The Anchor Close – Dawney Douglas’s Tavern – The “Crown Room” – The Crochallan Club – Members – Burns among the Crochallan Fencibles – Smellie’s Printing Office – Dundas’s House, Fleshmarket Close – Mylne’s Square – Lord Alva’s House – The Countess of Sutherland and Lady Glenorchy – Birthplace of Fergusson – Halkerston’s Wynd Port – Kinloch’s Close – Carrubber’s Close – The Episcopal Chapel – Clam Shell Land – Capt. Matthew Henderson – Allan Ramsay’s Theatre – Its Later Tenants – The Tailor’s Hall – Bailie Fyfe’s Close – “Heave awa’, lads, I’m no deid yet” – Chalmers’ Close – Hope’s House – Sandiland’s Close – Bishop Kennedy’s House – Grant’s Close – Baron Grant’s House.
ONE of the most interesting of the many old alleys of the High Street (continuing still on the north side thereof) is the Anchor Close.
A few yards down this dark and narrow thoroughfare bring us to the entrance of a scale-stair, having the legend, The Lord is only my suport; adjoining it is another and older door, inscribed O . Lord . in . the . is . al . my . traist; while an architrave bears a line from a psalm, Be merciful to me, under which we enter what was of old the famous festive and hospitable tavern of Daniel, or, as he was familiarly named by the Hays, Erskines, Pleydells, and Crosbies, who were his customers, Dawney Douglas, an establishment second to none in its time for convivial meetings, and noted for suppers of tripe, mince collops, rizzared haddocks, and fragrant hashes, that never cost more than six-pence a-head; yet on charges so moderate Dawney Douglas and his gudewife contrived to grow extremely rich before they died. Who caused the three holy legends to be carved, as in many other instances, no man knows, nor can one tell who resided here of old, except that it was in the seventeenth century the house of a senator entitled Lord Forglen. “The frequenter of Douglas’s,” we are told, “after ascending a few steps, found himself in a pretty large kitchen, through which numerous ineffable ministers of flame were continually flying about, while beside the door sat the landlady, a large, fat woman, in a towering head-dress and large-flowered silk gown, who bowed to every one passing. Most likely, on emerging from this igneous region, the party would fall into the hands of Dawney himself, and be conducted to an apartment.”
He was a little, thin, weak, quiet, and submissive man; in all things a contrast to his wife.
Here met the famous club called the Crochallan Fencibles, which Burns has celebrated both in prose and verse, and to which he was introduced in 1787 by William Mellie, when in the city superintending the printing of his poems, and when, according to custom, one of the club was pitted against him in a contest of wit and humour. Burns bore the assault with perfect equanimity, and entered fully into the spirit of the meeting.
Dawney Douglas knew a sweet old Gaelic song, called “Cro Chalien,” or, Colin’s cattle, which he was wont to sing to his customers, and this led to the establishment of the club, which, with jocular reference to the many Scottish corps then raising, was named the Crochallan Fencibles, composed entirely of men of original character and talent. Each member took some military title or ludicrous office. Amongst them was Smellie, the famous printer, and author of the “Philosophy of Natural History.” Individuals committing an alleged fault were subjected to mock trials, in which those members who were advocates could display their wit; and as one member was the depute hangman of the club, a little horse-play, with much mirth, at times prevailed.
The song of “Cro Chalien” had a legend connected therewith. Colin’s wife died very young, but some months after he had buried her she was occasionally seen in the gloaming, when spirits are supposed to appear, milking her cows as usual, and singing the plaintive song to which Burns must often have listened amid the orgies in the Anchor Close.
In Dawney’s tavern the chief room was rather elegant and well-sized, having an access by the second of the doors described, and was reserved for large companies or important guests. Par excellence, it was named the “Crown Room,” and was thus distinguished to guests on their bill tops, from some foolish and unwarrantable tradition that Queen Mary had once been there, when the crown was deposited in a niche in the wall. It was handsomely panelled, with a decorated fireplace and two lofty windows that opened to the close; but all this has disappeared now, and new buildings erected in 1869 have replaced the old.
