserted abodes were opened, the deadly pest imprisoned there would once more burst forth and desolate the land.
Mr. George Sinclair, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, and afterwards minister of Eastwood in Renfrewshire, by the publication, in 1685, of his work, “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered,” did much to add to the terrors of Mary King’s Close, by his account of apparitions seen therein, and recorded “by witnesses of undoubted veracity” – a work long hawked about the streets by the itinerant sellers of gingerbread. The last, or northern portion of the close, with its massive vaulted lower storeys, was an open ruin in 1845; the south, or upper, had fallen into ruin after a fire in 1750, and was in that condition when a portion of the site was required for the west side of the Royal Exchange, three years after.
It would appear from the Professor’s narrative, that Mr. Thomas Coltheart, a respectable law agent, whose legal business had begun to flourish, took a better style of house in Mary King’s Close. Their maid-servant was, of course, duly warned by obliging neighbours that the house was haunted, and in terror she gave up her situation and fled, leaving Mr. And Mrs. Coltheart, to face whatever they might see, alone.
Accordingly, it came to pass that, when the lady had seated herself by the bedside of her gudeman, who, being slightly indisposed on the Sunday afternoon, had lain down to rest, while she read the Scriptures, chancing to look up, she saw to her intense dismay a human head, apparently that of an old man, with a grey floating beard, suspended in mid-air, at a little distance, and gazing intently at her with elvish eyes. She swooned at this terrible sight, and remained insensible till the neighbours returned from church. Her husband strove to reason her out of her credulity, and the evening passed without further trouble; but they had not been long in bed when he himself espied the same phantom head by the fire-light, floating in mid-air, and eying him with ghostly eyes.
He lighted a candle, and betook him to prayer, but with little effect, for in about an hour the bodyless phantom was joined by that of a child, also suspended in mid-air, and this was followed by an arm, naked from the elbow, which, in defiance of all Colthearts prayers and pious interjections, seemed bent on shaking hands with him and his wife!
In the most solemn way the luckless lawyer conjured these phantoms to entrust him with the story of any wrongs they wished righted; but all to no purpose. The old tenants evidently regarded the new as intruders, and others came to their aid, for the naked arm was joined by a spectral dog, which curled itself up in a chair, and went to sleep; and then came a cat, and many other creatures, but of grotesque and monstrous forms, till the whole room swarmed with them, so that the honest couple were compelled to kneel on their bed, there being no standing room on the floor; till suddenly, with a deep and awful groan, as of a strong man dying in agony, the whole vanished, and Mr. And Mrs. Coltheart found themselves alone.
In those days of superstition, Mr. Coltheart – if we are to believe Professor Sinclair – must have been a man of more than ordinary courage, for he continued to reside in this terrible house till the day of his death, without further molestation; but when that day came, it would seem not to have been unaccompanied by the supernatural. At the moment he expired, a gentleman, whose friend and law agent he was, while asleep in bed beside his wife, at Tranent, ten miles distant, was roused by the nurse, who had been terrified “by something like a cloud moving about the room.”
Starting up with the first instinct of a Scot in those days, he seized his sword to defend himself, when “the something” gradually assumed the form and face of a man, who looked at him pale and ghastly, and in whom he recognised his friend Thomas Coldheart.
“Are you dead, and if so, what is your errand?” He demanded, despite his fears, on which the apparition shook its head twice and melted away. Proceeding at once to Edinburgh, the ghost-seer went direct to the house of his friend in Mary King’s Close, and found the wife of the former in tears for the recent death of her husband. This account – a very common kind of ghost story – we are told, was related by the minister (of course) who was in the house on this occasion, to John Duke of Lauderdale (who died in 1682), in presence of many other nobles. After this the house was again deserted; yet another attempt was made to inhabit it – probably rent-free – by a courageous and drink-loving old soldier and his wife; but towards midnight the candle began to burn blue, and the grisly old head was seen to hover in mid-air, on which the terrified couple fled, and Mary King’s Close was finally abandoned to desolation and decay. No record of its inmates in the flesh has ever been handed down, and thus the name of the place is associated with its goblins alone.
Professor Sinclair, who wrote the history of these, was author of several very learned works on astronomy, navigation, mathematics, and so forth; but he also favoured the world with a strange “Discourse concerning Coal” – a compound of science and superstition, containing an account of the witches of Glenluce, Sinclair being, like many other learned men of his time, a firm believer in the black art.