Here, then, was Burns introduced to the jovial Crochallans, among whom were such men as Erskine, Lords Newton and Gillies, by Smellie the philosopher and printer who contested with Dr. Walker the chair of natural history in the University; and of one member, William Dunbar, W.S., “Colonel” of the club, a predominant wit, he has left us a characteristic picture:-
“Oh, rattlin’ roarin’; Willie,
Oh, he held to the fair,
An’ for to sell his fiddle,
And buy some other ware;
But parting wi’ his fiddle,
The saut tear blin’t his ee;
And rattlin’, roarin’ Willie,
Ye’re welcome hame to me!
“O Willie, come sell your fiddle,
Oh sell your fiddle sae fine;
O Willie, come sell your fiddle,
And buy a pint o’ wine.
If I should sell my fiddle,
The warl’ would think I was mad,
For mony a rantin’ day
My fiddle and I hae had.
“As I came by Crochallan,
I cannily keekit ben –
Rattlin’, roarin’ Willie,
Was sitting at yon board en’ –
Sitting at yon board en’
And amang guid companie;
Rattlin’, roarin’ Willie,
You’re welcome hame to me!”
In verse elsewhere Burns notes the peculiarities of his introducer, who had become, in middle life, careless of his costume and appearance:-
“To Crochallan came,
The old cocked hat, the brown surtout the same;
His bristling beard just rising in its might;
‘Twas four long nights and days to shaving night.”
At the foot of the close there stood, till 1859, the printing office of this strange genius (who died in 1795), “and there the most eminent literary men of that period visited and superintended the printing of works that have made the press of the Scottish capital celebrated throughout Europe. There was the haunt of Dr. Blair, Beattie, Black, Robertson, Adam Fergusson, Adam Smith, Lords Monboddo, Hailes, kames, Henry Mackenzie, Arnot, Hume, and foremost among the host, the poet, Burns.”
Here was long shown an old time-blackened desk, at which these, and other men such as these, revised their proofs, and a stool on which Burns sat while correcting the proofs of his poems published between December, 1786, and April, 1787.
Lower down the close, over the doorway of a house where the Bill Chamber stood for several generations, were carved the date, 1616, and the initials W.R. – C.M.; and the house immediately below it contained the only instance known to exist in Edinburgh of a legend over an interior doorway:
AUGUSTA . AD . VSVM . AVGVSTA.
These were the initials of William Fowler, a merchant burgess of Edinburgh, supposed to be the author of “The Triumph of Death,” and the others are, of course, those of his wife. As to what this house was originally nothing is known, and the peculiarity of the legend has been a puzzle to many.
Later it was the residence of Sir George Drummond, who in 1683 and 1684 was Lord Provost of the city. In those days the lower ground that sloped down to the North Loch appears to have been all laid out in pleasant gardens, wherein stood a summer-house belonging to Lord Forglen, who was Sir Alexander Ogilvie, Bart., a commissioner for the Treaty of Union, and who was accused by Sir Alexander Forbes of Tolquhoun of stealing a gilded drinking-cup out of his house, a mistake, as it proved, in the end.
Eastward of this were, in succession, Geddes’s, Jackson’s, and the Fleshmarket Closes. At the head of the latter, in the third flat of an old land, Henry Dundas, afterwards Lord Melville, began to practise as an advocate.
Adjoining this is Mylne’s Square, the entrance to which bears the date of 1689, a lofty and gloomy court, having on its side a flight of steps to the North Bridge. This – the project of one of the famous masonic family of Mylne – was among the first improvements effected in the old town, before its contented burgesses became aspiring, and dreamt of raising a New Edinburgh, beyond the oozy bed of the bordering loch. Many distinguished people lived here of old.