Passing Writers’ Court and the Royal Exchange, both of which have been already described, we come to the once famous alley, Craig’s Close, the lower end of which, like the rest of such thoroughfares in this quarter, has been removed to make way for Cockburn Street.
The old tenement which faces the High Street at the head of this close occupies the site of the open booth or shop of Andro Hart, the famous old Scottish printer; and therein was, of course, exposed for sale his well-known Bible, which has always been admired for its beautiful typography; his Barbour’s “Bruce,” his “Psalms in Scottish Meter,” and other works that issued from his press. He flourished in the reign of James VI., and previous to 1600 he was in the habit of importing books from the Continent; but about 1601 he printed, at his own expense, several works in Holland; and subsequently commenced business as a printer in those premises in the High Street which, two centuries after his death in 1621, became the residence of the great bibliopole, Provost Creech, and of that still greater one, Archibald Constable.
A little way down the close on the east side was the printing-house of Andro Hart, a picturesque and substantial stone tenement, with finely moulded windows divided by mullions, and having the Sinclair arms on the bed-corbel of the crow-stepped gable.
Over the old doorway was the legend and date, “My hoip is in Christ, A. S. M. K., 1593,” under a label moulding. In 1828 there was presented to the Antiquarian Museum by Mr. Hutchinson, printer, a very fine Scottish spear, which had been preserved from time immemorial in the old printing-house of Andro Hart, and is confidently believed to have been his – perhaps the same weapon with which he sallied forth to take part in the great tumult of 1596, when the king was besieged in the Tolbooth; for Calderwood and others distinctly tell us that the old printer was one of the foremost in the disturbance, and roused so much the indignation of the king, James VI., that he was sent prisoner to the Castle in February, 1597, together with two other booksellers, James and Edward Cathkin.
In 1759 a dromedary and camel were exhibited at the head of Craig’s Close, where they seem to have been deemed two wonders of the world, and, according to the Edinburgh Herald and Chronicle for that year, it was doubted whether there were other “two such animals in the whole island of Great Britain.”
Between the back and front tenements occupied of old by Andro Hart is a house, once a famous tavern, which formed the meeting-place of the Cape Club, one of the most noted of those wherein the leading men of “Auld Reekie” were wont to seek relaxation – one celebrated in Fergusson’s poem on the city, and where a system of “high jinks” was kept up with an ardour that never abated.
In this tavern, then, the Isle of Man Arms, kept by James Mann, in Craig’s Close, the “Cape Club” was nightly inaugurated, each member receiving on his election some grotesque name and character, which he was expected to retain and maintain for the future. From its minutes, which are preserved in the Antiquarian Museum, the club appears to have been formally constituted in 1764, though it had existed long before. Its insignia were a cape, or crown, worn by the Sovereign of the Cape on State occasions, when certain other members wore badges, or jewels of office, and two maces in the form of huge steel pokers, engraven with mottoes, and still preserved in Edinburgh, formed the sword and sceptre of the King in Cape Hall, when the jovial fraternity met for high jinks, and Tom Lancashire the comedian, Robert Fergusson the poet, David Herd, Alexander Runciman, Jacob More, Walter Ross the antiquary, Gavin Wilson the poetical shoemaker, the Laird of Cardrona a bon vivant of the last [18th] century, Sir Henry Raeburn, and, strange to say, the notorious Deacon Brodie, met round the “flowing bowl.”
Tom Lancashire – on whom Fergusson wrote a witty epitaph – was the first sovereign of the club after 1764, as Sir Cape, while the title of Sir Poker belonged to its oldest member, James Aitken. David Herd, the ingenious collector of Scottish ballad poetry, succeeded Lancashire (who was a celebrated comedian in his day), under the sobriquet of Sir Scrape, having as secretary Jacob More, who attained fame as a landscape painter in Rome; and doubtless his pencil and that of Runciman, produced many of the illustrations and caricatures with which the old MS. books of the club abound.
When a knight of the Cape was inaugurated he was led forward by his sponsors, and kneeling before the sovereign, had to grasp the poker, and take an oath of fidelity, the knights standing by uncovered:-
“I devoutly swear by this light,
To be a true and faithful knight,
With all my might,
Both day and night,
So help me Poker!”