Among them was Charles Erskine of Alva, Lord Justice Clerk in 1748, who long occupied two flats on the west side of the square, the back windows of which overlook the picturesque vista of Cockburn Street, and the door of which was among the last that displayed the ancient risp.
This cadet of the loyal and ancient house of Mar was born in 1680, and died in 1763. Before the rise of the new city, it affords us a curious glimpse of the contented life that such a legal dignitary led in those days, when we find him happy during winter in a double flat, in this obscure place, and in summer at the little villa of Drumsheugh, swept away in 1877, and of which no relic now remains, save the rookery with its old trees in Randolph Crescent.
Why old Simon Lord Lovat, of the ’45, who was perpetually involved in law pleas, frequently visited Lord Alva at his house in Mylne’s Square; and the late Mrs. Campbell of Monzie, his daughter, was wont to tell that when Lord Lovat caught her in the stair “he always took her up I his arms and kissed her, to her horror – he was so ugly.”
In this mansion in Mylne’s Square Lord Alva’s two step-daughters, the Misses Maxwell of Reston, were married; one, Mary, became the Countess of William Earl of Sutherland, a captain in the 56th Foot, who, when France threatened invasion in 1759, raised, in two months, a regiment among his own clan and followers; the other, Willielmina, became the wife of John Lord Glenorchy.
The fate of the Earl of Sutherland, and of his countess, whose beauty excited the admiration of all at the coronation of George III., was a very cloudy one. In frolicking with their first-born, a daughter, the earl let the infant drop, and it sustained injuries from which it never recovered, and the event had so serious an effect on his mind, that he resorted to Bath, where he died of a malignant fever. For twenty-one days the countess, then about to have a babe again, attended him unremittingly, till she too caught the distemper, and pre-deceased him by a few days, in her twenty-sixth year. Her death was sedulously concealed from him, yet the day before he expired, when delerium passed away, he said, “I am going to join my dear wife,” as if his mind had already begun to penetrate the veil that hangs between this world and the next.
In one grave in Holyrood, near the north-east corner of the ruined chapel, the remains of this ill-fated couple were laid, on the 9th of August, 1766.
Lady Glenorchy, a woman remarkable for the piety of her disposition, was far from happy in her marriage; but we are told that “she met with her rich reward, even in this world, for she enjoyed the applause of the wealthy and the blessings of the poor, with that supreme of all pleasures – the conviction that the eternal welfare of those in whose fate she was chiefly interested was forwarded by her precepts and example.”
In after years, the Earl of Hopetoun, when acting as Royal Commissioner to the General Assembly, was wont to hold his state levees in the house that had been Lord Alva’s.
To the east of Mylne’s Square stood some old alleys which were demolished to make way for the North Bridge, one of the greatest local undertakings of the eighteenth century. One of these alleys was known as the Cap and Feather Close, immediately above Halkerston’s Wynd. The lands that formed the east side of the latter were remaining in some places almost intact till about 1850.
In one of these, but which it was impossible to say, was born on the 5th of September, 1750, that luckless but gifted child of genius, Robert Fergusson, the poet, whose father was then a clerk in the British Linen Company; but even the site of his house, which has peculiar claims on the interest of every lover of Scottish poetry, cannot be indicated.
How Halkerston’s Wynd obtained its name we have already told. Here was an outlet from the ancient city by way of a dam or dyke across the loch, to which Lord Fountainhall refers in a case dated 21st February, 1708. About twenty years before that time it would appear that the Town Council “had opened a new port at the foot of Halkerston’s Wynd for the convenience of those who went on foot to Leith; and that Robert Malloch, having acquired some lands on the other side of the North Loch, and made yards and built houses thereon, and also having invited sundry weavers and other good tradesmen to set up on Moutree’s Hill [site of the Register House], and the deacons of crafts finding this prejudicial to them, and contrary to the 154th Act of Parliament, 1592,” evading which, these craftsmen paid neither “scot, lot, nor stent,” the magistrates closed up the port, and a law plea ensued between them and the enterprising Robert Malloch, who was accused of filling up a portion of the bank of the loch with soil from a quarry. “The town, on the other hand, did stop the vent and passage over the loch, which made it overflow and drown Robert’s new acquired ground, of which he complained as an act of oppression.”