The knights presented his Majesty with a contribution of 100 guineas to assist in raising troops in 1778. The entrance-fee to this amusing club was originally half-a-crown, and eventually it rose to a guinea; but so economical were the members, that among the last entries in their minutes was one to the effect that the suppers should be at “the old price” of 41/2d. a head. Lancashire the comedian, leaving the stage, seems to have eked out a meagre subsistence by opening in the Canongate a tavern, where he was kindly patronised by the knights of the Cape, and they subsequently paid him visits at “Comedy Hut, New Edinburgh,” a place of entertainment which he opened somewhere beyond the bank of the North Loch; and soon after this convivial club – one of the many wherein grave citizens and learned counsellors cast aside their powdered wigs, and betook them to what may now seem mad-cap revelry in very contrast to the rigid decorum of every-day life – passed completely away; but a foot-note to Wilson’s “Memorials” informs us that “provincial Cape Clubs, deriving their authority and diplomas from the parent body, were successively formed in Glasgow, Manchester, and London, and in Charleston, South Carolina, each of which was formally established in virtue of a royal commission granted by the Sovereign of the Cape. The American off-shoot of this old Edinburgh fraternity is said to be still flourishing in the Southern States.”
In the “Life of Lord Kames,” by Lord Woodhouselee, we have an account of the Poker Club, which held its meetings near this spot, at “our old landlord of the Diversorium, Tom Nicholson’s, near the cross. The dinner was on the table at two o’clock; we drank the best claret and sherry; and the reckoning was punctually called at six o’clock. After the first fifteen, who were chosen by nomination, the members were elected by ballot, and two black balls excluded a candidate.”
A political question – on the expediency of establishing a Scottish militia (while Charles Edward an d Cardinal York were living in Rome) – divided the Scottish public mind greatly between 1760 and 1762, and gave rise to the club in the latter year, and it subsisted in vigour and celebrity till 1784, and continued its weekly meetings with great regularity, long after the object of its institution had ceased to engage attention; and it can scarcely be doubted that its influence was considerable in fostering talent and promoting elegant literature in Edinburgh, though the few publications of a literary nature that had been published under the auspices of the club were, like most of that nature, ephemeral, and are now utterly forgotten.
The only publication of sterling merit which enlivened the occasion that called it forth was “The History in the Proceedings of Margaret, commonly called Peg,” written in imitation of Dr. Arbuthnot’s “History of John Bull.” In the memoirs of Dr. Carlyle of Inveresk an amusing account is given of the Poker Club, of which he was a zealous and constant attender. About the third or fourth meeting of the club, after 1762, he mentions that members were at a loss for a name for it, and wished one that should be of uncertain meaning, and not so directly offensive as that of Militia Club, whereupon Adam Fergusson, the eminent historian and moral philosopher, suggested the name of Poker, which the members understood, and which would “be an enigma to the public.”
It comprehended all the literati of Edinburgh and its neighbourhood, most of whom – like Robertson, Blair, and Hume – had been members of the select society (those only excepted who were enemies to the Scottish militia scheme), together with a great many country gentlemen whose national and Jacobite proclivities led them to resent the invidious line drawn between Scotland and England.
Sir William Pulteney Johnston was secretary of the Poker Club, with two members, whom he was to consult anent its publications in a laughing hour. “Andrew Crosbie, advocate, was appointed assassin to the club, in case any service of that sort should be needed; but David Hume was named for his assistant, so that between the plus and minus there was no hazard of much bloodshed.”
After a time the club removed its meetings to Fortune’s Tavern, at the Cross Keys, in the Stamp Office Close, where the dinners became so showy and expensive that attendance began to decrease, and new members came in “who had no title to be there, and were not congenial” (the common fate of all clubs generally) “and so by death and desertion the Poker began to dwindle away, though a bold attempt was made to revive it in 1787 by some young men of talent and spirit.” When Captain James Edgar, one of the original Pokers, was in Paris in 1773, during the flourishing time of the club, he was asked by D’Alembert to go with him to their club of literati, to which he replied with something of bluntness, “that the company of literati was no novelty to him, for he had a club at Edinburgh composed, he believed, of the ablest men in Europe. This” (adds Dr. Carlyle, whose original MS. Lord Kames quoted) “was no singular opinion; for the most enlightened foreigners had formed the same estimate of the literary society of Edinburgh at that time. The Princess Dashkoff, disputing with me one day at Buxton about the superiority of Edinburgh as a residence to most of the cities of Europe, when I had alleged various particulars, in which I thought we excelled, ‘No,’ said she, ‘but I know one article you have not mentioned in which I must give you clearly the precedence, which is, that of all the societies of men of talent I have met with in my travels, yours is the first in point of abilities.’ “
A few steps farther down the street bring us to the entrance of the Old Stamp Office Close, wherein was the tavern just referred to, Fortune’s, one in the greatest vogue between 1760 and 1770. “The gay men of the city,” we are told, “the scholarly and the philosophical, with the common citizens, all flocked hither; and here the Royal Commissioner for the General Assembly held his levées, and hence proceeded to church with his cortége, then additionally splendid from having ladies walking in it in their court dresses, as well as gentlemen.”