Eventually the magistrates asserted that the loch was wholly theirs, and “that therefore he could drain no part of it, especially to make it regorge and inundate on their side. The Lords were going to take trial by examining the witnesses, but the magistrates prevented it, by opening the said port of their own accord, without abiding an order, and let the sluice run,” by which, of course, the access by the gate was rendered useless.
Kinloch’s Close adjoined Halkerston’s Wynd, and therein, till about 1830, stood a handsome old substantial tenement, the origin and early occupants of which were all unknown. A mass of curious and abutting projections, the result of its peculiar site, it had a finely-carved entrance door, with the legend, Feir . God . in . Luif ., 1595, and the initials I. W., and the arms of the surname of Williamson, together with a remarkable device, a saltire, from the centre of which rose a cross – symbol of passion.
Passing Allan Ramsay’s old shop, a narrow bend gives us access to Carrubber’s Close, the last stronghold of the faithful Jacobites after 1688. Episcopacy was abolished in 1689, and although from that period episcopal clergymen had no legal provision or settlement, they were permitted, without molestation, to preach in meeting-houses till 1746; but as they derived no emolument from Government, and no provision from the State, they did not, says Arnot, perplex their consciences with voluminous and unnecessary oaths, but merely excluded the name of “the Hanoverian usurpers” from all their devotions. But the humble chapels with which these old Scottish Episcopalians contented themselves in Carrubber’s Close, Skinner’s Close, and elsewhere, present a wonderful contrast to their St. Paul’s and St. Mary’s in the Edinburgh of to-day.
In this close was the house of Robert Ainslie’s master, during Burns’s visit to Edinburgh, Mr. Samuel Mitchelson, a great musical amateur; and here it was that occurred the famous “Haggis Scene,” described by Smollett in “Humphrey Clinker.” At the table of Mitchelson the poet was a frequent guest, while on another floor of the old Clam Shell Land, as it was named, dwelt another friend of Burns’s, the elder Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, prior to his removal to the New Town. On the second floor of an ancient stone land at the head of the close dwelt Captain Matthew Henderson, a well-known antiquary, a gentleman of agreeable and dignified manners, who was a hero of Minden, and a member of the Crochallan Club, and dined constantly at Fortune’s tavern.
He died in 1789, and Burns wrote a powerful elegy on him as “a gentleman who held the patent for his honours immediately from Almighty God.” “I loved the man much, and have not flattered his memory,” said Burns in a note to the elegy, which contains sixteen verses. The old captain was one whom all men liked. “In our travelling party,” says Sir James Campbell of Ardkinglas in his (suppressed) Memoirs, “was Matthew Henderson, the (1759) and afterwards well known and much esteemed in the town of Edinburgh, at that time an officer in the 25th Regiment of Foot, and, like myself, on his way to join the army; and I may say with truth, that in the course of a long life I have never known a more estimable character than Matthew Henderson.”
This close was the scene of the unsuccessful speculation of another poet, for here Allan Ramsay made a bold attempt to establish his theatre, which was roughly closed by the magistrates in 1737, after it had been barely opened, for which he took the poet’s vengeance in rhyme in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The edifice, which stood at the foot of the close, was quizzically named St. Andrew’s Chapel, and in 1733 was the arena for the debates of a famous speculative club named the Pantheon.
Five years subsequently blind Dr. Moyes, the clever lecturer on natural philosophy, held forth therein to audiences both fashionable and select, on optics, the property of light, and so forth. It was afterwards occupied by Mr. John Barclay, founder of the Bereans, whose chief tenet was, that the knowledge of the existence of God is derived from revelation and not from Scripture.