The house occupied by this famous tavern had been in former times the residence of Alexander ninth Earl of Eglinton, and his Countess Susanna Kennedy of the house of Colzean, reputed the most beautiful woman of her time.
From the magnificent but privately printed “Memorials of the Montgomeries,” we learn many interesting particulars of this noble couple, who dwelt in the Old Stamp Office Close. Whether their abode there was the same as that stated, of which we have an inventory, in the time of Hugh third Earl of Eglinton, “at his house in Edinburgh, 3rd March, 1563,” given in the “Memorials,” we have no means of determining. Earl Alexander was one of those patriarchal old Scottish lords who lived to a great age. He was thrice married, and left a progeny whose names are interspersed throughout the pages of the Douglas peerage. His last Countess, Susanna, was the daughter of Sir Archibald Kennedy, a sturdy old cavalier, who made himself conspicuous in the wars of Dundee. She was one of the co-heiresses of David Leslie Lord Newark, the Covenanting general whom Cromwell defeated at Dunbar. She was six feet in height, extremely handsome, with a brilliantly fair complexion, and a face of “the most bewitching loveliness.” She had many admirers, Sir John Clerk of Penicuick among others; but her friends had always hoped she would marry the Earl of Eglinton, though he was more than old enough to have been her father, and when a stray hawk, with his lordship’s name on its bells, alighted on her shoulder as she was one day walking in her father’s garden at Colzean, it was deemed an infallible omen of her future.
The death of his second countess left the earl free to win the prize and fulfil the nursery predictions. “Admirers of a youthful, impassioned, and sonnet-making cast might have trembled at his approach to the shrine of their divinity, for his lordship was one of those titled suitors who, however old and horrible, are never rejected except in novels and romances;” and though Sir John Clerk had declared his passion, he did so in vain, and his lovely Susanna became Countess of Eglinton about the year of the Union.
To the charms of her personal appearance were added the more powerful attractions of genius and great accomplishments. Possessing these, in the elevated position which she occupied during a long lifetime, it is not surprising that many interesting particulars concerning her have been preserved and handed down to us. She had a grace and bearing all her own; hence the Eglinton air and the Eglinton manner were long proverbial in Edinburgh after she had passed away. Her seven daughters were all handsome women, and it was deemed indeed a goodly sight to see the long procession of eight gilded sedans issue from the Stamp Office Close, bearing her and her stately brood to the Assembly Room, amid a crowd that was hushed with respect and admiration, “to behold their lofty and graceful figures step from the chairs on the pavement. It could not fail to be a remarkable sight – eight singularly beautiful women, conspicuous for their stature and carriage, all dressed in the splendid, though formal, fashions of that period, and inspired at once with dignity of birth and consciousness of beauty! Alas! such visions no longer illuminate the dark tortuosities of Auld Reekie!”
By his three countesses the Earl had twelve daughters, and he was beginning to despair of an heir to his title, when one was born to him. He died in 1729. Shortly before his death he wrote a letter to his son, the tenth Earl, in which he advised him never to marry an Englishwoman, and wherein the following passage occurs:-
“You came to live at a time, my chiefest care, when the right to these kingdoms comes to be a question betwixt the House of Hanover, in possession, and the descendants of King James. You are, in my poor opinion, not to intermeddle with either, but live abstractly at home, managing your affairs to the best advantage, and living in a good understanding with your friends; for since we are under the misery and slavery of being united to England, a Scotsman, without prostituting his honour, can obtain nothing by following a Court but bring his estate under debt, and consequently himself to necessity.”
The Countess was a great patron of authors. Boyse dedicated his poems to her, as Allan Ramsay did his “Gentle Shepherd,” and in doing so enlarged in glowing terms upon the virtues of his patroness.
“If it were not for offending your ladyship here, I might give the fullest liberty to my muse, to delineate the finest of women by drawing your ladyship’s character, and be in no hazard of being deemed a flatterer, since flattery lies not in paying what is due to merit, but in praises misplaced.”