From him and his followers Ramsay’s luckless theatre passed to the Rev. Mr. Tait and other founders of the Rowites, during whose occupancy the pulpit was frequently filled by the celebrated Edward Irving. The Relief and Secession congregations have also had it in succession; the Catholics have used it as a schoolroom; and till its demolition to make way for Jeffrey Street, it has been the arena of a strange olla podrida of personages and purposes.
In Carrubber’s Close stood the ancient Tailor’s Hall, the meeting-place of a corporation whose charter, granted to them by the Town Council, is dated 20th October, 1531, and with their original one, was further confirmed by charters from James V. and James VI. They had an altar in St. Giles’s Church dedicated to their patron St. Ann, and the date of their seal of cause is 1500. They had also an altar dedicated to St. Ann in the Abbey church, erected in 1554 by permission of Robert Commendator of Holyrood.
The fine old hall in the Cowgate has long since been abandoned by the Corporation, which still exists; and in their other place of meeting in Carrubber’s Close an autograph letter of King James VI., which hung framed and glazed over the old fireplace, was long one of its chief features.
It was dated in 1594, and ran thus; but a few lines will suffice for a specimen:-
“Dekin and remanent Maisters and Brethren of the Tailyer Craft within oure burgh of Edinburgh, we gret zow weill.
“Forsaemeikle as, respecting the gude service of Alexander Miller, in making and working the abulzements of our awn person, minding to continue him in oure service, as ain maist fit and meit persone. We laitlie recommendit him into zow be oure letter of requiest, desiring you to receive and admit him gratis to the libertie and fredom of the said craft, as a thing maist requisite for him, having the cair of our awin wark, notwithstanding that he was not prenteis amongis zow, according to your ancient liberties and priviliges had in the contraie. Willing zow at this our request to dispense him thereanent, &c.,
The king’s request was no doubt granted, and the Alexander Miller to whom it referred died in 1616, a reputable burgess, whose tomb in the Greyfriars’ churchyard was inscribed thus by his heirs:-
“Alexandro Millero, Jacobi Mag. Brit. Franciæ, &c., Regis Sartori, ad finem vitæ, primario, hæredes. F. C. vixit annis 57, obiit Principis et Civium lucta decoratus, Anno 1616. Maii 2.”
When the Company of Merchant Tailors in London requested James to become a member of their guild, he declined, on the plea that he “was already free of another company,” and referred to the similar corporation in his native capital, but added that his son Henry, the Prince of Wales, would avail himself of the honour, and that he himself would be present at the ceremony.
From “Guthrie’s Memoirs” we learn that in 1643 a solemn and important meeting was held in the Tailor’s Hall between the conservators of peace with England and commission of the General Assembly.
St. Magdalene’s Chapel, and the modern Mary’s Chapel in Bell’s Wynd, form the chief halls of the remaining corporations of Edinburgh that have long survived the purposes for which they were originally incorporated.
In August, 1758, there occurred a dreadful fire in Carrubber’s Close, on which occasion four tenements containing fifteen families were burned down, and many persons were severely injured.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century gentility was still lingering here, for in the Edinburgh Advertiser for 1783 we read of the house of Stuart Barclay of Collairnie – having a drawing-room measuring 19ft. By 14ft. – being for sale; and also that belonging to Neil Campbell of Duntroon, at the foot of the close.
At the head of Bailie Fyfe’s Close, No. 107, High Street, there stood a stately old stone tenement, having carved above one of its upper windows a shield bearing two mullets in chief, with a crescent in base – the arms of Trotter, with the initials I. T. I. M., and the date 1612. Elsewhere there was another shield, having the arms of the Parleys of Yorkshire impaled with those of Hay, and the legend Be . Pasient . in . the . Lord, and to this edifice a peculiar interest is attached.
After standing for close on 250 years, it sank suddenly – and without any premonitory symptoms or warning – to the ground with a terrible crash at midnight on the 10th of November, 1861, burying in its ruins thirty-five persons, and shooting out into the broad street a mighty heap of rubbish. A few of the inmates almost miraculously escaped destruction from the peculiar way in which some of the strong oak beams and fragments of flooring fell over them; and among those who did so was a lad, whose sculptured effigy, as a memorial of the event, now decorates a window of the new edifice, with a scroll, whereon are carved the words he was heard uttering piteously to those who were digging out the killed and wounded: “Heave awa, lads, I’m no deid yet!”
In Chalmer’s Close an old house was connected in a remote way with the famous Lord Francis Jeffrey, whose grandfather dwelt there when in the trade as a barber and periwig maker, and the old close is said to have been in his boyhood a favourite haunt of the future judge and critic.
In large old English letters the name JOHN HOPE appears cut over the doorway of an adjacent turnpike stair, with a coat of arms, now completely obliterated, and on the bed-corbel of the crowstepped gable is another shield, sculptured with a coat armorial and the initials I. H. Moulded mullions and transoms divided the large windows, a rather uncommon feature in Scottish domestic architecture; and from the general remains of decayed magnificence, the name, initials, and arms, this is supposed – but cannot be absolutely declared – to be the mansion of the founder of the noble family of Hopetoun, John de Hope, who came from France in the retinue of Magdalene of Valois, the first queen of James V., and who, with his son Edward, had two booths eastward of the old Kirk Style. But the name of Hope was known in Scotland in the days of Alexander III.; and James III., in 1488, gave to Thomas Hope a grant of some land near Leith.
No. 71 is Sandiland’s Close, where tradition, but tradition only, avers there dwelt that learned and munificent prelate, James Kennedy, Bishop of Dunkeld, Lord High Chancellor, and the upright counsellor of James II. and James III. The building indicated as having been his residence is a large stone tenement of great antiquity on the east side, having thereon a coat of arms and a mitre, which were removed a few years ago; and our best antiquary asserts that “the whole appearance of the building is perfectly consistent with the supposition” that it had been Bishop Kennedy’s abode. “The form and decorations of the doorways all prove an early date; while the large and elegant mouldings of the windows, and the massive appearance of the whole building, indicate such magnificence as would well consort with the dignity of the primacy at that early period.”
Bishop Kennedy, author of a history of his own times, now lost, died in 1466, and was interred at St. Andrews.
Baron Grant’s and Bailie Grant’s Closes were among the last alleys on this side, adjoining the Nether Bow Port. An advertisement in the Edinburgh Courant for 1761, in describing the house of Mr. Grant (who was a Baron of the Exchequer Court) as offered for sale, gives us a pretty accurate idea of what a mansion in the Old Town was in those days:-
“A large and convenient house, entering by a close mostly paved with flagstones, on the north side of the street near the Nether Bow, consisting of eight rooms, painted last year, or papered, some with Chinese paper; a marble chimney-piece from the ceiling in one, concaves and slabes (sic) two other of the rooms; the drawing-room elegantly fitted up, painted, gilded, and carved in the newest style, with light closets to all the bed-rooms and other conveniences to the dining-room and parlour; wine cellar and large kitchen, a coal-fauld, fire-room for servants, and larder; a hen-house and cribbs, for feeding all sorts of fowls; a house for a sedan-chair; a rack to contain 10 gross of bottles, all built and slated; a garden extending down the greatest part of Leith Wynd, planted with flowering shrubs, and servitude for a separate entry to it, passing by the gate of Lord Edgefield’s house.”
The garden referred to must have been bounded by the massive portion of the eastern wall of the city, which fell down about twenty years ago; and the Lord Edgefield, whose neighbour the Baron had been, was Mr. Robert Pringle, who was raised to the Bench in 1754, and, dying ten years after, was succeeded by the well-known Lord Pitfour.