William Hamilton of Bangour, an elegant poet and accomplished man, had recommended Allan Ramsay to her notice in an address, in which he eulogises her and her daughters. After referring to the evil passions indulged in by many, Hamilton draws the contrast thus:-
“Unlike, O Eglintoun! thy happy breast,
Calm and serene, enjoys the heavenly guest;
From the tumultuous rule of passions freed,
Pure in thy thought and spotless in thy deed;
In virtues rich, in goodness unconfined,
Thou shin’st a fair example to thy kind;
Sincere and equal to thy neighbour’s name,
How swift to praise! how guiltless to defame!
Bold in thy presence bashfulness appears,
And backward merit loses all its fears.
Supremely blest by Heaven – Heaven’s richest grace
Confest is thine, an early blooming race;
Whose pleasing smiles shall guardian wisdom arm,
Divine instruction! taught of thee to charm;
What transports shall they to thy soul impart
(The conscious transports of a parent’s heart),
When thou behold’st them of each grace possest,
And sighing youths imploring to be blest;
After thy image formed, with charms like thine,
Or in the visit, or the dance to shine!
Thrice happy who succeed their mother’s praise,
The lovely Eglintounes of other days.”
Save Lady Frances, all her daughters were well married; but her eldest son, Earl Alexander, was her especial favourite. In his youth, she said, she preserved the goodness of his nature by keeping his mind pure and untainted, and giving him just ideas of moral life. She is said never to have refused him a request but once. On the accession of George III. to the throne, the young earl was appointed one of the lords of the bedchamber. Proud of his stately mother and of her noble figure, he begged that she would walk in the procession at his Majesty’s coronation; but the Countess – a true Jacobite – excused herself, that she was too old to wear robes now. His melancholy death at the hands of Mungo Campbell, in 1769, well nigh overwhelmed her. Indeed, she never entirely recovered from the shock of seeing her beloved son borne home mortally wounded.
During Sr. Johnson’s visit to her, it came out that she was married before he was born; upon which she smartly and graciously said to him that she might have been his mother, and now adopted him; and at parting she embraced him, a mark of affection and condescension which made a lasting impression upon the mind of the great literary bear. In 1780 she died at Auchans, at the age of ninety-one, preserving to the last her grandeur of mien and her marvellous purity of complexion, a mystery to all the women of her time, and the secret of which was said to be that she periodically bathed her face with sow’s milk “I have seen a portrait,” says Chambers, “taken in her eighty-first year, in which it is observable that her skin is of exquisite delicacy and tint. Altogether the Countess was a woman of ten thousand!… One last trait may now be recorded: in her ladyship’s bedroom was hung a portrait of her sovereign de jure, the ill-starred Charles Edward, so situated as to be the first object which met her sight on awaking in the morning.”
With the state levées of the old Earl of Leven as High Commissioner at Fortune’s tavern the ancient glories of the Stamp Office Close faded away; but an unwonted spectacle was exhibited at the head thereof in 1812 – a public execution.
On the night of the 31st December, 1811, a band of young artisans and idlers, most of them under twenty years of age, but so numerous and so well organised as to set the regular police of the city at defiance, sallied forth, about eleven o’clock, into the streets, then crowded as usual at that festive season, and proceeded with bludgeons to knock down and rob every person of decent appearance who fell in their way – the least symptom on the part of the victims to resist, or protect their property, proving only a provocation to fresh outrages. These desperadoes had full possession of the streets till two in the morning, for the police, who at that period were wretchedly insufficient, were routed and dispersed from the commencement of the murderous riot.
One watchman, who did his duty in a resolute manner, was killed on the spot; a great number of persons were robbed, and a greater number dangerously, some mortally, wounded. When the police recovered from their surprise, assisted by several gentlemen, a number of the rioters were arrested, some with stolen articles in their possession, and the chief ringleaders were soon after discovered and taken into custody.
Four were tried and convicted; and three of these young lads were sentenced to be hanged. The magistrates had them executed on the 22nd of April, 1812, on a gallows erected at the head of the Stamp Office Close, in order to mark more impressively the detestation of their crimes, and because that place had been the chief scene of the bloodshed during the riot.
A small work entitled “Notes of Conversations,” with these young desperadoes, was afterwards published by the Reverend W. Innes.
In 1821 the Stamp Office was removed from this close to the new buildings erected at Waterloo Place.